Poet and prose writer Erwin Mortier is said to have already been ‘complete’ as a writer at the time he made his debut. With the multiple award-winning debut (also nominated for various prizes) Marcel (1999), he set the tone for a consistent body of work that demonstrates a fascination for the First World War. Mortier tells the story of the Great War through short histories. The broad, expansive sentences and out-of-fashion, rich, Baroque language are representative of Mortier’s signature. Whereas Marcel, Mijn tweede huid (My Fellow Skin, 2000) and Sluitertijd (Shutterspeed, 2002), collectively formed a trilogy of youth and have often been compared with string quartets, the phenomenal bestseller Godenslaap (While the Gods Were Sleeping, 2008) is described in terms of a ‘symphony’. In 2001, he received the C. Buddingh’ Prize for his poetry. In 2009, his first collection was published, Voor de Stad en de Wereld. De gedichten tot dusver (For the City and the World. The poems so far.). In 2011, Mortier published Gestameld Liedboek. Moedergetijden (Stammered Songbook. A Mother’s Book of Hours) a distressing yet tender narrative about his mother and her struggle with Alzheimer’s. He received the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger for this book, the prize for the best foreign book in France. In De spiegelingen (The Reflections, 2014), the focus is on Edgard, who has returned battered from the war, the brother of Helena from While the Gods Were Sleeping, and his tortured memories of the war and love. Mortier’s work has been translated into more than 10 languages.
While the Gods Were Sleeping
Dumont Verlag, 2010
Translated by Christiane Kuby
Original titel: Godenslaap (De Bezige Bij, 2008)
'It sounds dreadful,' I said to him one day. 'But actually the war is the best thing that ever happened to me.'
Helena's mother always said she was a born poetess. It was not a compliment. Now an old woman, Helena looks back on her life and tries to capture the past, filling notebook after notebook with memories of her respectable, rigid upbringing, her unyielding mother, her loyal father, her golden-haired brother. She remembers how, at their uncle's country house in the summer of 1914, their stately bourgeois life of good manners, white linen and afternoon tea collapsed into ruins. And how, with war, came a kind of liberation amidst the mud and rubble-and the appearance of a young English photographer who transformed her existence.
Lyrical and tender, filled with images of blazing intensity, While the Gods Were Sleeping asks how it is possible to record the dislocation of war; to describe the indescribable. It is a breathtaking novel about the act of remembering, how the past seeps into our lives and how those we have lost leave their trace in the present.
Almost too beautiful a writer... the footprint of Proust visible on every page
A beautifully unorthodox novel of the Great War... a kaleidoscopic palette.
Mortiers writes so well that you are inclined to see everything else of a secondary importance.