Erwin Mortier While the Gods Were Sleeping

ISBN 13 : 9781782270799

While the Gods Were Sleeping

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9781782270799: While the Gods Were Sleeping
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I have always shrunk from the act of beginning. From the first word, the first touch. The restlessness when the first sentence has to be formed, and after the first the second. The restlessness and the excitement, as if you are pulling way the cloth beneath which a body rests: asleep or dead. There is also the desire, or the fantasy wish to beat the pen into a ploughshare and plough a freshly written sheet clean again, across the lines, furrow after furrow. Then I would look back at a snow-white field, at the remnants the plough blade has churned up: buckets rusted through, strands of barbed wire, splinters of bone, bed rails, a dud shell, a wedding ring.

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.

I would call it the book of the shards, of the bones and the crumbs, of the lines of trees and the dead in the hole down to the cellar and the drinking bout at the long table. The book of mud too, of the placenta, the morass and the matrix.

I am grateful to the world for still having windowsills, and door frames, skirting boards, lintels and the consolation of tobacco, and black coffee and men’s thighs, that’s all. One fine day you’re too old to carry yourself gravewards hour after hour, to mutter the dies irae in porches, on street corners or in squares for so many figures who have long since flaked away from you, decayed into a squelchy mess your toes sink into. As you get older you no longer see people around you but moving ruins. Again and again the dead find back doors or kitchen windows through which to slip inside and haunt younger flesh with their convulsions. People are draughty creatures. We have memories to be able to tame the dead until they hang as still in our neurons as foetuses strangled by the umbilical cord. I fold their fingers and close their eyes, and if they sometimes sit up under their sheet I know it’s enzymes or acids strumming their tendons. Their true resurrection is elsewhere.

When I was young such daydreams invariably awakened my mother’s irritation, if I was unwise enough to confide them to her. She cherished a sacred awe of limits and barriers. Freeing your imagination from the earth was considered a sign of a frivolous disposition. For her the most unforgivable thing a living person could inflict on the dead was to make them speak; they can’t defend themselves against what you put into their mouths. In her eyes the coin that the Ancient Greeks put under the tongue of their dead, as the fare for the ferryman who was to transport them to the far bank of the Styx, had a different purpose: it was hush money. If the dead had started chattering, they would immediately have choked on the coin. They have no right to speak, she said, which is why no one must be their mouthpiece.

I myself have my doubts, still. Everything that lives and breathes is driven by a fundamental inertia, and everything that is dead keeps its vanished opportunities to exist shut up in itself like a hidden shame.

She would be over a hundred if she were still alive. Not that much older than me, who do my best not to put anything in her mouth, not even a coin. For that matter I don’t often think of death anymore. He thinks quite enough of me. Every morning after brushing my teeth I run my tongue over my teeth, proud I still have a full set, and read in braille the grin of the death’s head in my flesh. That suffices as a memento mori.

There are nights when sleep thrusts me myself up like a remnant from its depths, until I wake with the cold, pull the covers closer and wonder why an image that can sometimes be decades old imposes itself on me with such clarity that I wake up. It’s never anything dramatic. It may be the sight of a room, a landscape, a look from someone I’ve known or an incident without much significance – such as that Sunday morning, a spring day in the 1940s, when I am standing with my daughter at my living room window waiting for lunch. We are looking out, at the front garden and the roadway which are strewn with white dots. The wind is blowing them out of the tame chestnut trees on the far bank of the river across the water, making them swirl in miniature tornados over the roadway as if it is snowing. The silence in the streets that morning, the pale light, the Sunday boredom, the smell of soup and roast veal, and my daughter saying: ‘I thought it would rain any day.’

Or I am back on the beach, the broad beach at low tide, near the promenade, in the first chill of autumn, one of those days when you can extract the last warmth from the wind. I took my husband and my brother out, or vice-versa, to get some fresh air, rather than to be constantly breathing in that hospital smell. They are standing among the huts, out of the wind, in the sun, scarves round their necks, kepis on their heads, and around them the silver-white sand is sparkling. In a fit of humour they have pinned their medals on their pyjama tops and now they are giving each other a light, because I have brought cigarettes for them. They look pale, and frail, in that merciless light, full-frontal September light. Only their cheeks are flushed, bright-red.

The scene would have something closed-off about it, be forever self-contained, except that my husband, my future husband, suddenly looks me straight in the eye, from behind the fingers of my brother, who is shielding the flame of the match with his hand: amused, roguish, sharp – a pleasure in which I immediately recognise the intelligence. Meanwhile my brother is peeping intently at my husband. He is not so much scanning his profile as absorbing it with his look. I suddenly realise that we were married to the same man.

When I turn round I don’t see my room, my legs wrapped in blankets, or the board with the pen and paper on my lap, but the beach, the wide beach at low tide; the wind whipping up the water in the tidal pools, the thin white line of the surf, the grey-green water, the underside of the clouds, a friendly emptiness that draws me to it.

Revue de presse :

"Mortier is superb. . . The push and pull of ugliness and beauty Helena witnessed plays into her conviction about humanity's random and godless state of existence, as the title suggests: 'give us back our mealy-mouthed petit-bourgeois world,' she writes, knowing that such comforts have been stripped from her. . . [an] ultimately poised consideration of war's long impact on feeling and faith." Kirkus Reviews

"Like Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels, Erwin Mortier, the 49-year old Flemish writer whose four novels have just been published in North America, is a poetic prose artist. Unlike Ondaatje and Michaels, whose stock has fallen rather sharply in the last decade, Mortier writes stories that stick and characters whose oblique relationship to normalcy lodge themselves in our minds like splinters.… a quintessential and literally definitive work of Belgian literature" — The National Post

Praise from the UK:

"A beautifully unorthodox novel of the Great War... a kaleidoscopic palette." — Independent
 
"Almost too beautiful a writer... the footprint of Proust visible on every page." —  Financial Times
 
"Sumptuously imagined." — Independent Best Translated Fiction 2014
 
"Visceral and heart-stopping...deeply and painfully moving... one of the finest war stories ever written." — NewBooks
 
"Sumptuously lyrical." — We Love this Book

Other praise from Europe:

"Mortier writes so well that you are inclined to see everything else as of secondary importance." — NRC Handelsblad
 
"A monumental, phenomenal book." — De Morgen
 
"Splendid control of language." — de Volkskrant
 
"The author skillfully reconstructs the crepuscular atmosphere of an era that ends with the shipwreck of a civilization, but, paradoxically, also with the sensual awakening of a young girl."   Figaro
 
"Threads the heavy folds of history with the needle of poetic sensibility." — Livres hebdo
 

"'Multi-layered' is too bland a word for this subtle, sophisticated novel, which moves between different times with such aplomb that the reader never loses the thread." — Buchmarkt

From the Hardcover edition.

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Erwin Mortier
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ISBN 10 : 1782270795 ISBN 13 : 9781782270799
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Description du livre PUSHKIN PRESS, United Kingdom, 2016. Paperback. État : New. Reprint. 198 x 129 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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. N° de réf. du libraire AAZ9781782270799

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Erwin Mortier
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Description du livre PUSHKIN PRESS, United Kingdom, 2016. Paperback. État : New. Reprint. 198 x 129 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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. N° de réf. du libraire AAZ9781782270799

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Description du livre Pushkin Press. Paperback. État : new. BRAND NEW, While the Gods Were Sleeping, Erwin Mortier, David Pearson, Paul Vincent, '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. N° de réf. du libraire B9781782270799

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