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his mother's house
7 august 2018
His Mother's House by Marta Morazzoni reminded me a little of Penelope Fitzgerald and little of Henry James. The novel details an episode in the lives of well-off people of an indeterminate generation. Because they hate to discuss things openly, their interactions – indeed, the entire dramatic center of the story – remain somewhat oblique. Those are the Jamesian parts. The Fitzgerald affinity comes from the chosen setting: Norway, specifically the outskirts of Bergen and some parts of the interior of the country. Not that Fitzgerald wrote about Norway, but that she, like Morazzoni, was fond of imagining some wholly "other" place as background to her novels. The specifically Norwegian aspects of this Italian novel can be as hard to pinpoint as the timelessness of the story (published in the 1990s). Morazzoni's Bergen is sparsely populated and at a severe emotional distance from readers of any nationality.
Haakon D. – apparently such an uptight guy that he can't even tell us the rest of the letters in his name – gets on a train in Hamburg one day in the historical middle distance. He takes a ferry from the Baltic coast of Germany to Oslo, and another train across to Bergen, where his mother lives in the comfortable title dwelling – well-enough off, but not attended by servants, at least visibly. Haakon is middle-aged, his mother correspondingly elderly (though still very fit). He's single; he works at some unspecified but remunerative profession in Hamburg; and he makes this journey home annually for his summer vacation, packing the precise number of shirts he needs and calculating his travel connections to the minute.
Haakon and his mother leave nothing to chance and never deviate from routine. Or at least they never used to. This summer, Mrs. D. has befriended Felice, the daughter of a Bergen nurseryman. An avid gardener, Mrs. D. has reached the point where she needs some help around the place, and Felice supplies it. There's even a small house on the property, long-shuttered, for which Felice will be the perfect tenant.
So where can such a story go? It's a version of the eternal triangle, of course. Will Haakon fall in love with Felice and prise her away from his mother? Will Felice take Haakon's place in his mother's affections? What has Felice got to say about the whole situation? The D's prove no better at discussing this triangular trouble than anything else in their lives. Felice herself is far more outspoken, but only when people are direct with her. Haakon isn't direct, and he can never quite gauge how direct Felice and Mrs. D. are with each other.
His Mother's House builds up a great amount of tension under its waterline, though the surface remains without ripples. On the whole, this is the kind of fiction I adore. Whether one likes it or not is perhaps a barometer of a whole range of reading tastes. I like fiction that doesn't offer too much exposition; I like dramatic tension; I like strongly consistent and evoked worlds, even if they are largely imaginary. I like restrained language, and Emma Rose's English here matches what I know of Morazzoni's restrained Italian.
I guess I also prefer shown to told stories – the creative-writing teacher in me – though the dichotomy is not absolute. The narrator in His Mother's House has access to some of Haakon's thoughts, fewer of his mother's, and almost none of Felice's. The narrator can characterize family customs, character traits, even states of mind, objectively, but mostly settles for a cinematic distance, simply showing people's sometimes unmotivated actions without over-explaining them.
In a key scene, the narrator presents Haakon, out for a hike on his own, composing an internal dialogue between himself and Felice, who is far away tending to his mother's garden. It's a striking depiction of something we all do but rarely formulate: construct conversations with absent, significant others. We may never learn much detail about the "D." family in Morazzoni's novel, but we learn a great deal about human tendencies in general.
Morazzoni, Marta. His Mother's House. [Casa materna, 1992.] Translated by Emma Rose. London: Harvill [HarperCollins], 1994.