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Mother May I

Vigdis Hjorth’s reality literature

Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, trans. Charlotte Barslund. Verso, 352 pages.

The act of writing—of imposing one’s imagination on another—can be, as Joan Didion held, “an aggressive, even a hostile act.” If the work has a whiff of the autobiographical, the damage may bleed over into “real” life. Few like reading about themselves, and families seldom agree on “what things were really like.” To encounter another’s version of an experience you shared—a compressed snapshot, sutured for thematic and aesthetic purposes—can feel violent: you’ve been exposed, subject to someone else’s will, and you might disagree with the portrait that’s been painted. But does that automatically disqualify it or make it untrue?     

The case of the Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth is a curious one. Born in 1959 and greatly admired in her native Norway, Hjorth has written more than twenty books. But it was her 2016 novel Will and Testament, a family drama about an inheritance dispute and the revelation of sexual abuse in a Norwegian family resembling Hjorth’s own, that finally won her wide international and critical acclaim. The novel, translated into a subtle and fluent English by Charlotte Barslund, was longlisted for the National Book Award in the United States. Back in Norway it generated an acrimonious debate over character consent in autofiction (also known as virkelighetslitteratur, or “reality literature,” which refers to a work that explicitly draws on “real,” living models as source material). Hjorth’s family was enraged by the portrayal of what they took to be fraudulent representations of themselves, something of a paradox in terms. Helga, Hjorth’s sister, wrote a rebuttal novel entitled Free Will in order to rehabilitate their name, while Hjorth’s mother, Inger, threatened to sue a Bergen theater whose adaptation of Will and Testament had named the mother character Inga (except for one instance, she remains unnamed in the book).

Few like reading about themselves, and families seldom agree on “what things were really like.”

Hjorth herself has remained reticent about the matter. Reading her interviews, you sense that she wants to deter her readers from searching for a direct link between her writing and reality. Her family “doesn’t concern the novel,” she told the Guardian. For Hjorth, what should be of greater interest is the work’s relationship to a shared social truth. “The value of the truth,” she stresses, “is in the experience of the reader.” In Will and Testament that truth, painstakingly eked out over some three hundred pages, probes the way in which family ties so often serve to cover up a historical cycle of darkness and violence—and how, by denying it, we foreclose on the possibility for disclosure and change.

The desire for truth-telling, for confession and revelation, has a long artistic lineage in Norway and may emerge, as Hjorth herself has surmised, “from a particular sameness” in Norwegian society. Perhaps for this reason, there’s a tendency among Anglophone critics to make a rather specious comparison between Hjorth and her countryman Karl Ove Knausgaard, though the greatest similarity between them, as far as I can tell, is the scandals precipitated by their books. Indeed, the scale of their canvases couldn’t be more different. Knausgaard is a maximalist; Hjorth fixates and burrows. While he erects a detailed inventory of the self, she circles and obsesses over the same existential question. Crucially, Knausgaard uses real names (his own and his family’s); Hjorth doesn’t.

If the two authors share a common root, it is because they’re both inheritors of a much longer and specifically female tradition of Scandinavian writing spearheaded by writers such as Sigrid Undset, Camilla Collet, and Tove Ditlevsen, whose works use the confessional mode as a means of interrogating the family, domestic unhappiness, marriage, and motherhood. As Charlotte Barslund has noted, Hjorth is ultimately—despite the autofictional bent of her work—“an author of ideas.” The private minutiae and the intimate entanglements of her characters’ daily lives, along with the realistic and domestic settings of her novels, are mobilized above all to capture and reflect a shared condition of living. But how to square these artistic intentions with the fact that Hjorth’s family did indeed recognize themselves—along with “real life” correspondence: letters, texts, and emails—in her work?

Hjorth’s latest novel, Is Mother Dead, her fourth to be translated into English, is another family drama. Part psychological thriller, part autofictional artist portrait, it was written largely as a companion piece and response to the controversy surrounding Will and Testament. Here, as in many of her previous novels, Hjorth unfolds a drama of self-questioning,­ in which the estrangement between a mother and daughter occasioned by a work of autobiographical art becomes a vehicle for exploring her own aesthetic and ethical choices, as well as the concerns raised by her family and critics.

The novel takes its title from the final page of Will and Testament. Bergljot, the narrator, is talking to her precocious granddaughter Emma:

Emma asked: Granny? Do you have a mum?
Me: Everyone has a mum [. . . ]
Emma: Is your mum dead?

The simple answer is “no,” but the more complicated answer, the one Bergljot elides, is that there are times when even the living, people with whom we have shared our most intimate and sometimes anguished moments, can become as good as ghosts to us. Enter Johanna, Hjorth’s new protagonist, a woman in the autumnal chapter of her life: nearing sixty, she is a successful artist and a recent widow, a mother and grandmother, conscious of all that she gave up and gained by leaving her family and husband in Norway nearly three decades earlier for a new man and a new life as an artist in New York. Appropriately, Hjorth has set the book in a melancholy, fall-drenched Oslo: a season of decay, darkening days, and oncoming cold. The novel begins with Johanna back in the city of her birth for a retrospective of her work. The homecoming causes her to reconsider the devastating effects of the decades-long rift between herself, her aging mother, and her now middle-aged younger sister, Ruth. Walking the streets of her childhood, Johanna is haunted by memories and stalled by a creative crisis: “I had promised to contribute at least one new work, but I was unable to produce anything, I stood in front of various canvases for days, but my heart wasn’t in it.”

One day, drunk and lonely, she is overtaken by an unexpected urge to reconnect with her mother; she calls her several times but receives no response. “I was ashamed that something in me wanted to talk to her,” admits Johanna, “and that by calling I showed her that something in me wanted to, did I need something from her? What would that be? Forgiveness? Perhaps that was what she told herself. But I hadn’t had a choice! But then why did I call, what did I want?”

The question of choice, of individual freedom—especially the artist’s freedom versus the burden of familial allegiance—flickers uneasily through the novel. For Johanna, adhering to the life her family envisioned for her is equal to a sort of death. She recalls the feeling of having had “a script thrust” at her, one that marked her out as “the loyal daughter of a lawyer, the wife of a lawyer, the law student.” Meanwhile, her family rejects the script Johanna has invented for herself, leaving her marriage and family for “a man they regarded as suspect and a vocation they regarded as offensive.” When she doesn’t return from New York, they resort to emotional blackmail and “threats of ostracism.” The conflict comes to a head when Johanna’s paintings Child and Mother 1 and Child and Mother 2 are exhibited in a prestigious gallery in Oslo. (Other sins include not coming home when her father grows gravely ill and failing to attend his funeral.)

Hjorth never describes the paintings in much detail, but her few sketchy brushstrokes leave the reader with the vivid image of a child cowed by the monumental presence of her mother, an impenetrable figure “with dark, introverted eyes.” Johanna’s family view the portraits as a personal affront; they feel they have been exposed to public shame and humiliation. Johanna recalls her sister’s terse explanation that the paintings had left their mother feeling like Johanna “had killed her symbolically.” But isn’t the symbolic death an echo of how she experienced her parents’ rejection and the denial of her chosen vocation?

While conceding that the mother in her paintings does bear a striking resemblance to her actual mother, Johanna defends herself against her family’s accusations of exploitation, arguing that she was not only exploring a subjective experience in her paintings but the universal theme of a “child’s dependency, all children are dependent, it was dependency I wanted to express.” On the one hand, as she sees it, “an artist must accept that a specific mother might get hurt and be offended by a work of art, and not be surprised by it, especially when the mother in the painting has red hair, just like the artist’s own mother.” On the other hand, an artist should have the license to explore her own experiences, which will, if looked at with honesty, overlap with the experiences of others. Mothers and daughters are linked after all, aren’t they? Elsewhere, Johanna wonders if a work of art isn’t always a self-portrait in a sense. She notes that when she made the paintings of her mother, she herself had just become a mother, and like the mother in the painting—and her real mother—she too has fiery red hair. But then Johanna rails against herself for her fixation: “Why are you protesting so vehemently? All they are asking is that you accept that the choice you made, back when you agreed to exhibit Child and Mother 1 and 2 in their hometown, has had some consequences and you must learn to live with them.”

The battle over whose version of these shared events wins out continues to rage in Johanna’s head as she tries to dissect what happened; meanwhile, her mother and sister rebuff all her attempts to make contact. The reader can’t be sure what to make of Johanna’s advances, either. Her motives seem to have a dual (and somewhat dubious) purpose. Johanna worries that her images of her mother have become “frozen and static,” that “in the absence of information” she has begun inventing her. But even the version Johanna conjures of her mother is shot through with holes; she cannot recall her birthday, wonders if she still has her thick red hair, whether she has ever broken a hip. (“Old women are scared of breaking their hips. She had to be well into her eighties by now.”) With little to go on, she begins fixating on elderly women she comes across in public, at the railway station, or the hairdresser. Might her mom, whom she always thought of as troubled and tormented, be as light and inconsequential as that nattering, wispy-haired woman next to her in the salon?

Johanna believes she is “in the process of unearthing” her mother from the darkness, “dragging her out into the light”—a process that soon develops into a full-blown and twisted campaign of surveillance. In Johanna’s drive for discovery and illumination, we see her begin to shape reality to her own ends and feel the violence that attends such shaping. Hjorth conveys Johanna’s genuine desire to connect with her mother, but we also sense that she wants to get closer to her in order to strip their relationship of illusion so that she can complete the triptych of paintings begun in her youth with a final portrait. It’s hard not to feel some admiration toward Johanna’s willfulness and at the same time want to guard against it. As Elizabeth Hardwick once remarked of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (a major influence for Hjorth): Johanna attracts and repels us at the same time.

By choosing to cast her narrator as a female artist, Hjorth has created a fictional proxy for exploring the thorny question at the heart of Is Mother Dead. It’s a question, as we know, that is close to her own experience: What is art’s relationship to reality, and what does it mean to make art based on our own experiences and the people we know?

In an interview, Hjorth has spoken of her characters as vehicles of transformation and illumination in the Kierkegaardian tradition. Her aim with each of her books, she notes, is to “move my characters into insight.” And just as the philosopher urges the individual to reckon with their innermost being—to seek truth from within by asking questions—Hjorth’s technique as a novelist propels us, along with her characters, to reckon with ourselves and our own perspective.

Through Johanna’s recursive thoughts, her wavering, her pain, her theories on art and philosophy, her self-justifications, and her inconsistencies, we glimpse both sides of the complicated ethical dilemma that faces her—and Hjorth leaves it largely up to us how we choose to interpret the situation. Of course, most of Is Mother Dead unfolds inside Johanna’s mind, and we are never allowed access to any other character’s interiority, which may tip the novel, at least formally, in her favor. The conversation Johanna so urgently longs to have with her mother, she can ultimately only have with herself. But Hjorth’s self-reflexive style pushes against the boundaries of her protagonist’s single consciousness. She refuses to solely linger on Johanna’s personal plight; instead, her writing shuttles restlessly from the domestic to the political, directing Johanna’s and our gaze outward to all who are mothers and children of mothers: “children depend on their mother for their survival and will, as a result, be forever vulnerable to her, body and soul,” Johanna observes. Elsewhere, her thoughts turn to the allegorical figure Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice: “Because mothers are female and we entertain the idea that a mother loves all her children equally.”

The category of mother comes freighted with all manner of symbolic meanings, and these meanings inevitably structure how we interpret ourselves and each other. In Is Mother Dead, Hjorth asks how we can ever draw a clear distinction between personal experience and a shared collective experience, between our own mothers and mothers as they have been depicted throughout history. As Johanna observes: “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.” A tired lesson perhaps, until you look a little more closely at the implications Hjorth gestures toward here. It is not only that we transmute our life experiences when we turn them into art; our experiences, and our “reality,” are already inextricable from the world passed down to us through our families, through art and culture, and through the societies we grow up in. Hjorth’s writing is at its strongest—its most lucid and fierce—when it allows for this truth to take shape.

Hjorth asks how we can ever draw a clear distinction between our own mothers and mothers as they have been depicted throughout history.

From an early age, Johanna studied and analyzed her mother: “I watched her every move, I tried to read her and sense her longing, she was out of my reach.” She has never stopped trying to grasp her; first as a young child and later as an artist. More than reconciliation or forgiveness, what Johanna appears to be after is knowledge: she wants to see things as clearly as possible. She believes in the artistic process as one of discovery, of getting closer to an essential human truth—concerning both the self and the other—through a long and ever-deepening line of inquiry. And it is in this sentiment that she gets closest to being a kind of mouthpiece for Hjorth’s own ideas and beliefs about what art is really for. But the question we are left with, the one that haunts both Johanna and the reader is: Was it worth it?

The reality of Johanna’s and her mother’s estrangement never ceases to torment our narrator. In one of many desperate moments, we hear Johanna cry out: “Do I reinvent them so that I can bear them, do I edit them . . . how and why and what was fair?” She summons a mother and sister who are no longer really living women of flesh and blood but composites built from scraps of childhood memories, projections of strangers and archetypes, and a few old family possessions (her mother’s torn up ticket to Montana; a cigar box; teak plates). These bits—partly recollected and partly imagined—rattle around mournfully in Johanna’s and the reader’s mind until the novel’s very end, like the hollow sounds produced by a dried-up canister of paint.

The artist may have the tools to shape her own reality in her work, but like everyone else in this world, she too will have to face the fact that, off the page or the canvas, there is little about life or other people that is really within our capacity, power, or control. This is no small thing, because the “unresolved, the unknown can torment us our whole lives,” as Johanna observes, “especially at night, no?” But perhaps, at this point, while we join Johanna in weighing the cost of her artistic choices—of where they got her and what she lost in the process, of what was right and what was wrong—we could all do with a bit of friendly advice from Kierkegaard: “do it or do not do it. You will regret both.”