Cover of book: Is Mother Dead

Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund)
Is Mother Dead

“I was ashamed to have called Mum.” Johanna, a successful painter, relays this to her friend Pax on the first page of Is Mother Dead. “It was against the rules and yet I’d done it.” The laws that govern this relationship between a woman of nearly 60 and her mother is at the heart of this vertiginous novel by Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth.

It’s been 30 years since Johanna fled Norway and her first marriage for another man and a “truer” life as an artist, 8000 kilometres away in Utah. The price of this freedom? Near-excommunication by her family of origin. After failing to attend her father’s funeral and later exhibiting her “humiliating” triptychs Child and Mother 1 and 2 in a major Oslo gallery, all communications between Johanna and her family cease. Now her second husband is dead, her son is in Copenhagen and Johanna has returned to Oslo. Answering an “irrational impulse”, she places the call to her mother.

For the rest of this thrillingly introspective book, Hjorth inverts the detective novel. The real mysteries here are the inner dramas. Johanna pursues her mother with a steely vulnerability, staking out her apartment, trailing her down frozen Oslo streets. She imagines her mother and sister Ruth discussing her, the selfish eternal child who abandoned a conventional life for art. “I was to fully experience my choice and repent it,” she says. “But I didn’t repent!”

Johanna hungrily absorbs every detail as she watches her mother. We feel the stab of longing as she shadows her mother and sister to their father’s grave. She’s mourning even though her mother is palpably alive and just out of reach. But hasn’t it always been that way? After all, “a mother can never be an ordinary human being to her children … I wonder if Mum always felt that being my mum was incompatible with being herself?”

The novel opens in autumn. With pointillist detail, Johanna observes the elemental world of the island Borøya, where she retreats after increasingly reckless attempts to make contact. These passages rest the eye and mind between torrid streams of consciousness: “The sky is high, the nights are cool, the air smells of roots and leaves.” In one mythic scene, an elk thrashes itself against the birches by Johanna’s cabin. The natural world reminds us that to live is to struggle: “it feels like I am of the earth and not of Mum.”

Is Mother Dead interrogates a mother’s longstanding ambivalence. Did Johanna remind her mother too much of what she’d forsaken in her own marriage? Perhaps she was not her father’s biological child? He was even more remote, a lawyer like Johanna’s first husband, Thorleif, and both men mocked her “artistic pretensions”. We detect his shadow – and Johanna’s early training in the law – in the way she self-prosecutes and justifies her actions. But this rigour in assessing the past is generous too – perhaps her mother’s disapproval lay in her own lonely childhood, as the adopted child of humourless relatives against a backdrop of war.

In a bracing essay, “Motherhood today”, Julia Kristeva observed that the West still lacks a nuanced discourse on the “complexity of motherhood”. Psychology and philosophy have historically been preoccupied with the “paternal function”. Hjorth observes this when she evokes Søren Kierkegaard: “where the father recurs as the root of the son’s torments and his psyche, his faith and his writing, the mother isn’t mentioned once, not with a single word”. If this passionate violence is still downplayed in the wider culture, it’s having a golden moment in literature: see recent works by Sheila Heti, Kate Zambreno, Annie Ernaux, Guadalupe Nettel and Jessica Au.

Of Hjorth’s more than 20 novels, only four have been translated into English. Will and Testament, which won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature, is the best known, partly because it caused a public rift with her family. Her sister even published a retaliatory work. Is Mother Dead is just as riveting, if more distilled than Will and Testament in seeking the mysterious valence of family emotions. Inevitably labelled autofiction, in Norway Hjorth is read as “reality literature”, or virkelighetslitteratur. Yet with any such compelling work, all labels vaporise. Hjorth reinvents Kierkegaard’s looping style and Thomas Bernhard’s feverish repetitions to produce her own superheated inner monologues, juxtaposed with single, razoring lines on otherwise blank pages.

As the novel progresses, the layers of Hjorth’s title become apparent. We realise Johanna’s mother has always seemed dead. Being unable to communicate with her since childhood has turned Johanna into a premature ghost whose haunting is a desperate attempt to finally commune.

What if we asked “not what a mother is or should be, but what version of motherhood might make it possible for a mother to listen to her child?”, writes analyst Jacqueline Rose. Hjorth asks whether we can resist a mother’s refusal to connect. Even in childhood, Johanna’s drawings were sometimes considered unacceptable. At least now her suffering is transfigured into art, ensuring her survival. If this personal freedom is vertiginous, what she discovers about her mother in a climactic, violent scene – “When I rang her doorbell, she did open the door” – will justify this quest for personal sovereignty.

In the final pages, Johanna takes stock of what her mother has taught her. It’s a pitiful accounting: two tips found in any housekeeping guide and a cliché about a fool and his money. A mother can keep you alive with the generic gestures she might use to keep house, Hjorth seems to say, but she can’t extinguish her child’s hope for a more authentic connection.

Verso, 352pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2023 as "Is Mother Dead, Mireille Juchau".

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