:: Article

The Limits of Love

By Denise Rose Hansen.



Hanne Ørstavik, Love (And Other Stories, 2019)

Love spans a single winter’s day in the lives of Vibeke and her son Jon. Tomorrow Jon turns nine. Certain that his mum is busy preparing everything for his big day, he ventures out into the cold. But Vibeke is concerned with things of her own — her son’s birthday not being one of them — and soon she goes out herself only to return in the early hours. Emitting the chilling temperatures of its far north setting, the novel follows their separate journeys into the dark of night where conflict and connection, danger and hospitality are easily confused.

In the afternoon, Jon is waiting for Vibeke to return from work. Wilfully summoning her, he imagines the sounds of her car and the wheels rolling through the snow. When she gets back, she does not come to see him, and he imagines what she’s doing, listening for her footsteps: “Maybe she’s changing now. It’s so soft inside, come and feel.” Walking into the living room where she’s sat reading, he watches her from behind: “Her long, dark hair fans out over the back of the chair, trembling almost imperceptibly. Stroke my hair, Jon.” Although now physically close, they remain silent and apart, and the imagined or remembered invitations for touch point to both a slightly disquieting sense of intimacy and the absence of any intimacy at all in that moment. Later, when Jon briefly returns home after time spent outside, Vibeke appears naked in the hallway. She asks him if he knows where her body lotion is, not in the least concerned where he’s been or what he’s up to. On the surface, this is all but a mundane scene, but there is a prickling precariousness to all that goes unspoken or presumed; a cache of questions contrasted by the lack of a cache-sexe.

Having recently relocated to the remote northern village, Vibeke has started a new job as an arts and culture officer in the local authority. She feeds herself compliments for her superior sartorial choices: “Most people dress to suit the weather. Thick tights, often another pair on top that they take off in the toilets when they get there. Life’s too short not to be dressing nice, she thinks to herself. I’d rather be cold.” Heating up in an afternoon bath, she dreams of new clothes and past and future lovers. More preoccupied with replaying the day at work and imagining her own face expressions than wondering what Jon is up to, she enjoys these slow private luxuries, gets dressed again, and goes to the library.

Guessing that Vibeke must be bathing to save time on the morning of his birthday, Jon has gone out to sell raffle tickets. He rings the doorbell of the first house he passes, and an old man invites him inside. Leading the boy down into a rank-smelling basement supposedly to show him something, one cannot help but recall terrifying scenes of Scandinavian noir. Jon sees a leather dog collar and a metal chain hanging on a hook on the wall, but then the man offers him a pair of old skates and proceeds to buy all the raffle tickets. As Jon leaves the house, the encounter seems to have been good-natured, and yet we are left with only the child’s jejune account of it; as such, Ørstavik’s prose is crystalline while keeping indistinct whether a situation is charged with either sinister intention or human kindness. Yet the apprehensive tension triggered in this meeting permeates throughout the novel, and like a frozen surface, something seems always about to crack or come bursting through.

The narrative mode shifts between Jon and Vibeke’s streams of consciousness from one paragraph to the next with no dividing spaces. The effect is one of confinement and proximity, at once marking their inevitable closeness and persisting distance. If reading too quickly, one might lose track of which character the paragraph relates to, demanding a zooming attention similar to that which Vibeke brings to her nails, her outfit and in her projections, perhaps deployed to direct herself away from the reality at hand. But while Jon is largely absent from Vibeke’s mind, Jon is very much driven by the expectation of being reunited with Vibeke as soon as she comes home, as soon as she’s ready — a relief that is continually postponed.

Out in the frozen street again, Jon meets a teenage girl who takes him back to her house. Unsure of her intentions, we are compelled to read on, but are only ever offered small servings at a time as the narrative keeps switching back and forth between mother and son. The close juxtaposition causes for Jon’s strand to carry an air of eroticism and voyeurism, obliquely transferring from Vibeke’s fantasies, as when he realises the girl has fallen asleep and wonders why he can see the white of her eyes.

After finding the library closed, Vibeke visits the funfair, not wanting to ‘waste’ her freshly varnished nails and done-up hair. The ride operator Tom invites her back to his trailer. Very quickly and presumptuously, she starts imagining their shared future and idealises every aspect of his body from his fingers to his curly hair. But they are interrupted by a strange woman wearing all white, including long white boots and a white wig, who comes up to the trailer and watches them through the window. Tom says that the woman is unwell but doesn’t say anything more about their relation, and Vibeke doesn’t ask either. Even when people know each other, the story feels populated only by strangers, and it soon becomes clear that love is unlikely to be found in Tom’s trailer.

The interiority of the narrative might invite for the reader’s own prejudices in the place of authorial commentary, and yet, given its overt partiality and omissions, one is hesitant to pass judgements on Vibeke or Jon, just like the characters themselves seem powerless when it comes to verbalising their thoughts, or powerless, simply. Society’s often myopic requirements for what it means to be a good mother, a forgiving lover, a strong independent child, and the guilt that can sometimes lead us to short-change self-care for selfishness, all foam at the corners of the fiction. The omittance of what happened to Vibeke before moving to the village — the absent father figure — makes it difficult to soberly gauge her desperate longing and inattentiveness towards the child, whose tics give rise to yet another host of unanswered questions. Ørstavik’s economical prose defers conclusions, ultimately leaving us out in the cold with our own shortcomings and incapacity to rightfully judge.

Building up to a shattering culmination — however oblique — that stays with the reader long after closing the book, Love is as haunting as it is moving, stunningly presented in Martin Aitken’s discerning translation. Although originally published in Norway more than 20 years ago, the novel retains a timeless brilliance through its portrayal of missed connections and failures to communicate beyond surface levels.

Getting to know someone, to Vibeke, “feels like pushing a boat from the shore, the moment the boat comes free of the sand and floats, floats on the water.” But really, she is none the closer to the stranger she is already expecting to receive love from. Even when attempting to establish closeness and intimacy, the act is one of pushing away and passively floating on a sea of unknowing.



D.R. Hansen has written for Avidly, L.A. Review of Books, International Journal of the Book, CRUMB Magazine, Copenhagen Post, Curator, among others. She is a researcher in English experimental literature and the visual arts at UCL.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 13th, 2020.