Her characters may be out of control, the writer never is
Charlotte Barslund is the translator of Is Mother Dead, a novel by Vigdis Hjorth on sale 25th October and a selection in the Verso Book Club! See all our autumn book selections here.
Is Mother Dead is the Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth’s latest exploration of intergenerational warfare. This time the conflict is between Johanna, a visual artist approaching sixty, and her estranged mother and sister.
Three decades ago Johanna left Norway, her husband, her law degree and her birth family for a career as an artist and life with an American art teacher, with whom she eloped to the US. Johanna, now widowed but with an adult son and young grandson, has returned to Oslo where a museum is to hold a retrospective of her work. After many years abroad, Johanna is back in the city where she was born and she begins to reflect on the long-term consequences of the choices she made as a younger woman.
Hjorth often tells her story through a female narrator, a western everywoman, whose interactions with her family and the wider world allow the author to explore issues faced by people who live in a progressive and affluent country. Is Mother Dead examines the repercussions of decades of estrangement and the price of belonging versus the cost of individual freedom and fulfilment. With Kierkegaard in mind – a major influence on Hjorth – Johanna experiences the agonising, existential truth that life can only be lived forwards, but must be understood backwards. Is she, at sixty, entirely comfortable with the choices she made in her twenties? I would suggest that few of us are.
The family conflict is exacerbated by the nature of Johanna’s art, paintings in which she explores the relationship between parents and children, often with a cowed child and a towering figure of an adult looming over it. Her family sees her creative work as criticising and shaming them whereas Johanna argues that an artist should be free to explore the subject of family without it being taken as a direct representation of the artist’s actual family. Books where the writer explores his or her identity by telling their family story have become a central theme in Norwegian literature in recent years, most notably in the novels of Karl Ove Knausgård, which blur the line between fact and fiction, creating the concept of auto fiction. It has led to a heated debate on the nature of truth and ownership of the family narrative. Hjorth, however, is ultimately an author of ideas, despite the personal and domestic setting of her novels where the microcosm is deployed to reflect the macrocosm. Even so, Johanna admits to herself that the mother in her paintings bears an uncanny resemblance to her actual mother. It is tricky not to cross the line.
Back in Oslo, Johanna is overcome by the urge to talk to her mother. Her mother, however, refuses Johanna’s attempts at contact, which adds to the multitude of unanswered questions that Johanna has about her life and identity. She is also niggled by discomfort: if she really is as comfortable with her choices as she protests, what is she doing fretting about the lives of the people she left behind? Johanna is an intelligent and articulate narrator, she has considerable self-awareness, but at some point in the book the narrative forks as we begin to question Johanna’s assertions. Hjorth creates a compelling examination of the subjective interpretation of choice: Johanna believes other people were free to make choices and made bad ones that caused her pain, while any hurt she may have inflicted was due to other people leaving her with no choice but to do what she did.
As in Hjorth’s previous book Will and Testament where a family battles for ownership of the truth, Johanna here tries to tell her truth, but does so largely in an echo chamber as her birth family wants nothing to do with her. Johanna, however, goes a step further, she also wants to tell her mother’s truth, to take control of her mother’s narrative because she feels she has reached superior levels of insight and is in a better position to articulate her mother’s experience. In Johanna’s eyes her mother’s main offence is her subservience to Johanna’s father. Here the intergenerational conflict is between women who grew up and married before feminism and those of us born more recently who could take for granted our right to higher education and careers. However, as Johanna evaluates her mother’s life and character, she is torn between criticism, love and gratitude. She blames her mother while at the same time acknowledging her sacrifice and her life of service to others. She tries to factor in the constraints that existed for her mother’s generation while at the same time judging her by today’s values and freedoms.
This is the fifth novel by Vigdis Hjorth that I have translated, but she has written many more as well as short stories and essays. Reading her work widely has shown me the ideas and writers that influence her, especially Kierkegaard, Freud and Jung, so that when I translate her, I have a better grasp of the thinking that underpins her novels. I have also become familiar with her style of long sentences and the absence of chapters. I now know that the structure reflects the characters’ stream of consciousness thinking, that these streams allow for a process of discovery and are a crucial feature of her style. Often a long, questioning passage is summed up in an incisive, final line as the narrator nails the crux of her thoughts and Hjorth demonstrates her ability to harness her character’s apparently muddled mind. Her characters may be out of control, the writer never is.
Johanna has in many ways “cancelled” her mother before the term became fashionable. The novel explores the long-term consequences of such a cancellation. To all intents and purposes, Johanna has become everything she wanted to be both professionally and personally, but the unintended consequences of her actions are becoming uncomfortably clear to her. Once the family relationship has broken down, Johanna no longer knows the thoughts of the people who trouble her own thoughts. What does Johanna want from her mother? An apology, but for what, for her mother not being the person Johanna wants her to be? To be told that her mother loves her? But if they could have a cordial relationship now, what was the hurt and acrimony of the last thirty years for? Like the famous line from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” The longer the estrangement, the higher the price and the greater the need to justify it, whichever side of the conflict you are.
Johanna’s parents grew up in a different time and circumstances to their children, as we all do. So does each generation’s attitudes and expectations mean that conflict is the rule rather than the exception? A recurring theme in the novel is Johanna’s belief that she would have been a happy and well-adjusted adult if only she had had a different childhood. Her emphasis is on where her parents went wrong, there is little incentive to look for love and communality, rather it is about highlighting differences and apportioning blame and the outrage that builds up when our parents turn out not to be the people we want them to be and they fail to meet our needs. In trying to kill off her mother’s voice inside her mind, however, Joanna inadvertently leaves little room for other relationships in her life, even with her son and grandson who are marginal, rather sad figures.
When I translate a novel, I am always conscious of the place where it takes off and the place where it lands. Will its themes resonate with its new readers who bring their own experiences to a novel conceived in another country? Since I was commissioned to translate Is Mother Dead two years ago, I have become increasingly aware of how many instances of family estrangement exist both among people I know and outside my own circle. Hjorth’s thoughtful, honest and razor-sharp analysis of estrangement has left me with a sense of profound sadness and with a desperate plea for compassion, humility and tolerance. There has to be another way than cutting people out of your life if they don’t share your truth. Is Mother Dead shows us that there are no winners in the intergenerational battle.