APRIL 10, 2018
HANNE ØRSTAVIK’S Love is an eerie and formally inventive novella that closely examines the love between a mother and son, or perhaps more accurately, the potential limits and absences of that love. It recounts the story of an icy night in the lives of a mother, Vibeke, and her son, Jon. The next day is Jon’s ninth birthday.
The mother and son have recently moved to a remote village in northern Norway for reasons not entirely clear, though there are occasional allusions to a past life somewhere else. While one might assume that a mother’s world revolves around her son’s as much as her young son’s revolves around her’s, this is untrue for Vibeke. When she and Jon are together in the beginning, she listens to him talk about a picture he’s seen of someone being tortured. “Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something?” And in the next beat, a nearly complete falseness: “‘It’s good of you to think of those in pain,’ she says. ‘If everyone else did the same, the world might be a better place.’”
In these early scenes, Vibeke’s distance from her son is mostly ordinary, a mother trying to mime the movements of care and love to provide her son with what he needs, while mentally disengaging from him to dive internally into her own concerns. She smooths her hand over his head. She says, “Dearest Jon.” But then “[s]he repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work.” This maternal two-facedness is perhaps normal, at least some of the time, but it later becomes clear that it’s the result of an unnerving degree of vanity and self-absorption.
After eating dinner with his mother, Jon goes out to sell raffle tickets for the sports club to people in the neighborhood, and encounters an array of menacing strangers. His first encounter is with an old man who takes him down the steep stairs into the basement. “The place smells rank and strange, Jon thinks it smells of soil.” Jon wants to pee and notices a leather dog collar and a metal chain hanging down from a hook on the wall. In the end, the man is just showing him skates, but the sensation of dread, anxiety, and menace only builds from there.
In another encounter, he meets a much older teenage girl, and there is something off-putting about their exchanges:
My aunt’s got a glass eye, says the girl. She kept looking through keyholes when she was little, only one day my dad was on the other side, he stuck a screwdriver through the hole to stop her spying. Feel like a game of Othello? Before he can say anything she gets the box out from under one of the beds.
Meanwhile, Vibeke takes a bubble bath and is consumed with romantic thoughts of a dark, brown-eyed man at work. Occasionally thoughts related to her work as an arts and culture officer in the local authority also drift into her consciousness. However, it is clear, fairly quickly, that there is a strange difference between Vibeke and Jon. While Jon repeatedly comes back to his mother in his thoughts, returning like a homing pigeon to her, Vibeke almost never thinks of Jon. Almost her entire interior life is marked by his absence.
When Jon returns to the house from the old man’s basement, Vibeke emerges naked from the bathroom. She notices his presence but remarks that she thought he was out, reflecting a total disinterest in his whereabouts. She calls out to him about her body lotion, and generally treats him like a husband rather than a son. Jon notices that she is showering in the evening, something she doesn’t usually do, and assumes she is making plans for his birthday.
In spite of the danger that creeps up in his encounters, Jon continues to return in his mind to his beloved mother, ardently certain she’s thinking of him, too. He assumes she is getting him a train set and that she’s bothered to look at the wish list he left on his desk. However, the reader realizes from the total absence of Jon or anything to do with his birthday in her thoughts, that Vibeke has completely forgotten his birthday.
And the reason for Vibeke’s unexpected shower becomes apparent: she wants to bump into the brown-eyed engineer on whom she has a crush at the library, and wants to make sure she looks “sporty and casual” rather than calculated. After finding the library closed, Vibeke visits the traveling funfair. While playing a carnival game, Vibeke meets Tom, a man working at the fair. They smoke together, and initially she feels sorry for him. When he leaves for a bit, a strange woman with long wig-like white hair and wearing long white gloves, a white cape, and tall white boots appears, then Vibeke buys tickets for a carnival game from her, noting with disdain that even her lips are powdered white. Tom returns and invites her back to his trailer for a coffee.
After this point, the novella darkens. The white-wigged woman shows up again as a character in Jon’s narrative of what happens that night. Jon continues to wait for his mother, to return to thoughts of his mother, to hope for his mother, and his longing is palpable.
It is the radical formal structure of the book — the rapid point of view shifts from one paragraph to the next — that truly dials into something profound about love, about how limited it can be. As if to show the indissoluble bond between Vibeke and Tom, the way in which they are never truly apart, in spite of the mother’s distance from her son, the author alternates between their points of view, occasionally even within the same paragraph. There is a slice of viewpoint here, a sliver of the other viewpoint there. It’s a strange disjunction when we can see clearly that Vibeke is so unconcerned about her son. Her son is never truly apart from her even when she thinks nothing of him. Can this be love?
Often, in novels where the viewpoint shifts from chapter to chapter, authors switch perspectives to tell a story from the point of view of the person for whom the most is emotionally changing. This helps propel the reader forward and keeps her emotionally invested. But, in Love, the closeness of the perspectives, the cramming of them together, as if the mother and son are one person, and yet clearly not, feels less about narrative, and more about the limitations of love. We think we know another person, we feel settled in another person, and yet, perhaps every other consciousness is entirely a mystery. That’s the power of this particular book. The tiny emotional and atmospheric shifts are often barely perceptible, and yet they add up to much more.
The total transparency of the prose while engaged in this formal structure leaves a lot of room for the reader’s own prejudices and biases to surface. We don’t know for sure anything of what the author intended us to feel about Vibeke; there is not a single judgmental comment. However, it is plain that the novella is contesting any idealization of motherhood. In her earlier startling novella The Blue Room, which is also psychological realism, Ørstavik explored and critiqued motherhood through the story of another terrible mother — terrible in a different way from Vibeke — who traps her daughter in a room because she has a boyfriend that’s invited her to go abroad with him.
There is neither effort to redeem Vibeke nor effort to provide authorial commentary on her interior life. In this way, Ørstavik’s work is quite different from her fellow Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, who is also concerned with the mundane. In My Struggle, alongside the direct exploration of his own consciousness, he also includes quite a bit of commentary, directing us on what to feel or think about the younger version of himself, and providing insights in dreamy, elaborate sentences. Love also has some of the feel of Hunger, by the earlier Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, in its exploration of the irrational nature of the mind. Unlike Hunger, in which the mind of the narrator is self-contained, it’s the juxtaposition of two minds that gives this novella its weight. Ørstavik closely follows both characters’ minds with all their digressive tendencies, their observations, their self-delusions, and in so doing shows both their closeness and their distance.
As I read from my vantage — a feminist mother who is nevertheless very much mired in our current helicopter parenting mode in middle-class America — it became clear to me that as the narrative careened toward danger, the Trollopian transparency of the story was prodding me, forcing me to find my own way, my own bearings. I found myself completely absorbed in Vibeke’s pathetic sadness, her longing, her search for crumbs of affection from a man who saw nothing in her and who plainly wasn’t interested, her willingness to completely forget about her son in trying to pursue a little piece of happiness for herself, her unwillingness, even later, to extract herself from this limerence.
Conversely, becoming so absorbed in both Vibeke and Jon, and forced to create suspense for myself in the absence of authorial direction, I also found myself placed in the role of a judgmental and harsh society, begrudging this vain mother for her dalliance with a carnival worker even while her son heads deeper and deeper into danger. It pushed me to recognize in myself the social impulse to hold women to high standards, even though, I, as a woman, do not want to be held to such harsh standards myself and do not find them realistic. Yet it also allowed me the room to feel for Jon, so enamored of his mother — and who has not been, at some point, enamored of their mother? I experienced his innocence with a choked sob.
There is another emotional thread running through the mother and son’s story, a story to which we’re not fully privy, a story involving Tom and the white-wigged woman, possibly a romance between co-workers gone awry, but possibly not. We’re never told what this story is, but again, the lack of authorial direction reflects back to us our own fears and prejudices and concerns about mothering, as well as gender itself. Why is Vibeke a bad mother? What does it mean to be a good mother? What can any society do about the problem of the utterly separate consciousness of a mother and her child, about the essential otherness of every other person? Perhaps there’s some irony in a fiction writer posing this question as central, and yet perhaps this is the most important question.
Despite its brevity, Love, effectively rendered into English by Martin Aitken, demands and deserves total concentration. It takes intense focus to toggle back and forth between points of view, to keep understanding that the mother and son are two separate people. In places, the abundance of mundane detail with only subtle emotional movement is excruciating, but these do add up over the course of the novella to produce a larger effect, a sense of the dread and emptiness and loneliness of our everyday lives, of all our missed connections. We can never, perhaps, be as close to another person, as fused with another person, as the idea of love would have us be, even when that person is our parent, even when that person is our child. We are always waiting for and missing one another.
Anita Felicelli has contributed essays and reviews to The New York Times (Modern Love), San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and The Rumpus. Her short stories have been published in The Normal School,Joyland, Kweli Journal, Eckleburg, Strangelet Journal, and The Stockholm Review.