Erwin Mortier is a Belgian author, writing in Dutch and as an awarded poet it is quite easy to see the celebration of language and the written word in his fourth novel “While The Gods Were Sleeping”.
Our novel is narrated by writer Helena Demont, a woman close to 100 years of age, at home being attended to by a Moroccan carer Rachida, she is writing her memoirs, reminiscing:
Her sarcasm served a higher purpose. She wanted to thrust me into the everydayness of the word, squeeze my thoughts into sturdy winter clothes. Dreary but hard-wearing, and above all waterproof. For my mother trains of argument and items of clothing were one and the same: they must button up tight, while I liked nothing better than lazing about in the hanging gardens of Babylon in my open nightdress, proud of my blossoming curves, and climbing the ziggurats of books. I surrendered myself to the cadence of silent speech that rose from their spines, the Styx of sentences, in which here and there, like driftwood or drowning people, words and images floated, which I more or less already understood, alongside much else that was not much more than shadowy stains in a dark flood.
I still believe that books, like gods and children, inhabit a limbo in existence, a dimension in which effects can lead to causes and yesterdays crawl forth from tomorrows. It is impossible to make final judgements there: who deserves heaven and who hell. Everything is yet to happen and everything is already over; that is the essence of paradise.
On the surface this is a novel which looks at our narrator, her mother, father, brother, uncle and her marriage, all through the memories of World War I. It contains five parts, the first setting the scene as our narrator as the ageing writer and her relationship with her mother, the second her relationship with her homosexual brother, the third the war itself and her meeting her husband, a photographer, the fourth the brother and future husband coming together towards the end of the war in a hospital and the last reflections back at her home as she is writing the work we are reading.
However this is a much deeper work than the superficial plotline, where a middle class family moves to their Uncle’s property to be safe during the war and where our narrator falls in love and slyly visits the trenches. It is a work which celebrates writing as an art form, it evokes images when describing photographs from the war, and it uses the written word to languish in the joy of the written word:
Nor did she understand that a story as it develops strives for its own specific gravity. It unwinds and allows the person speaking it or writing it down to determine its fate only to a very small extent. Words, images, sentences congeal, and around that glowing core a gravitational field is created that attracts other fragments of images and sentences from mental space, sucks them in and absorbs them into the whirlpools of the imagination. Brainwaves and associations are constantly bombarding the swelling word planet. Some stories brush past the still-liquid surface, drawing at most a light trail in the sky, but most things come and go unseen, and are pulverized silently. There is so much that will never be forgotten, because no one with have ever known that it existed.
This is not an easy work to read, it contains vivid and deep language, one that evokes strong imagery, even the simple activities such as walking along muddied, cobbled streets become an exercise in word play and the painting of the scene for the reader is paramount in our author’s eyes. To use a large section of the World War One experiences describing the photographic images taken by our narrator’s husband, gives us the sense of removal from the reality, however at the same time the language is describing actual atrocities. The whole novel being one of “removal” from the horror, whether physical or through the written word. Even the country of Belgium is described as such, through the experience of sitting room embroidery gatherings:
Nowhere, except perhaps in poetry and very occasionally in music, have I experienced a more intimate interweaving of something with nothing than in the lacework that there in the beguinages split from the ladies’ pincushions and descended in milk-white waterfalls to the woven baskets at their feet, flowed over the edge and fanned out across the floorboards, so that, in particular on days of very thick fog, those rooms where only the gentle ticking of the bobbins could be heard, seemed to me nothing less than the secret maternity wards of our national mist.
Compared with this scholastic finesse of needle and thread, the sewing work of my mother and her friends represented little more than clumsy popular devotion, but more especially it seemed to me only logical that Belgium was not a country of embroidery or knitwear, but of lace. In a place where the art of lacking was practiced so exuberantly and ubiquitously, something like Belgium was bound to be born sooner or later: a nation that was constantly playing on the fringes of its own emptiness, just as all of us, driven by our soul, our most intimate vacuum, have continually to knit ourselves together.
That was more or less the conclusion of our historians. The filled bulky volumes with explanations for the creation of our fatherland, wedged between north and south, east and west: a region whose specific feature was mainly the absence of specific features, where different spheres of influence operated as capriciously as the high – and low-pressure areas in their hopeless struggle in the sky above our heads. Those learned gentlemen usually came to the conclusion that if Belgium had not been invented, someone would have had to discover it.
As the Country of Belgium is described, our work delves into the details of lives on the fringes, but then again it gives us the fringe of those lives, snatched memories, events without context, people lacking motivation. “While The Gods Were Sleeping” reminded me very much of Iris Murdoch’s “Bruno’s Dream”, maybe the ageing character on his deathbed and the memories and regrets he holds brought that forth, and even though Iris Murdoch’s work is also beautifully written is has none of the eloquence of this work. Another which sprang to mind was Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Stranger’s Child”, another work which was set in WWI, involved poetry, homosexuality, middle class avoidance and memories. Memories of both of those books is a solid endorsement of this work as I thoroughly enjoyed Murdoch and Hollinghurst.
One fellow blogger did describe this as “over-wrought” and at times it can feel like reading through treacle, however the simple pleasure of reading is brought to life here. A nice inclusion on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist and one I must admit I would not have come across if it wasn’t for the nomination. Very different from the other works I have read to date, and it will of course depend on what the judges are looking for when they cull the list to six works in just over a week’s time – if they go easy readable and sellable works, this will not make the cut, if they go literary it will remain firm.