“Love can transpose to form and dignity:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Hanne Ørstavik (1969-)
Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
125 pp. Archipelago Books. $17
Love is not a manifesto about family values or a case study about the psychological harm single, working mothers can cause. Instead Love is a reminder that love can exist when it’s not explicitly present.
Hanne Ørstavik treats us to the night in the life of Vibeke and her son Jon, who have recently moved to a new town. We follow Vibeke and Jon’s separate but loosely connected adventures around town on the eve of Jon’s 9th birthday.
Ørstavik’s short, declarative sentences allow Jon and Vibeke’s stories to slide together flawlessly like a blackjack dealer shuffling two decks. Their stories shift back and forth through creative word and sense association. “Jon sees a flight of stairs leading down into the basement. Vibeke goes to the bathroom and stares into the mirror.”
Vibeke is an escapism addict. She reads 3 to 5 books a week; devotes unnecessary amounts of time thinking about her job during social situations; and spends her first night with Tom, a carnie she met only an hour before, constructing an idealized future away from Norway with him instead of getting to know him. “It must be such a freedom, traveling from place to place, meeting new people. Nothing to cart around apart from what can go in a trailer,” Vibeke says to Tom.
Jon is a very troubled mama’s boy but his neuroses do not come about because of his mom’s escapist fantasies. His fear of blinking, which is the subject of almost every conversation one of the auxiliary characters has with him and comes off as repetitive and not poetic, is a fear of being taken away from Vibeke. “That’s when they come for you, when they know you’re scared. Luckily they can’t see him blinking in the dark,” Jon thinks.
Ørstavik also allows too much room for interpretation with her inclusion of potentially symbolic but uninteresting scenes such as one involving the stray dog and Jon’s visit to his old neighbor. These scenes appear as halting interpolations and read like apologies to readers for focusing too much on Vibeke and Jon. This apologies are not needed because the characters of Jon and Vibeke are so multifaceted that their presence is justified on every page.
Ørstavik paints Vibeke and negligent and caring and Jon as both naive and intelligent. This contradictory characterization is not conflicting or confusing but instead is a reminder that characters do not have to be stereotypes such as the innocent boy and the emotionally cold mother.
Vibeke and Jon’s memories and conversations almost always have double meanings which allows us to learn more about them even when they are talking about someone else. A perfect example of this is one of Jon’s memories of one of Vibeke’s Good Night speeches: “I’m closing the door now. You’re a big boy, the dark’s nothing to be scared of. What you’re scared of is inside you. You’ve got to choose, Jon, decide where to invest your energy. If you want to be scared, you will be. If not, all you have to do is think of something else. I’m closing the door now. Sleep tight.”
Vibeke and Jon are the only characters given any substance which causes the other characters (ranging from a lonely old man to a possibly transgender carnie) to serve only as springboards to get Vibeke and Jon thinking and talking.
While most critics would call a lack of characters and a narrative based around the actions and thoughts of two characters literary solipsism or just sheer laziness, the hyper focused narrative technique is essential to understanding (and enjoying) the novel’s lessons about the nature of love: love is internal and unconditional not external and physical.
The auxiliary characters exist externally and only care about external signs of love such as one of the side character’s estranged son’s paintings that are “just made up, not meant to look like anything” and a photograph of her granddaughter that she has to “rummage about a bit…before finding…in the cramed drawer.” Tom’s family exists in the photograph that his sister took only because “it makes her feel like we’re a family.”
In contrast, Jon and Vibeke’s love is internal. The first line “When I grow old, we’ll go away on the train…We’ll be together all the time” changes meaning over the course of the novel as we learn more about Vibeke and Jon’s love for each other. It appears first as Vibeke’s desire to escape, then as a pacifying statement told to Jon, and, finally, a promise of dedication from Jon: “Didn’t she say she’d be coming on the train and would take him with her? That they’d go away together?…He’ll wait for her here.”
Love will not give you immediate satisfaction upon finishing it because it is only a quick glance at the lives of two characters that deserve at least another 100 pages. That said, Love is powerful because of what is included. As Vibeke says, “Things can be going on inside you without you even knowing. A chance encounter can set things in motion and you don’t always realize until afterwards that something has happened and you’re changed. You must always be humble and take into account that you perhaps haven’t got the full picture.”