Erwin Mortier is a Flemish writer, whose work is sadly little known in the Anglosphere, but thanks to Pushkin Press that is changing. Erwin's literary style is unorthodox, always merging a diverse roster of themes to create stories that are deep with emotion. He has been dubbed the voice of his generation.
Erwin's debut novel 'Marcel' published in 1999, marked him out as a sterling voice in Europe's literary scene, bringing wide attention and recognition. His recent work 'Stammered Songbook: A Mother's Book of Hours' is a touching and very personal memoir. Documenting his mother's decline as she is gripped by Alzheimer's disease, it's a heavily emotional experience reading through each page. With many of us either having or knowing of someone touched by the disease, it hits you with a force like nothing else.
I will start by saying that reading your memoir was a very difficult experience, as it brought back memories of my grandfather, who went through the same decline as your mother, but I also found it extremely helpful, and something I wish I'd been privileged to read during my grandfather's last years. Has this been most prevailing reaction to your book?
To this day I keep receiving letters from readers more or less expressing what you are saying. Some people find comfort in the book while they themselves are looking after a loved one who has Alzheimer's disease. Others say it helps them to come to terms with the loss of their spouses or relatives. Judit Gera for instance, who translated 'Stammered Songbook' into Hungarian, only recently told me she had begun translating the text even before the rights were sold to Hungary because she needed to confront the pain of losing her mother, who also had suffered from Alzheimer's, which something I can understand and even recognize. I wanted to preserve my mother's dignity and her unicity, I did not want to simply see her vanish.
I feel it disrespectful to call it a guide, but reading through the pages, in a strange way it did feel like a guide to understanding and accepting a loved one's slow decline. In terms of structuring, was this what you had in mind, even in the minutest sense?
Stammered Songbook really was a book that forced itself on me. I didn't decide to write it. As my mum's mental decline accelerated in the course of 2008, I began to notice I could not remember her as the woman she had been before she became ill. Neither could my brothers and sisters, or my dad. And I also felt I was losing my ability to be profoundly touched by books and art and music. Being the writer I am I had, of course, toyed with the idea that maybe some time I would write about the experience, but gradually it became clear to me I had to write about my mum while she was still alive and with us. And I also felt I should not try to write a conventional story, but rather a book that would be part diary, part poetry, part memoir, and also partly a collage of fragments of letters, all this in order to evoke the complexity of the emotions my mum, my dad and our family experienced. I believe that the open narrative of the book helps readers to recall their own story and weave it into the fabric of the book. I see the book as a kind of echo-chamber to the feelings and thoughts of the unknown reader So, yes, I can imagine that for some readers the book can also be an unconventional kind of guide-book.
There's always a particularly special bond between mothers and sons, that being so, how would you describe the emotional experience writing this book?
It was my way to bid my goodbye to her. I did not want the disease to have the last word. I also wanted to kindle my memories of her, of the beautiful, exuberant and loving human being she was before this tragedy struck. It was sometimes deeply painful, but a healthy pain because I was finding a way to shape my sorrow and my sadness. And there was the melancholy thought that I was writing the first book she wouldn't be able to read. She had always loved reading and was so very proud when sixteen years ago I made my debut as a writer.
The preciousness of time, time spent with ones nearest and dearest was something I felt penetrated throughout the book and it certainly stayed with me long after. Did you feel that during this period?
I think I have been made even more aware of the fundamental importance of just being there for someone else. We're creatures with bodies, the physical nearness of loved ones is something we need as much as we need bread and milk. Even now that my mother's psyche is almost completely gone there still is the inexpressible grace of sitting next to her, holding hands and see her smile. And in general it can make a world of difference for an elderly person who lives alone if we would simply take the time to have a little chat with them, to share a drink and talk and listen. It's good for all of us and often it's great fun as well.
Upon reflection, what would you say is the most important aspect of this memoir?
That love is all. That love, to be able to love and be loved, in an unsentimental, enduring way, is the greatest thing on earth.
'Stammered Songbook' is published by Pushkin Press
Photos courtesy of Pushkin Press