Trigger Warning: This blog contains mentions of suicide and depression.
There was a lid over the world. As in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I thought. I wondered if I should read it again, but surely it would only intensify my sense of isolation, I punch my fists into the air as if to smash the glass, but nothing happened. Where are the others, I thought. If it’s true, as it’s claimed, that other people really exist. I’m swimming underwater, I thought. They scream and shout and carry on on TV, but what for? Anyone can work out that life is ultimately a losing game.
The physiological and social needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy are met. According to a bourgeois, that should keep Ellinor happy. If she ‘complains’ about anything else in life, she would be shamed for it. She would be attacked for not acknowledging her privilege. But her struggles are real. She wonders why she has to wake up every morning. Why should she call her mother? Why is her sister so full of hope despite the terrible things which happened to her? Why? What is a routine? What is repetition? Why is she on this planet? Who put her on it? If someone put her on it, doesn’t she have the right to time her exit? All those impassive faces, the sea of humanity that she crosses on the road every day, how do they all feel about being here? Do they talk about it? Do they want to talk about it? If they talk, is the world ready to be stabbed by their truth? When Ellinor says, “Being human isn’t easy,” she becomes my voice too. She gives words to the existential dread that smothers me
often every night.
Fight for a cause, came a whisper from the hallway.
In the first many pages of Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live The Post Horn (translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund) Ellinor’s depression is palpable. Her struggle intensifies after a colleague dies by suicide. The book triggers; it’s relentless at it. At some point in time, I asked myself if I wanted to continue reading at all. But when Ellinor starts working with Norwegian Postal Workers Union, the novel transcends into an ode to letters, post office, and postal workers. Ellinor’s reluctant interactions with the postal workers are so moving and inspiring that I want to write a letter to somebody, and I want to assume the responsibility of protecting the postal workers’ job, and the dying art of letter writing. Hjorth has a subtle argument with me about the damaging effect of capitalism on my life and mental health. When Ellinor’s and the postal workers’ lives intersect, it becomes the classic, life-affirming situation of who-rescues-whom.
What do we do with our despair if our lives are too small to contain it? Deny our despair and ignore our beating hearts, remain at odds with ourselves and fight ourselves, or accept that there’s so much we’ll never understand intellectually and try to live with things which don’t add up, that what’s most important might be something we can only just sense, and teach our brains to illuminate our hearts and help us live with contradictions that can’t be cancelled out and become open to the idea that being a mere mortal is enough, more than enough in most respects, and once we’re alive, try to live with gratitude and passion…
I am going to shift to cynicism now. When someone is given the hand to walk away from the edge of life, what happens to them after that moment? Most books end there. They pander to the readers who demand happy ending, a fairy tale. Ellinor gets something to fight for. If she wins, what will happen to her after the glow of victory fades? Does she go back to being Sylvia Plath’s protagonist? Does she flit from one cause to another? My argument is not that I hate books which choose to give hope, but I want books to be more honest about depression and the ruthless way it relapses. Books aim for a crescendo. The aha-aha moment when the protagonist will be bathed in light. When I finished reading Long Live The Post Horn, I wasn’t infected by the hope that tried to emanate from my tablet. It’s been a week since I finished reading the book, and I have presented several questions to myself on why I wasn’t affected by its optimism. I have decided to blame it on the pandemic. Ellinor’s questions on existential dread continue to circle in my head. My post office may arrive soon. Or, I will find it in my heart to see the post offices in my life already. Maybe, not. But, above all, there are words, and I will crawl into their all-knowing embrace.
7 thoughts on “Book Review: Long Live The Post Horn by Vigdis Hjorth”
Hi Deepika, I enjoyed this review, and I think you make a great point about the “turning point” narrative. You’re right, mental health in the real world is rarely about the aha moment. Yes, people do recover and find meaning and hope and all that, but the progress is often bumpier, with relapses along the way. By leaving the story at the point of being “saved” from the worst despair, it can give the impression that after that it’s “happily ever after”. I haven’t read this book so can’t really comment on how this book handles it, but I do reecognise what you’re talking about from other novels, and I think you’re spot on.
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Hi Andrew! Many thanks for the thoughtful comment. The rant stemmed from the personal dissatisfaction that books can acknowledge what lies in the underbelly of mental health challenges. All of us can’t be Sylvia Plath’s protagonists. I like receiving hope, and I also want to brace myself for how life can evolve. Thanks for dropping by!
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Even though I’d started to read this a couple of times previously, I finally read it, over a couple of days, just last week. There had been other books in my stack that also focussed on dissatisfied and lonely and sad and apathetic and grieving young women in my stack, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t confusing anyone’s story (one drawback of having a large number of books underway in any moment, but I like to have one for every reading mood available to me, too).
You’ve chosen great quotes, to illustrate some of Ellinor’s thoughts and feelings, and I agree that, at a certain point, we have to wonder why we are still reading and, yet, we don’t let Ellinor carry on alone either. We choose to keep her company, which is a testament to the writer I’d say, because she’s not exactly scintillating company, but her voice is direct and relatable and we feel her being alone (even though technically she isn’t). The book also made me want to write more letters, like you!
Do we actually hear from Ellinor that she considers herself depressed, in a clinical sense, or is she just manifesting some of the symptoms and behaviours; I didn’t take many notes while reading and maybe I missed a diagnosis? For me, I felt as though she wasn’t necessarily cycling in a clinical sense, but had entered a period of existential ennui and was depressed about specific situations that are depressing (her writing career wasn’t going as planned, the company’s direction was more commercial than she found enjoyable, lines of communication with significant people in her life were breaking down, the death of her coworker, seeing a woman grieve over a miscarriage, etc.)
So for me, I didn’t feel that this was one of many high/low cycles but her discovery of what Octavia Butler calls a positive obsession, on the other side of a series of sad and empty situations, and not so much about the post office situation but having discovered that we can reconnect by choosing to reconnect, whether sending a letter or having a conversation. I also didn’t feel a strong sense of hope, though, and maybe we are not meant to? She has found a way to carry on and it’s no Hollywood epiphany, it’s just what’s happening next. It felt like ‘better’ not ‘resolved’ and that seemed believable to me.
Anyway, this is a super long comment, but we are often just slightly out of synch with our reading, even when we are reading the same things, so I wanted to make sure to revisit your post while the story was mostly fresh in my mind. I’m also still reading Yiyun Li’s stories but they keep getting pushed to the bottom of the stack while I concentrate on books with shorter borrowing periods. What would we do without an escape into story.
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@not confusing anyone’s story – hahaha! I totally understand that. This year, I haven’t been reading multiple books at the same time. Reading more than one book at a time thwarts my ability to stay immersed in one story. So, I find myself returning to the books less and less. For now, I have just been sticking with one book at a time.
@we don’t let Ellinor carry on alone either – That’s a kind thought. It made me smile. I agree with you. While it was easy to exit her world, we all chose to stay with Ellinor, started caring for her, because of the writer. I love your thought.
@Ellinor’s clinical diagnosis – I see you. There wasn’t a clinical diagnosis in the book, and neither did Ellinor consider herself depressed. I see her depressed though because of how suspended she saw herself from reality as we see, and her constant meditation about death and life’s futility and absurdity. I also agree with you on how the situations are difficult for Ellinor. It’s certainly too much for her. On the other hand, her inability to participate in the said situations, be there for the grieving ones, and be aware of how she feels about all of it makes me wonder if she was depressed too. That’s why I was worried that the post office project could have brought her a respite but is that enough for Ellinor? Will she be able to find more reasons to stay alive?
@Positive obsession – That’s beautiful. I didn’t know about that at all. For that matter, I haven’t read Butler. I will fix that soon.
@super long comments – BIP, you make me think a lot through your comments. I am grateful to you for being my friend here. You have always shared some interesting ways to approach a book. I feel like a better reader. Thank you for sharing this space with me.
I haven’t read this or even heard of it until coming across BIP’s review which led me back here. I love that you both felt inspired to write letters and that you felt for the postal workers. This is a very real issue here in France, and my neighbour is a postal worker. Recently they anounced the removal of the ‘red timbre prioritaire’ and I wondered why are they removing this popular stamp from circulation, like the British 1st class stamp it guarantees next day delivery. And of course that’s the thing that is hidden. The red stamp symbolises the workers necessary to provide that level of service, so instead of saying, we are no longer offering next day service, we are cutting jobs, it’s been made to look like it’s simply the removal of the red stamp.
And so I went online and designed my own stamps, printing 20 international and 20 local and started writing letters, responding to messages from friends on my phone (not urgent of course) by letter instead! I wrote to my best friend who lives 5 minutes away. I decided to write to my sister every week, not just to help the postal worker, but I imagined the surprise she would get when not one letter arrived, but two, three four…
And one of the joyful things I discovered was that in creating my own stamps that the Post office send me (they are like stickers) I am able to use the artwork of my daughter, so they are like mini paintings that I get to send to friends and family.
I’m not sure whether this book is for me but I think I’ll go and write another letter now, so let me know if you want to be on my snail mail list D. 🙂
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I know that stamp collectors are called philatelists. What are stamp makers called? What an ingenious idea, Claire! I would so love to be on your snail mail list. How do I send my address to you? May I send it to you on Facebook? Thank you very much for thinking of me. 🙂
It breaks my heart to learn that postal workers are losing their jobs. I also partially feel guilty because I barely avail the postal department’s service. Especially since the pandemic started, most parts of my life have moved online. It now feels like the most fitting time to unplug and write actual letters. The book was certainly an inspiration. While I struggled to read the parts where the narrator was struggling, the parts about the postal department was full of empathy.
I look forward to exchanging notes with you, Claire. 🙂
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Yes, please do send me your address on FB messenger, I’d love that.