To read Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, is akin to making your way through a strangely familiar space that resembles a gallery, a diary, and a hall of mirrors all at once. It is, in its shifting fragmented form, unlike any conventional grief memoir. But then, as anyone who has lost a close family member—parent, child, partner—knows, there is nothing conventional about grief. The dynamics of shared histories, hopes and fears are complex. This colours, troubles and blurs the edges of the mourning process. Grieving is as much about our own lives, past and present, as it about honouring or making peace with our relationship with the person who is gone. We are the ones who need to be able integrate a complex of emotions and continue living.
Spanning thirteen years, from 2003 to 2016, Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s thoughtful, pained, uncertain attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death. Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida, works that attempt to articulate—initially in the immediate moment and later in the context of the photograph—the deep sense of grief he felt after the loss of his beloved mother, form a sort of natural undercurrent that arises regularly throughout the text. They are the only two books on grief that I read in the months following my own parents’ closely timed deaths in July 2016. I had already read, and thought often of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams which also appears here, but as for this book which came out in early 2017, I was not ready, at the time, to approach it. My own losses were too fresh.
As it happens, waiting was wise. Not only have I been open to reading grief in recent months, I am actively working to write about the loss of my own mother and how that is bound to the grief, anger and guilt that haunts my own sense of self. Although the circumstances, stories, and intentions guiding my own project could not be more different, Kate Zambreno’s book is filled with kindling—thoughts, ideas and reflections that sparked some sharp insights into my own achingly conflicted emotions and I have pages of scribbled notes to show for it. But that’s for another writing project yet to come. The point is, that reading and writing about grief, is not about finding exact images of yourself and resolving loss on anyone else’s terms, it is about being open to inspiration to guide your own mourning process, whatever that may ultimately look like.
Zambreno’s relationship with her mother is rife with contradictions, frequent tensions and conflicts. Her mother’s independent existence apart from her, prior to her own existence and as she grows up, is an enigma that death calls her to try to give sense to. The only access is through memory—a “house of memories”—and it is the fear of facing what this may unearth that holds her back:
My mother is the text. I cannot enter her.
Your mother was not herself in those last few months…
But who was she?
This resonates with me as someone whose own memory project was interrupted by my mother’s death, closing the door to a house of memories I was suddenly afraid to open. And yet writing is, for many people, the only access to understanding and release. Barthes and Handke both embarked on early missions to write grief, private or public, and both, I would suggest, found release elusive in these immediate efforts.
But thirteen years?
The process takes the time it demands, and then some. But the desire for closure, as impossible as that may be, is a natural instinct—one that holds a curious allure for writers who work toward that line, sentence, thought where a poem, story or essay naturally ends. But, of course, the strongest endings are those that hang in the air unaltered. Allowing for that in the act of literary creation is one thing—living it is quite another. The desire to be able to gather up all the loose ends of a life so as to let them go looms large. Zambreno describes her own intention clearly as an attempt:
To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. Or if not to forget, to attempt to leave it behind.
All the offerings for the dead
so they remain buried.
Book of Mutter can be read as a daughter’s incantation, an attempt to grant meaning to her mother’s life, illness, and the curious spaces she leaves behind. It resembles a literary scrapbook or a passage in and out of the rooms in a large house where mnemonic images drawn from life, literature, art, and history provoke reflections. It is a fitful journey. Zambreno’s guides are idiosyncratic, their very strangeness allowing for the unique tone of this remarkable work. Key among them are Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois. Darger is the famous “outsider artist” who was orphaned at an early age and spent his childhood institutionalized. As an adult he maintained a solitary existence, attending Mass daily and supporting himself as a hospital custodian. It was not until he was forced to leave his Chicago apartment at the end of his life that a trove of illustrations and extensive typed manuscripts was uncovered. His stories and drawings depict detailed, elaborate fantasies—alternately whimsical and horrific—featuring children. Bourgeois was a French-American sculptor and installation artist. Works from her Cells projects, each a series of large scale installations featuring scenes and vignettes created with found objects and enclosed in wire mesh cages, provide recurring counterpoints for Zambreno as she assembles her own memory project. Disturbing insights into the creation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film, The Passion of Saint Joan, reflections on post-mortem photography, and the fate of Mary Todd Lincoln are also woven into the text along with input from a variety of literary voices.
The resulting oddly eclectic assemblage reflects, perhaps, the extended passage of time that marks the realization of this book. Zambreno is writing in fits and starts, as she seeks to articulate so many unresolved emotions and observations. By placing her not uncommon experiences against a backdrop that is unusual (as in, not the standard grief and loss tapestry), the surreal strangeness and absolute uniqueness of the grieving experience is captured. This is a book that is at once measured and raw. In her account she moves back and forth between memories of her own often difficult relationship with her mother and the profound absence and guilt she feels, her widowed father’s attempts to fill the vacated space in his life, and an often brutal portrayal of her mother’s illness, decline and madness.
The fractured quality of the text echoes the way loss refuses to conform, refuses to work itself out neatly. How can it? Although my own relationship with my mother was quite different than the one Zambreno describes, it was not and is not free of tangled sentiments that I have often wished we could have talked about. We were close. We spoke on the phone every week and she died in her eighties, weary yet peacefully ready to leave, however there are many moments in Book of Mutter, especially in the first half, that have illuminated, by contrast, questions I’ve been struggling with. Turned them around. And that is why we read grief. And why many of us feel a need to attempt to write it. Not to find answers. But to be moved to ask questions and follow where they lead. In recent months I have read some very good books about grief and loss, accounts that blend personal experience with time-honoured, accepted understanding of the grieving process. Which is fine, but this book with its uneven, awkward genesis across more than a decade is one that I skirted so widely when it appeared (and to be honest every time I saw it staring at me from the bookstore shelf with its peculiar cover that I now know to be one of Louise Bourgeois’ Cells), has unintentionally offered a clue I needed to move forward in my own writing at exactly the right time.
And yet it remains an unfinished text. I am now reading the newly released Appendix Project, a collection of essays and talks that Zambreno wrote in the year following the release of Book of Mutter—coincidentally the first year of her own daughter’s life. It is a rich and valuable continuation of her meditation on writing grief and living with the ghosts and reverberations of an evolving and ongoing process that does not end with a final edit and the publication of a book. What she once hoped to box up and bury is anything but.
Book of Mutter and Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno are published by Semiotext(e).