Writing to make sense of loss: Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier & further thoughts

As a man watches his mother, once so vital and full of life and charm, steadily losing her grasp on the spoken word – fumbling, scratching at the air for the names of people, places, and things – what can he do maintain the fragile flow of words? As uncertain laughter and tears of frustration become the increasingly fragile threads holding a woman, just 65 years-old, to the web of anxious family members spreading out around her – her husband, daughters, sons and grandchildren – is there any way to make sense of the inexorable dissolution of this person who is disappearing, fading, before their eyes? If the man in question is Flemish author Erwin Mortier, the only way to find comfort is to write:

“I realize that I only write to hear sentences dancing without interruption through my head. To make rhythm, acceleration, rallentando, to make pauses sing. Just to be able to hang from the dashes – the trapezes of syntax – weightlessly for a moment from the roof beam of a sentence, I let the words loose.”

songbookMortier’s passionate, insightful record of his mother’s decent into the unforgiving spiral of fragmentation and decline that marks early onset dementia, is at once a loving memoir and a writer’s thoughtful reflection on the vital role that words play in his own ability to make sense of and cope with the most painful and difficult process of letting go or, as he puts it: “constantly saying goodbye to someone who is still there, yet not.” But the pages of Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours contain much more than a portrait of one woman’s steady regression from independent and vivacious to prematurely helpless, frightened, and lost; it offers an honest, sometimes brutal, account of the challenges of negotiating the surge of conflicting emotions that batter and buffer the individual and the family in mourning. He tracks her illness, from the earliest missteps through to the recognition, so painful for his father, that her needs can no longer be met by her loving husband, or by juggling responsibilities between her five children and their spouses. Even a large, closely knit family cannot provide the support and care she requires in the end – it is too difficult, too draining, and far too painful – especially when the person who once inhabited the emaciated frame of the body that remains has been slowly fretted away into the space of memories and dreams.

Mortier’s writing has frequently drawn comparisons to Proust; powerfully, and I would argue rightly, reinforced by his elegant, sprawling epic set in Flanders during the First World War, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Smaller, more immediate, and intensely personal, Stammered Songbook turns – as his mother in the present recedes into the distance – into a lyrical, poetic sketch of the woman as he remembers her, and a moving reflection on the complexity of our relationships with those we love. Yet as he captures his experiences and emotions, he is aware that, as a writer, it is essential that he is able to fine tune the words he employs so that he may strike the exact note. That is, he is not only writing about his mother, he is writing about the process of writing about his mother.

“Time does not unite us in oblivion but unravels us into memories. I only started writing properly, I suspect, when I began to realize that words are at their best when I can make them vibrate like minute compass needles in response to those elusive magnetic fields that constitute someone’s whole “being” – rather like iron filings form patterns on a sheet of paper under which a magnet is held. From the cloud that my mother is becoming and that in fact she already is, slivers of images will shoot out unexpectedly, strangely sharp – the way she laughed, the gesture with which she arranged a lock of hair behind her ear… And then we will say: yes, that’s how she was.”

Stammered Songbook is a lyrical farewell to a woman lost too young to a cruel relentless thief; but even more powerfully it is a personal meditation on death, mourning, memory, and the myriad emotions – sadness, confusion, anger – that confront those left behind. Yet in reading it I could not help but think about two other books that traverse similar grounds and have informed some of my own thoughts about the project that I am attempting to write into being, so to speak. Both are powerful works that approach difficult emotional experiences arising from the authors’ own lives, each from a different angle.

The first is a novel, This Is Paradise, by UK writer Will Eaves. Here the narrator begins back at a time before his own birth and moves through a childhood account of the unique dynamics that shape and define his family. Then, in the second part of the book, our protagonist is grown and his mother, now increasingly incapacitated by dementia, must be moved into a care facility. The account of the complicated emotions and tensions that pull at the family throughout the painful process of watching their loved one die – especially in the grips of such an unforgiving, emotionally paralyzing disease – was so striking that I kept thinking: There is an authenticity beyond careful research here. And, sure enough, after finishing the book I found an personal essay Eaves wrote for The Guardian chronicling his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Clearly, much of his own experiences were embedded in the novel, but he chose to approach the subject mediated through the curtain of fiction – whether for distance, freedom or stylistic comfort, it doesn’t matter – it works beautifully.

The other book is a memoir, this time a son’s effort to honour his mother in the light of her suicide at the age of 51: Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. On the surface it might appear that suicide is the polar opposite of dementia in that it is sudden, but the impact is no less devastating because it raises questions, so often unanswerable, that linger long after death and complicate the mourning process. Like Mortier, Handke is deeply conscious of the importance of writing and the efficacy of adequately capturing a life by spilling words onto a page. However, rather than placing himself at the heart of the memories he is trying to capture, he attempts to step back and maintain an intentional emotional distance. He wants to see his mother, in part, as an exemplar of the rural Austrian women of her generation; to place her life in a broader context to make sense of the very intimate act of her decision to take her own life. And the result is a spare, elegant meditation; but in the end, he cannot help but break the wall between his accounting – which was written within two months of her death – and his own emotions which are still very raw.

These three books do seem to me to fit together, to form a triangle at the centre of which is the attempt, by a writer, to capture the essence of his relationship with his mother, in life and in death. What is of specific interest to me is not the exact nature of the subject at the centre, rather it is the question of the best way to approach writing about a deeply personal experience drawn from one’s own life – memoir from within, memoir with a degree of distance, or memoir turned into fiction. It seems to me that each can be powerful and effective, the challenge, I suppose, is to find out what works best for the writer and his or her circumstances, that is, to find the intersection where the story comes alive.

Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier is translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent and published by Pushkin Press.

Author: roughghosts

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

17 thoughts on “Writing to make sense of loss: Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier & further thoughts”

  1. Hi, I liked Erwin Mortiers book very much, I read it in its original (I’m Dutch). The book you mentioned of Peter Handke I have heard before, I put that on my books to read list. The other book sounds interesting as well. I write a blog too, but unfortunately for you it’s in Dutch. Greetings, Erik

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    1. Thank you for stopping by. I first discovered Mortier when his book was short listed for the International Foreign Fiction Prize last year. Handke’s book is simply wonderful, I highly recommend it.

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  2. These are obviously powerful works, and I guess each individual writer is going to find the best platform to tell their own particular story. I tend to prefer memoir rather than a fictionalised version, but I suspect I won’t be reading any of these any time soon, as dealing with aging and declining parents (and in laws) is far to real and painful at the moment.

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    1. I imagine each author has to find his/her comfort zone when the story has such deep personal emotional content. I actually enjoy fiction that has a strong autobiographical element, but I want the novel to be slightly larger than life – that is, not to feel like invented memoir. Eaves’ novel has that quality and that’s what makes the nuances he captures around the mother death so striking. Not everyone can pull that off, I believe he is an underrated writer.
      I know what you mean about dealing with aging parents at the moment, but in my case my father is 87, not 51 or 65. I can’t imagine the depth of loss that these three writers must have gone through to lose a beloved parent so soon.

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  3. Beautiful review, Joe, very poignant. I’m open to trying Mortier at some point in the future but fear Stammered Songs might turn out to be too distressing a read for me. I might take a look at one of his others instead.

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    1. In an interview with Mortier he said that readers have found his book a great comfort, especially if dealing with a similar situation. And his writing is just beautiful. If you want to try his work I would recommend his debut novel Marcel. It is the story about a boy’s relationship with his grandmother and a dark family secret going back to WWII. All his translated works have been released (or re-released) by Pushkin – that ought to be incentive enough for you! 🙂

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      1. Thank you – I will keep Marcel in mind (I recall you reviewing it last year). And yes, the Pushkin connection is definitely part of the appeal for me – I tend to do very well with their titles!

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  4. These all sound like powerful and emotionally intelligent works. You might also like to seek out ‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux, which is a memoir in which the author explores the troubled relationship she has with her mother, who has dementia. And because Ernaux is a writer she also touches on those themes you mention above: how to get to the real truth without letting her own emotions colour her writing.

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  5. I love the way you have connected the three books in your review. The only Handke I’ve read is Repetition which I found quite dull – perhaps I should give him another chance. While the Gods were Sleeping impressed me enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy, but I can’t say I love his writing. I think you hit on one reason when you describe this as ‘lyrical’ – I think I fear that at times the beauty of the writing takes priority over everything else (which I’m sure is very unfair).

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    1. I really enjoyed Gods which is unusual as it would not normally be my favourite style, nor would I want a steady diet of such richly vivid writing – it seemed to me to suit the intention: to create a sweeping epic of the experience of the Flemish in WWI, something that has not been done apparently. Mortier’s shorter works, such as this one, are more contained but still very rich in imagery.

      I have no experience with Handke’s fiction yet, but A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is truly special, I think. And it is only 69 pages long – an afternoon read.

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  6. All three books seem to be about the breaking of relationships between child and parent caused by a death either of body or spirit. I like how you brought the three together in a singular theme that is at once disturbing and enthralling.

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    1. Thanks Jay. The three books are about the loss of a parent – in the novel it is a major part, but not all – and as I was reading Mortier’s book I couldn’t help but think about the other two.

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  7. Stammered Songbook sounds like a difficult but beautiful read and the other two books you mention also sound quite powerful. You say they inform a project you are working on. Do you find them inspirational? Clarifying? I am curious if you are willing to share 🙂

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    1. I would have to say that I have found these works instructive in terms of defining how to approach my topic (which is extremely personal). At first I wondered about using fiction and when I read Will Eaves book last year that was still in my mind. But if I ever write fiction I want to make something up and NOT be trying to create a story in which to explore my own circumstances. Eaves manages well but he is really dealing with family dynamics and in that case fiction works very well. Mortier’s memoir also deals with his family’s response to his mother’s decline, but his own memories and feelings are at the very heart of the way he chooses to approach the story he want to tell. Handke tries to step out of the frame and not talk about himself even though he admits to seeking a sort of closure, but in the end he still ends up talking about his reaction to his mother’s suicide, capturing his emotions very close to the event. Of the three his work is still the most informative and inspiring for me.

      What I am seeking to write is a form of personal essay/memoir and I may take aspects of my experiences and deal with them that way (the more universal things like, for example, my heart attack). However over the course of working on this and all of the events that have occurred since I started, I find myself with a much more painful, very personal questions to explore. And that’s one of the reasons I read more experimental works. I need distance from my work but I want to talk about very real observations and experiences in a way that does not look like conventional essay or fiction. Does that make sense?

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  8. Beautiful review, Joe! I loved your comparison of the three books and loved reading your thoughts on how they are similar and how they are different. I have always wanted to read a Peter Handke book. I will look for this one. I also want to read Erwin Mortier’s novel ‘While the gods were sleeping’. Thanks for gushing about it.

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