Disciplined even in death. Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Pushkin Press, 2015. First published in Dutch, 2008. It forms the first part of a trilogy; the second has already appeared in Dutch.

Despite some initial misgivings, I was not immune to the poetic and emotional power of this novel. It comprises the vivid, fragmented memories of Helena, a very old lady of French-Belgian origin, from her life before, during and after WWI, in which she lost the people she loved most. But like some of those whose reviews I give links to at the end I also found the ornate, image-laden style a little too dense and indigestible at times. The translator, Paul Vincent, has done a good job with what must have been a difficult task.

Mortier While the Gods coverI find as I flick through its pages again, reminding myself of its textures and resonances, that the novel is not so much a story about recollections of things past as a congeries of stories, memories and images that swirl through the narrator’s mind as her body fails her and she lives increasingly in her head.

The prose therefore works better when dipped into and savoured. Mortier, the Belgian author of several other novels, is also a poet. This novel reads like a prose poem, a non-linear anthology, in which chronology is regularly telescoped, focused back and forth, time’s strata exposed and disclosed by Helena’s mining memory.

Take for example the second paragraph on the opening page. Helena is setting out her approach – writing down in notebooks the recollections of her lengthy past as they crop up irregularly in her mind, and breaking off occasionally to apostrophise her kind Moroccan carer, Rachida:

I’d give a lot to be able to descend into the subterranean heart of our stories, to be lowered on ropes into their dark shafts and see stratum after stratum glide by in the lamplight. Everything the earth has salvaged: foundations, fence rails, tree roots, soup plates, soldiers’ helmets, the skeletons of animals and people in hushed chaos, the maelstrom congealed to a terrestrial crust that has swallowed us up.

Wow. That’s a hefty accumulation of the kinds of images and objects that form the ‘heart of our stories’. It fuses mighty abstractions with highly visual, painterly details: the detritus of time’s encounter with human warfare. It’s the verbal equivalent of the scattered contents of an occupied wartime trench after being hit by a shell; the narrator comes by afterwards and inspects, like an archaeologist poet, or a photographer-artists, the fragments out of which we’ve ‘salvaged’ our savage ruins.

I came to this novel shortly after the very different, much more conventional Not So Quiet…by Helen Zenna Smith. That fictional autobiography of a woman ambulance driver’s traumatic experiences in the same war is more direct, consciously unpoetic, and thus more immediately accessible. After my initial struggle to come to terms with the slow-burning, meditative approach of Mortier I’m finding While the Gods is more moving in many ways.

Like Smith, Mortier is good at conveying the horrific experiences of women who lived through WWI. Although, unlike Helen in Smith’s novel, Belgian Helena lived behind the front line, ostensibly away from the action, many of her memories involve the sense-impressions of that war of attrition: she could see the flashes of the huge guns in the distance, hear the thunderous booms they made, and feel in her very entrails the vibrations they made. She tells how a little village girl was killed by a random shard of shrapnel as she ran to play. There was no front line when artillery shells could travel miles.

She also gives vivid descriptions of journeys to the front with her English lover, Matthew, a photo-journalist. These sections indicate that she too has the sensibility and artistic eye of an artist-photographer. One of the most powerful sections in the novel is her description of her snapshot of her lover, taken from behind as he inspected the site of trench years after the war, and as the photographic plate looms into focus with the action of the chemicals on the plate, she starts to see details that had eluded her vision at the time: the jagged, scattered limbs of long-dead soldiers reaching out of the frozen mud, like images from Picasso’s Guernica.

Similar scenes recur, indelibly printed (or congealed) on her memory. For example when Matthew takes her to other such battle-scarred sites long after the war’s end, when he:

meticulously documented what I call the congealing, the great levelling, in all respects after the ravages and the euphoria of peace. The smoothing-over of the tormented earth.

She’s appalled by the ‘cemeteries where the fallen were gradually put in straighter and straighter ranks, disciplined even in death’. She bitterly reflects on the ‘wry euphemism’ of these ‘charming cemeteries’ that cover up cosmetically with ‘solemn temples, carved mourning statues, lit eternal flames…the bones and the corpses and the countless shattered lives’ in ‘an arcadia stretched out.’

She also evokes with heart-breaking pathos the ways that the women in her world, excluded from the infernal horrors of front-line action, had to bear a terrible burden of their own: it’s also the women who ‘take the blows’. Another memorable vignette from this montage of such images is that of her otherwise bohemian uncle, who’s taken on the responsibility of travelling from house to house in his small town, conveying the dreaded news of the latest casualties at the front. More women with lost sons, brothers, husbands, lovers. Lives smashed and frozen as graphically as those exposed limbs in Helena’s photo.

This novel was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, the year it was won by Jenny Erpenbeck for her novel The End of Days. I agree with Tony: it would have made a worthy winner itself.

But it takes perseverance, and perhaps a second reading to reveal, like the images in Helena’s stark photo, the shards of war that penetrate and wound a person’s memory like shrapnel.

Other bloggers who have posted on this novel find echoes in its themes and style, quite justifiably, of Proust and Sebald, among others. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong also portrays vividly and poetically the connections between passion, love, loss and death in that terrible war:

Rough Ghosts

Dolce Belleza

David’s Book World

Tony’s Reading List

The Book Binder’s Daughter