Small, quiet tale with a dark heart: Marcel by Erwin Mortier

In turning serious attention to the awards for translated and international literature that have dominated this spring, I have had pleasure of encountering many authors whose work I am looking forward to exploring at greater length. Belgian author Erwin Mortier is one such writer. His stunningly beautiful and moving account of a one woman’s experience coming of age in Flanders during the First World War, While the Gods Were Sleeping, was, truth be told, my personal favourite from the IFFP shortlist. A second installment of his epic WWI project has been released in Dutch, but until it sees an English translation I decided to turn my attention to his earlier novels which have recently been re-released by Pushkin Press.

MarcelI’ve started with his debut Marcel, originally released in Dutch in1999, followed by Ina Rilke’s English translation in 2001. This novella is a subtle and quiet work. The narrator is a sensitive ten year-old boy who lives with his grandparents, in a house that is sagging under the weight of time, literally and figuratively. From the opening paragraphs Mortier paints an image of the house as repository of secrets:

“Most of the rooms harboured a limbo of darkness, cool in summer, chilly in winter. In some the walls had absorbed the smell of generations of cooked dinners, as in the kitchen, where grease clung to the rafters. The cellar stored, the attic forgot.”

The grandmother, as he refers to her, is a dressmaker, tending to the sartorial needs – modest or grand – of the womenfolk of the small Flemish village where they live. But she is also her own family’s guardian of souls, helping to usher the dying to the afterlife, tending to their resting places in the nearby cemetery and, most critically, curating a parade of photographs of the deceased on display in a large glass cabinet. Four times a month, her grandson assists with the ritual removal, cleaning, naming, and replacement of generations of family portraits:

“When all the pictures had been properly dusted the grandmother closed the glass wings of her cabinet. She had reflected, reassessed and rearranged. She had piled proof upon proof, for and against Death, who was both her enemy and her most loyal ally. Death robbed her of her relatives, but he also fixed them in still poses ensuring they would meekly undergo her domestic ministrations.

When I saw my face reflected in the glass it was a fleeting glimpse, with far less substance than the images of the dear departed.”

The insubstantiality of his reflection is telling. The young narrator is routinely compared to Marcel, his grandmother’s youngest brother who died during the war. He is haunted by this spectral relative and, in a sense, never allowed to be seen for himself. He is routinely reminded that he is “Marcel to a tee, but for the eyes which I got from my mother.” Others remark that he takes after Marcel in nature: “Marcel always kept to himself, too.” But the exact circumstances of Marcel’s death are shrouded in mystery. Regular comments are made about the Germans, the aftermath of the war, implications about allegiances – but for all his perceptiveness, our narrator is too young to understand politics and history. It is not until he tries to impress his teacher, a buxom woman with whom he is utterly besotted, that a dark and ugly truth finally comes to light.

Mortier is a slow and patient writer, he allows his stories to unfurl in their own time. His love of language is evident – colours, patterns, textures, qualities of light, scents and sounds are all vividly evoked. But in contrast with his more recent work with its rambling, hypnotic Proustian sentences; the attention to detail is offered with a delicate restraint. The prose is spare and haunting, the mystery unfolds gently. Marcel stands as a most confident debut which, in hindsight, clearly points to great work to come.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

10 thoughts on “Small, quiet tale with a dark heart: Marcel by Erwin Mortier”

  1. Beautiful review – I love how you’ve described Mortier’s style. This sounds like a great book for a time when you’re in need of something quiet and contemplative. Will you go on to read his others (assuming they’re available in translation)?

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    1. Thanks Jacqui. I do love his manner of story telling but some find it too slow (and in his recent work too many long hypnotic sentences), but he has a way of wrapping you into the heart of the tale. I have his other early novels to read while I wait for his latest to come out in English. The attention afforded by the IFFP should hopefully encourage that process and the fact Pushkin has taken to re-releasing these earlier titles is a good sign.

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  2. What a fantastic review! I read While the God’s Were Sleeping and enjoyed it but it was emotionally exhausting. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read this one too but it sounds so different from that other novel. Your review has sold me!

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    1. I loved Gods. His further installments will revisit the theme from the experience of Helena’s brother and then her husband. By contrast, this novella is spare but the language is rich and the story is directly tied to the Flemish experience of war (WWII this time).

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    1. I don’t think it is a trilogy per se, but it does appear that each of the books has a coming of age focus of some sort. I think in that interview you linked to he indicated that he likes to explore themes in threes. I plan to spread the other two out while I wait for his next new novel in English. 🙂

      I also fell in love with Can Xue in this process (two of the less popular writers, go figure) so the IFFP experience was productive for me and my TBR pile!

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    1. The child narrator issue is tricky. I read this, as I do the best of this type of perspective, as being that of a narrator looking back at themselves at an earlier point in time. He makes some illusions to the year to come, school wise, that indicate that he is looking back at least a few years. So on some levels his observations of place are more mature than those of a 10 year-old. What he captures is his complete naivety regarding the political context of Flanders in WWII. You know how there are certain things – a traumatic event, major political happenings, or family secrets – that you may be able to rationalize as an adult but are forever seen through the lens of your childhood self? That’s the sensation this book brings to life, and with such a light touch that I found myself googling Flemish nationalist movements as the story progressed. I love it when that happens, not because you are confused but because you *want* to know more.

      His first 3 books have just been re-released. I have them and they all seem to be coming of age stories. A memoir about his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s is due in English in January 2016.

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