Can t help it One star means I didn t like it Well I didn t like it at all Which doesn t mean I would be so bold to review the quality of the book I just didn t like it Witness to WarAre there any new ways left to write about the First World War I do believe that Flemish author Erwin Mortier has found one, in the memories of an old Belgian woman who just happened to be on holiday at the other side of the front when war broke out It is a dense, often oblique book, richly translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent, that puts the literary back into literary fiction Get rid of that horrid plastic dust cover, and you will feel a solid book in your hands, beautifully printed, containing words that have been polished with obvious care, and ideas and reflections well worth the polishing.
The narrator, born close to the beginning of the century, is H l ne Demont, a lifelong compulsive writer Now a very old lady looked after by a kindly Moroccan nurse, she has filled notebooks her entire life with notes and observations In the rather slow reflective start, I was thinking of her as a later, female Proust, with similar stylistic profusion, and similar alchemy with time But then I read what she had to say about her great predecessor When I read Proust for the first time after the war, it made me almost sick to my stomach I didn t hear time, great dead time roaring through his sentences his Loire sentences, his Mississippi sentences, his grammatical River Congos and syntactical Nile deltas, pregnant with sentiment.
I heard ambulances wailing,the wheels of hospital beds scooting over uneven floor tiles,the hurried steps of stretcher bearers,the tinkling scalpels and surgical clamps Glancing at some Dutch reviews of this novel first published in 2009 , I saw that the few negative comments included the slowness in getting moving, and the difficulty of establishing a time line Both are true, but they are not necessarily criticisms While H l ne s riverine sentences can rival Proust s, she can move like the wind once she gets to describing detail And what makes this so special as a First War novel is her unique viewpoint, not as a combatant, not as a sweetheart left pining at home, but an adolescent girl trying to do her growing up in a village that just happens to be a few miles from the front She is taken to the trenches early in the war as a visitor on a calm day, and cheered by the soldiers putting themselves out for her There are few accounts here of the mud, the gangrene, and the gas, but her descriptions have their own devastation, like the little girl killed by a piece of shrapnel after trying her mother s rouge for the first time, or the farmhand who survived the entire war to return terrified by a threshing machine or the shoeing of a horse The novel is full of telling vignettes, such as the row of helmets of different nationalities set out along the top of a dike, or the sight of soldiers bathing in the sea while offshore ships fire over their heads at the enemy beyond.
And what she does with time may be the best thing of all While most of the book takes place between 1914 and 1919, it is the memories of a woman who has lived close on 100 years, a woman who has had a husband and a daughter of her own and has survived them both, a woman who carries her old age and childhood side by side in the same purse It is a love story too, for a young English photographer called Matthew Herbert, who comes into her young life and will not let go, someone who manifests himself as the question to answers piled up in you from long before you yourself could think From almost the beginning, she refers to Matthew as her husband, but deliberately blurs the chronology, moving from their first meeting to years after the war, then back to their first lovemaking H l ne is neither an angel nor a prude Matthew s dialogue, apparently inappropriate to his class, is the one thing I would fault the translator for in a book that is otherwise a verbal feast But there is no doubt about H l ne s passion or the acuity of her vision, which shows the Great War with an intimate clarity that leaps over the intervening century as in a miracle Three points about the translation by Paul Vincent 1 Much of it is a sheer joy to read, with sensuous descriptions as though painted by a Van Gogh with impasto rich as butter But from what little I have seen of the Dutch, it looks as if Mortier s writing, while equally given to metaphor, is simpler in its vocabulary I wish I could talk to someone who has than my smattering of the language, and could comment on register.
2 On the language spoken by Matthew Herbert, I am on stronger ground He comes, it is clear, from an upper middle class background his father is a surgeon who, I think, subsequently married beneath him I can t now find the reference So Matthew occasionally uses the language of a lower class than his own But I would have thought that this deliberate class reduction is a modern phenomenon I can t recall anything similar in the literature of the period Matthew s speech occupies a puzzling limbo with neither date, class, or indeed sure nationality But that matters less than one might think, because he talks mainly with his body and his camera.
3 Being a Belgian writer, Mortier occasionally uses French phrases along with the Dutch Paul Vincent does not translate them, but leaves them in French The trouble is that, as the French is so often used for emphasis, the English only reader may miss quite a bit that is important.
Thank you to Netgally and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy of the English translation of this book It took me a very long time to read this book because I must admit that it did not keep my attention Told from the point of view of a very old and dying Helene, the book focuses primarily on her memories of events during World War I in Belgium Helene recounts her temporary dislocation with her mother during the war and how she met her husband The narrative jumps around in time, and is less of a narrative than a series of meandering impressionistic memories I kept starting it and putting aside to read other books For me, the somewhat dreamy writing style did not match the subject matter of the horrors and fear of war Having said that, I gave this book 3 stars rather than 2 stars, because at times the writing is particularly beautiful almost Proustlike and Helene s character and unconventionality are noteworthy I have no doubt that there is an audience for this book, but it wasn t really for me.
I found the narrator of this book pretty damn unbearable Anybody who self knowingly describes themselves as a a poetess I automatically find very suspicious Bola o would have eaten this chick for breakfast That being said this book is very beautifully written even though it occasionally became extremely tedious for me to read If I weren t reading this for the IFFP list, I doubt I would have finished this, let alone started it Really not my thing BUT I like how this book had basically no plot that is very brave and cool There are lots of good scenes in this novel when she first makes out with her husband during the shelling and the bats fly out reminds me of Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen s makeout scene in the Hemingway Gelhorn film , or when the little girl is killed by shrapnel in the field, or anything that had to do with the maid early on I also found the gay older brother a really interesting character the fact that she cuts him out so ruthlessly during their old age is another reason I hated her character I thought the fact that she hated her daughter was really interesting, and something I would have liked the novel to have spent a little time on, as opposed to breathlessly summarizing it at the end I mean Christ knows the book felt long enough but it felt like a missed opportunity I also loved the last four pages narrated from the perspective of the caretaker definitely my favorite part, what a moving and powerful way to go out with a bang I guess mainly I couldn t stand the narrator and I hated spending time with her and her flowery pretentious self important way of seeing the world The moments in which she says things like oh, if my mother were here she would be telling me to get on with the story and so forth were SO unbearably cute, but also made me feel like cheering I am definitely on the mother s side STOP GIVING US POETIC REFLECTIONS, get on with the scenes in which things HAPPEN and are INTERESTING Also, the last forty pages were basically summary of how Everybody Dies the narrator even comments on this again, painfully cute and self aware Ugh, I just wanted to punch this woman in the face for having no personality The one part where she was interesting to me was when she started laughing during the bombings that was the main part where she revealed herself to be a surprising, interesting, well rounded character instead of Omg listen to how poetically I narrate the world IDK I get that there s this whole theme set up in this book between the power of words and images to capture reality the husband is a photographer I get that the ability of poetic language to describe war is a big theme in the book and I did end up underlining a lot sentences that I thought were really beautiful and well written The translator definitely did an excellent job Dense poetic writing is fine I m a huge Faulkner and Woolf fan , but if the character is boring and annoying then it s gonna be hard for me to stick with it C est la vie But as far as World War I novels go this was an interesting approach I liked how the war was depicted as this opportunity for freedom for the narrator, along with all the Doom and Gloom and Darkness that usually comes up with books set in this era.
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
Helena is a very old woman who has outlived all of her friends, acquaintances and relatives She is homebound and needs round the clock care which is provided by a kind young woman named Rachida We get the feeling that Helena is waiting for death which she feels is imminent and while she waits she writes down the memories of her life, especially those that revolve around the period of World War I.
Helena s father is Belgian and her mother is French, so she grows up living between these two countries She spends the summers in her mother s family home in France, and when World War I breaks out Helena is forced to wait out the war with her mother, brother, uncle and aunts in their French countryside home Helena s father is left back in Belgium and the family suffers this long separation.
The main characters in Helena s memoir are her mother, brother and husband She has an uneasy relationship with all three Throughout her life Helena feels that, as a young woman growing up in a European bourgeois family, she is deprived of many freedoms Her mother, who still wears the stiff corsets of the 19th century and is always acutely aware of the gossip from the neighbors, will not let Helena wander out of their home unaccompanied Helena resents her mother for keeping her prisoner under these strict, and what she views as, old fashioned s.
Helena loves her brother Edgar and is very close to him yet she is jealous of the freedom he is allowed As a stark contrast to Helena, he can walk through the city streets at his leisure, have countless affairs, and travel off to war When Edgar is wounded during the Great War, he is finally sent home and Helena listens in horror to his vivid details of trench warfare One of the aspects of this book that is most impressive is the writer s ability to graphically describe the tragedies of the war suffered by everyone who witnessed it sounds, colors, textures, smells, and ruined landscapes are all described in order to capture the scale and destruction of The Great War.
When Helene marries a British soldier named Matthew who has a penchant for wandering and being on the open road, she admires his sense of adventure and his freedom But it is his wanderlust that keeps her separated from him for long periods of time When they have a child together, a daughter, I was surprised that Helena s relationship with her was just a contentious as Helena s relationship with her own mother.
The language and prose of the book feels disintegrated, as Helena jumps from one period of time to the next It is almost as if we are looking through an album of old photographs with Helena and she tells us stories of her life as they pop up in her mind She oftentimes goes on tangents as one story will remind her of another which she will launch into I think some readers will find this writing style confusing and disruptive, but it is appropriate for the setting of the book Helena is a very old woman, reflecting back on a long life and as images and narratives randomly appear in her memory she writes them down for us to read.
I have read quite a few historical fiction novels set during World War I this past year and WHILE THE GODS WERE SLEEPING is among the best for capturing the emotions, heartache, lasting effects of this war.
This review and on my blog www.
com This work is and isn t about World War I Helena, writing journal after journal as an elderly woman cared for by one harsh homecare nurse and one loving homecare nurse, first shows readers what her life has become Then we see how life was before the war comfortable, pleasant, and in many ways a mirror image of the nurturing kindness the elderly Helena receives from the kind caregiver Not until long into the book does Helena finally turn to the wartime events This is in part because the visitation of the fighting on her country was so terrible, she has difficulty coming to terms with it even at this late date But she is driven to do so not because she believes the journals will leave some lasting legacy in fact, she tells the caretaker to distribute them at whim, and shows herself to be as unattached to them as falling leaves in the wind Really, she is writing for herself She needs to retrieve from the mud that swallowed so many men dead and alive some understanding of what this monster was and how it changed her and her country The sweep is epic yet is told from such a close and intimate understanding of one woman s life that readers cannot help but feel the horror Helena had as a witness Then, at the end, we see that Helena s words have had a broader impact beyond her life The simple words of her caregiver, relaying her own family s story of loss, resonates in a few brief pages with everything Helena has needed hundreds of pages to convey through her own efforts What shining beauty is in her words I was given an ARC digital by the publisher to review Want fiction like this Try The Family Made of Dust A Novel of Loss and Rebirth in the Australian Outback A biracial man only faces his hidden past when forced by mysterious events surrounding the disappearance of his best friend.
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 For my full review go to
The great originality of Godenslaap transl While the Gods were sleeping is that it evokes the first world war in a very indirect way in snatches of memories of a now very elderly lady, H l ne Dumont, who looks back on her life, and who experienced the great world fire from the sideline, in the birth house of her mother in the north of France, with the front only on hearing distance No dramatic, horrible, painful trench scenes here although sometimes very close to it Instead H l ne describes orderly rows advancing soldiers making place for disorderly retreating ones, quiet villages that are suddenly shocked by wrongly targeted mortars with a very detailed episode on a little girl that is deadly injured by a piece of shrapnel , a visit to Ypres in ru ne, and a vivid depicted episode of soldiers on leave, naked on the beach, and cheering as friendly ships shoot grenades over heads to the enemy, etc This is all indirect footage on the war, but is described in such a way that it is no less gruesome or expressive than the trench scenes by other authors.
But make no mistake Godenslaap is not really a first world war novel Even than the war horror the difficult relationship between a free spirited daughter and a stiff mother stands central in this case, the author presents us with the narrative of the daughter, H l ne, and so we get to hear a very subjective and fairly unordered story Both daughter and mother are the essential characters of this novel and Mortier beautifully honours the complexity of both personalities, and above all the complexity of their relationship His description of the other, surrounding figures the father, the brother, the lover later husband, the daughter is a bit less successful, they remain quite one dimensional, sometimes even rather caricatured.
But, for the second time, make no mistake Godenslaap offers less than a real story, not about the first world war, and not about the difficult mother daughter relationship Who reads this book with the goal to collect elements of a story line, will search in vain and will even be irritated with the inconsistency or lack of those elements Especially in the first 150 pages Mortier puts the patience of the reader to the test, continuously shifting between past and present, between the very elderly H l ne, that is being taken care of by her Moroccan housekeeper and in the meanwhile draws reminisces of the past, and the young H l ne that doesn t find her place at home and unloads her frustration in notebooks full of baroque writings And so inevitably we arrive at the topic of the language and style of this book I know of no other Dutch language novel with such a creative vivid, sometimes very poetical language Only a small example to illustrate this, when H l ne describes how as a girl she was impressed when on an outing she passed some horse stables When I was very small nothing could fill me with such sublime fear as the eternal darkness in there, where you regularly heard chains clank, and something that breathed or snorted and stamped with heavy feet on the brick floor And there was always that moment of breathless astonishment, of expectation and terror, when the grooms entered the stables and a little later came out leading horses by the reins creatures that seemed not so much horses as locomotives of muscles and manes, and strangely sensitive skin which was constantly shot through with nervous twitches They were huge, mechanical animals, Trojan horses, whose nostrils issued steam on cold mornings Beside them the horse that pulled our coach seemed a frail ballerina The animal began to snort and picked up speed now the destination was near The servant whistled, behind the wall dogs started barking The gate opened for us translation Paul Vincent.
This is just perfect, I can t say about it And the book is filled with such passages But I also have to concede that occasionally it s a bit too much, and the linguistic superlatives, toppled on each other, turn into something oppressive, so that it becomes rather painful, acrobatics that turn into verboseness and pure mannerism.
Another important aspect of the language and style is the Proustian character of the memories of H l ne Mortier gives her all the space she needs, and she swirls into sentences which regularly cover half a page, with the defining verb appearing only at the very end That style gives the reading its special flavour, but it s really functional, because H l ne consciously wants to distance herself of the reserved, tight sentences of her mother And it also is functional because H l ne is aware of the shortcomings of language to put reality into words She knows that words are but very flawed reflections of real experiences, and that you can only give an impression of these experiences by using lots of words, in a circling movement Here Mortier points to the meta philosophical layer of the novel, which I believe is the real core of the book And it is not just a question of language and words that fail it is also about the impossibility of grabbing life itself, of really connecting with people that are very near to you, of connecting to your own past experiences, in all the attempts that H l ne makes to achieve this, she notes again and again that they utterly fail, that it just isn t possible to grab or to connect, with words and that fundamentally is the tragedy of the human condition Godenslaap is not an easy read, actually it is a rather unruly novel, and it s difficult to put your finger on what it stands for In that sense, it reflects perfectly the volatile, unreliable, very subjective character of an old woman thinking about past and present, confronting her intensely subjective feelings with so called naked objective historical events, and in vain pressing them into a coherent story Processing this, while reading, can be challenging and sometimes frustrating This isn t a perfect novel, I know, but I would say it is as chaotic and incoherent as life itself, only softened by the immense beauty of the literary style of Mortier I m sure that in the future I m going to take this book into my hands again, many times, at random opening it, and with intense pleasure I will taste the godly nectar that he has offered us Well then, it s decided 4 stars.
Een Stokoude Vrouw Die De Dood Voelt Naderen Blikt Terug Op Haar Kinderjaren, De Liefdes Die Ze Heeft Gekend, Haar Huwelijk En De Jaren Van De Eerste Wereldoorlog Die Ze Met Haar Moeder En Haar Broer In Frankrijk Doorbracht Gaandeweg Ontstaat Een Intiem Panorama Van Belgi , Haar Onduidelijke Vaderland Aan Geen Van De Gebeurtenissen Wil Ze Meer Nadruk Geven Dan Aan Andere Ze Hunkert Slechts Naar Een Oneindig Lange Zin, Die Al Wat Er Is In Zich Opneemt, Zoals Een Hofdame Uit De Pruikentijd, In Wier Lokken Een Armada Van Parels Kapseist, Haar Talloze Rokken Optilt Terwijl Ze De Trappen Van De Opera Betreedt Of De Ladder Naar Het Schavot Godenslaap, De Vijfde Roman Van Erwin Mortier, Speelt Zich Af Op Het Raakvlak Tussen De Grote Geschiedenis En De Kleine Mensenlevens, Tussen Taal En Wereld, Verbeelding En Werkelijkheid, Tussen Geschiedschrijving En Verhalend Proza