What Is Love? #AsymptoteBookClub No. 3

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

A single mother arrives home tired but quietly triumphant after doing her first presentation at her new workplace. Her eight-year-old son is waiting for her, listening to every step as she walks in and starts cooking. They have dinner and some conversation, but each is wrapped up in their own thoughts and dreams. They only have each other, since they moved away from town, from the boy’s father. The mother settles down with a book and dozes off, the boy goes out to sell raffle tickets. The mother wakes up and decides to slip out to the library herself, believing her son is safely tucked in bed. And so they narrowly miss each other on this winter night in a village in Northern Norway.

It’s difficult and probably unwise not to read Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel all in one gulp. You need to go somewhere with that sense of foreboding, the crescendo of compassion, pity and dread, the certainty that something bad will happen to Vibeke and her young son Jon as they wander about their village that evening like lost souls. Every mention of the birthday cake that the little boy keeps hoping that his mother will bake for him pierced my heart. Every time Vibeke looks at herself in the mirror, dreams of being admired and loved, is almost desperate to become visible in some way, my skin tingled in recognition and pity. I doubt I would have been able to keep on reading with such physical discomfort if the book had been any longer, or if I’d had to go back to it in dribs and drabs.

Both the title and the character of Vibeke have provoked debate on the Asymptote Book Club discussion thread. Why ‘love’ when the book shows us such an imperfect example of it, perhaps almost the absence of it? To my mind, both Jon and Vibeke are searching for love, desperate for it to the point of naivety and reckless endangerment. The love that they get from one another is not quite enough to fill this deep hole in the centre of their lives. The father would not have filled the hole either. They are both dreamers, they both desire something that they have never experienced but that they haven’t quite lost hope of finding, despite countless disappointments. The tragedy is that they are not quite aware of this hunger in themselves, so they cannot talk to each other about it, and not just because of the age gap.

I remember an instructor at a poetry workshop saying that we should never talk about love, hearts and the moon, as it is far too easy to descend into sentimentality and cliché. This book talks about all three but manages to avoid that dishonourable fate. How does it do that? Firstly, the style is unadorned and kept deliberately detached. Third person, moving swiftly from Jon to Vibeke’s point of view, but without dwelling on their emotions. Everything is implied in their reactions and gestures rather than through authorial intervention or judgement. At first I thought that the style alternated between long and short sentences, but in fact even the long sentences are often made up of short, coordinated clauses, loosely linked through commas. This, together with the use of the present tense, gives a breathless quality to the narration which contrasts with the cold observation. This really helps in the build-up of suspense, plus author selects just the right amount of telling details to give us a precise, almost step-by-step description of events which never feels repetitive.

I’ve read some great reviews of the book already by Asymptote Book Club subscribers. Ali comments on how love can be both good and terrible. Old Books Abe describes the feeling of helplessly watching the characters fall into peril behind a layer of ice, unable to stop it. Enrico Cioni is fascinated by Vibeke and compares the book to other two recent translations Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Die, My Love by Ariana Harwitz. I also found a resemblance to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment – that same almost animal instinct for surviving pain, of blessed temporary selfishness, but set in a tighter-lipped, colder climate. For another powerful example of Ørstavik’s understated and elliptical style, see The Blue Room.

Every Single One of Us Has the Devil Inside

When the devil came out of the bathroom
they sunk a little deeper in
and thought to state truth
but lied and lied.

Jerky transitions in a city of shades
lullabies where you can find them
being forgotten like snot-filled tissue
what do I hate about
being found? They grow and change
live and love like us
yet not like us – puzzles never solved
jewels in our crowns bent heavy with regret.

Tedious telephone voices
harp at you like the common cold
and the world loves nothing more
than beating you up in a cloud of smoke.
What refuge can you find bubbling
up enough random junk to float to the surface
for our stories to want more?
Strum-drum
Tick-tock
Too late
Jock-schok
You can’t, you won’t, you want
to keep a good woman
down, boy!

All palpable, the fingers groan
as they caress the fat downy tummy of a cat
with a puff of thistles in its fur.
We see the pastoral in a sleight of hand
how mind thinks its way into and out of this boxed world
but I’m not there to cry forgiveness.

Only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

Drawing by Jodi Harvey-Brown: Inner Demons. From fineartamerica.com
Drawing by Jodi Harvey-Brown: Inner Demons. From fineartamerica.com

For dVerse Poets, Mary is encouraging us to use a line from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Burning the Old Year as an homage to the poet. I couldn’t resist using the lines in italics, since it was Naomi who inspired me to start writing poetry once more (and start this blog in the process). For all your wonderful poems and kind words, here’s a very special thank you, Naomi!