While The Gods Were Sleeping
Erwin Mortier has been translated into English three of four times by the fabulous Pushkin Press and his reputation, following in the footsteps of Proust, is based on the supremacy of Marcel, My Fellow Skin andShutter Speed.
He is a prosaist of the ilk of an early John Banville: acute observation, full bodied prose, incisive dialogue and adroit characterisation. For a novel of almost 400 pages, Mortier doesn’t put a foot wrong, nor does Paul Vincent, who translated While The Gods Were Sleeping from the original Dutch.
Each scene has the dexterity and the abundance of a Vermeer, even when nothing appears to be happening. Towards the end of her life, the lyrical but dependant Helen Demont is reflecting on the early 20thcentury, living on the cusp of the Great War, and musing on its impact on the lives of others such as her brother Edward, and a young English photographer, Matthew Herbert.
Mortier poses many questions without ever asking them, and in the process of filling out a scene with the ordinary and the randomness of what passes for unexceptional mundanity, he unearths surprises which can take a paragraph, a page or a chapter to fully shed its chrysalis.
So rich in detail is the prose, a gilded tributary alongside the sinuous narrative, that it is easy to forget what has taken place and be lost momentarily in the present. We are therefore unlike Helen, who fills her notebooks with the flotsam of memory, and paints in words moments of nostalgia and, in the midst of war, the indescribable.
The war doesn’t necessarily adopt centre stage, and Mortier approaches it obliquely: Helen is not in a position to witness the horror of trench warfare for herself, but through the photographs of Herbert, whom she will marry, the war to end all wars filters to the reader through her memory.
Mortier creates tableaux rather than chapters, from the destruction of homes in Flanders to Helen’s present as an aged dependent, the intermingling of tenses, where, for our narrator, ‘the echo chambers of memory seem to expand and divide like living cells.’ Mortier distills time.
While The Gods Were Sleeping is the epic recollection of a mind which remains restless, history truncated and revisited, the past a shadow of a storm cloud which never quite manages to leave.