Vigdis Hjorth: mothering, the wound of remembering

The compact is—the mother loves the child—a universal, lifelong condition of Nature. The irritating, endless sore-throat-plaint of the baby crow, same size as the mother behind whom it hops, squawking, beak open, showing a red interior that can’t ever be filled, flapping its new black wings. The eggs, the sitting, the rain, the discomfort and privation—the mother for whom flight is no escape. She knows in her bird-whistle bones that Nature is encoded and binding. Right?

Contra naturam, then, is Vigdis Hjorth’s novel Is Mother Dead (Verso, London, New York, 2022), a controlled literary tantrum, the writer flushed and feverish, sobbing and telling, grief and denial skilfully given on every page. The writer is a child, the child is writing, locked in arrested development. Failure to thrive is here a psychic explanation; her head and her heart are stunted, cramped, locked in a state of childhood—in this book, dependent and powerless, but for other children—loved and nourished, then over—now a store of productive, pleasant, joyful, enriching memories. A self-told narrative of achievements, successes, familial applause, strength and confidence. Perhaps some teary memories, too, some slights and small denials but all bound to growth. Not so in Is Mother Dead.

Pick the crying child up, press its hot, wet face against your neck. Hold its shuddering, hiccupping body against yours. Shoosh into their ear, sway with them gently like a cradle. Make the world go away, reinstate mothering as the place of refuge and comfort. Mother and child one, the world held off, for now. And soon you’ll be big and you are strong and good and lovely and we are in the enchantment of childhood. Bunnies and soft stuffed things and cocoa and Mother.

Johanna is the narrator. This book is hers, the story hers; she is an artist, the older sister of two, by six years. She always felt—maybe the father wasn’t her father, but the mother was beautiful, pale, fragile and anxious, with long red hair, like hers. Johanna wants to be good, to please and be loved. She marries a lawyer like her father and is herself studying law, although in her heart and in the evident skill of her young fingers handling the large set of coloured pencils she’d once had, she is an artist. She registers for an art class while she studies law. Her instructor, it turned out, is a teacher at an art institute in Utah. She fell in love with him. She applied to the art institute, was accepted and they left. Thirty years passed, brambles had since grown around her home and family, and around their hearts, which had hardened. She had reached into her own heart and from there had written to them to explain what she had done, had had to do. And please, if you love me, understand. The response was curt, offering to accept her back, to consider forgiveness if she returned to reason, returned home immediately.

She painted and was successful. She and Mark, her instructor, lover, husband, had a son. Her work was shown everywhere, even in Oslo, in her home city, to acclaim from an audience, and to the shame of her family. The subject of the paintings, triptychs, titled Child and Mother I and Child and Mother II, was the poignantly, emotionally rendered relationship between a mother, whose hair was red, and a child. Universal subject, yes. Pointedly specific, yes. The exchange of Christmas notes and gifts to the boy ceased.

Thirty years with no sightings, no visits. Thirty years to wash, leach, rub, erase, paint over a childhood where, Vigdis Hjorth wrote, “We all carry our mothers like a hole in our souls.” Absence, the missing, the void, the hole in the soul is as close to the palpable mother she feels she can get. She had been a bad, difficult, ungrateful child. “You’re so negative. It’s hard to love people who are negative,” her mother had told her. Then an invitation for a retrospective exhibition of her work from the Skogum Museum in Oslo. Mark was dead, her son grown and with a son of his own. Thirty years. She would go home.

The title of Hjorth’s book recurs—Is Mother Dead, not clearly couched as a question. Death and mothers, the missing mother, the necessary mother, the mother as source and origin, the mourned-for mother. I go to Roland Barthes.

Immediately after his mother’s death, Barthes began his twoyear- long record on index cards, notes responding to his loss, his love for his mother, their mutual love, his ways of working and memory. This record became Mourning Diary (Hill and Wang, New York, 2009). Gone, but present, his mother and his relationship with her seemed to be the substance from which memory itself was drawn. He wrote, “Since maman’s death, my life has not managed to constitute itself as memory. Flat, without the vibratory halo of ‘I remember … ’.” No regrets, no deciencies, only that she is gone—his childhood and well into his adult years, his entire life, really. He feels gratitude and admiration and joy. This is Mother and he is whole.

Vigdis Hjorth writes, and Johanna says (to herself) about the thirty-year estrangement, “Although both will have changed during the subsequent thirty years, with the passage of time, you can’t expect a child’s experience of the mother of its childhood to change as a result of time alone.” The phrase “mother of its childhood” leaps from the page with a cry, a heartbreaking designation as though a mother is not an entitlement for every child and, at the same time, a tragic detachment, a clinical detachment, the child reasoning to itself.

And where is this mother? Does she wonder what has happened to her first child in her thirty-year absence? “She must wonder about it, surely?” A disbelieving “surely.” She thinks to herself, this lack of engagement isn’t natural, even if I may not have behaved well. She goes on, “She must wonder about it because in spite of everything I am her nearly sixty-year-old child.” An almost grotesque upending of order, the book bores into the heart of any reader, mine included—a greying adult, a mother and grandmother, a widow, an accomplished painter, a child trapped by wittingly cruel or neglectful at best, parents who through their silence and withheld responses have consigned her to a limbo of dependency and powerlessness. The cocoa and birthdays, the secure embrace is the best part of being a child; the lack of power, the worst. An irritable, irrational, thoughtless child can slam the door, never say thank you, be disruptive, foolish and hasty. Parents can’t. It’s not an even exchange.

“Surely,” Hjorth writes, and Johanna asks, “parents have a lifelong obligation, unlike the child?” From the very outset, she thinks, she must have sensed a ssure. Why else would she, Johanna, the adult child, have reasoned to herself, “this person I once believed I was part of, was symbiotic with [the language is carefully crafted] was totally dependent on in every respect, who if she neglected me threatened my very existence, and whom I therefore watched Argus-eyed, my ears pricked, my entire sensory apparatus aimed at her.” And in this, is the book’s narrative.

Barthes’s is otherwise. He notes, “The apartment is warm, clean, well-lit, pleasant. I make it that way energetically, devotedly (enjoying it bitterly): henceforth and forever, I am my own mother.” He speaks of the ideal, desired state where he had been so well cared for that the necessary mother had been in-corporated. Symbiosis didn’t characterize the relationship Barthes had with his mother; instead, it was mutuality. As he cared for her in her last months, he felt their roles had been simply, easily reversed. “It is as if I had lost my daughter (a greater grief than that? It had never occurred to me.).”

I read Johanna’s mother stark against the relief of Barthes’s. One, who is a stranger to the task, disguised in the role, miscast entirely. The other, nourishing, flawless and cherished.

Returning to Norway after thirty years, Johanna is impelled to, can’t help but phone her mother. She didn’t pick up. An agreement had somehow been reached—no contact. She’d broken the pact. Johanna’s reaction, as unnatural as the distancing itself—was embarrassment, shame. She’d wavered. Barthes is also embarrassed in his mourning because he feels it may be “merely a susceptibility to emotion”—a surfeit of feeling brought on by love.

Mothers and memory in both books. Barthes writes about his mother, not because he needs to remind himself but “to oppose the laceration of forgetting as it reveals its absolute nature.” Johanna doesn’t forget anything, either. This book is not about forgetting but about the wound of remembering—once returned home, she unwinds her damaging past, all the affronts, insults, mean responses, the miserable marked and, at the same time, cloaked neglect. Barthes uses the phrase “No trace remaining” as a gentle goad to memory; Johanna’s obsession is with traces—the fine, faded white lines on the inside wrist of her mother’s left arm.

In his acute sensitivity to the gift he felt his mother to have been and their remarkably crystalline relationship, Barthes pulls back—thinking it through—from writing about her and about his loss and grieving. We wonder about betrayal if we take the incidents of life as material and use them in a transformative way. They become matter; we ask: have we borrowed in a manner that is reductive, diminishing the substance and meaning, and do we feel duplicitous or even tawdry in the doing? The utterance takes on its own form once sounded; it stands alone and apart from the instigatory emotion or contact or event.

If we’ve shuddered and pulled back from an emotional burn and are moved to describe it, is the outcome a simulacrum, a lesser duplication, a reduced copy? If we leave it intact, whole in our silence, does the charge hold its potency and remain unique and discrete? Are we drawing down the essence of something held close when we make something else from it—a painting, a story, a sobbed disclosure? So Barthes, in his honouring the integrity of his relationship with his mother and his profound grief at her loss, queries himself, “I don’t want to talk about it for fear of making literature out of it—or without being sure of not doing so—although, as a matter of fact, literature originates within these truths.” Here is art, inserting itself, as it always does, having the maker question the impetus, interceding between gesture and motive.

Johanna painted her way to safety, she told herself, needing to bolster the story with repeated interior arguments and justifications. Her childhood onto canvas—universal and personal, she argued, hence the paintings’ impact. Being shown, they split whatever tenuous thread of contact there had been. “They never acknowledged that I had painted the pictures to ensure my own survival.” Poor excuse, of no interest, confirming the unreasonable, self-involved child she’d always been. For Johanna, the betrayal was early and deep-rooted. The secrets, the story, the pain was hers, and vengeance, too, can be a reasonable motive.

Ostracized, held outside, the silence sealing off and locking the child in, the early absent mother, the intense and watchful girl. The heat builds. She is unwell; in desperation but with a child’s longing, she needs her mother—just to hear, only to see, maybe to try to understand. Acknowledge me, recognize me. She begins to unravel, stalks her mother—only for contact. “Please.” Her actions are read as menacing. Her mother is old, frail. Hates her, finally. Nature is shaken and Johanna recognizes in a bitter concluding encounter that she had “disproved something which had previously seemed likely, which was that she must love me somehow.” In taking his mother into the arms of his heart, Barthes had said, “Henceforth, I am my own mother.” Johanna said, “I had to abandon all hope, I had to meet my own needs.” Now, finally grown, she carries the mother of her entitlement inside her own self. ❚