Vigdis Hjorth: Er mor død?(Is Mother Dead?)
Our heroine/narrator is Johanna. She is an artist, nearing sixty and long since estranged from her family (father, mother and sister Ruth). Her life had all been mapped out for her by her family – a career in law, like her father and married to Thorleif, also a lawyer, who got on well with her father. The feeling of having had a script thrust at me, the expectation that I would play my part, the loyal daughter of a lawyer, the wife of a lawyer, the law student. However, Johanna is not going to play the game. She meets Mark, an American, and secretly applies to an art institute in Utah. She and Mark move there and she has a career as an artist. The couple have a son, John.
At the time she wrote a long letter to her family, explaining the rationale for her decision. They responded as though they had not read her letter: A short, blunt reply with threats of ostracism, but stating that if I ‘came to my senses’ and returned home immediately, I might be forgiven…They seriously believed that I would give up my love and my work because they had paid for tennis lessons when I was a teenager.
Communications remained terse and infrequent. When John was born, this was acknowledged and he received regular birthday cards. However, things deteriorated when two of her paintings were exhibited in Oslo, which they found distressing, When her father had a stroke, she did not return home nor did she return home for the funeral, not least because she had not been asked to. As a result communications were almost completely cut off. She never told them when they visited Norway, when Mark died or when John moved to Copenhagen.
But then she decides to move back to Norway. What should she do? She phones her mother but no-one answers. She ruminates on the whole situation. She wonders if she really is her father’s biological daughter. And what is her mother like now, after nearly thirty years? Has she softened like some people do as they get older or has she become worse in old age? And what does she look like now? She sees old women in the street and wonders if her mother is like them. How old is she? She cannot even remember when her mother was born.
She struggles with her work, unable to concentrate, thinking of her mother. She spends a lot of time wondering what her mother is like (she has not seen her for thirty years), what she thinks, what she does, about her mother’s relationship with Ruth and, of course her own childhood and her mother’s childhood.
She feels that her parents did not really understand her. Her father in particular mocked her artistic ambitions (we have cameras now) and both parents put her down more than once. You get on my nerves, Dad said, your mind is twisted, Dad said and Mum said, you’re so negative. It’s hard to love people who are negative. As a teenager she goes through a phase of being bulimic and loses a lot of weight. Her parents do not notice.
Her continued obsession with her mother leads her to finally decide to see where her mother lives, as she moved out of the family home when her husband died and bought a small flat.
Johanna will spend a significant amount of the book essentially spying on her mother, watching her flat, following her, going through her rubbish and even gaining entry to the building, ringing her mother’s doorbell and then hiding, and following her mother and Ruth to her father’s grave. She considers accosting both her mother and Ruth, who frequently visits, but backs down. While doing this she is ruminating about her mother and her childhood.
She is herself a mother so she ruminates considerably on motherhood, though at least ninety percent of her ruminations focus on her mother and her own role as a daughter rather than her role as a mother. Though we hear about her son John, we do not meet him nor do we know what he thinks about his mother.
However there are a lot of comments on mothers and motherhood from The mother in real life, our experience of the individual, actual mother, is interwoven with the mythical mother, poor Mum and every mother and I who all bear the mythological cross to mothers smother to Marguerite Duras writes somewhere that every mother in every childhood represents madness. That your mother is and always will be the strangest person you will ever meet, I think she’s right.
As for her own mother she admits to never having had an honest conversation with her but also suspects that her mother did not have a happy childhood (she was brought up by an uncle and aunt) nor a particularly happy marriage.
For Johanna, one of the key issues is that her mother (and father) wanted to steer her in the direction that they wanted her to go and not where she wanted to go. This is, of course, not infrequent in the real world. Johanna fought back but, of course, upset her parents in doing so. Even at the age of sixty she is still struggling with this issue.
However, while this is a key issue, what is most fascinating about this book is her obsession with her mother. Her mother and sister have made it clear they want nothing to do with her, primarily because she did not visit her sick father nor come to his funeral but also because of her paintings which her mother took as a personal attack on her. While we can perhaps understand that she wants to have some contact with her ageing mother and explain her behaviour and even share with her mother what had happened in her life, her obsession seems excessive while at the same time making this a most original book.
First published in 2020 by Cappelen Damm
First published in English in 2022 by Verso
Translated by Charlotte Barslund