Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book Of Hours by Erwin Mortier

Along with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Erwin Mortier’s Stammered Songbook was the reading requirement for last month’s book group. I think you’d struggle to find a more harrowing pair of titles, although at least there was variety in the suffering covered. Han Kang’s novel explores the nature of suffering, and the different ways people respond to it, trying to attain some semblence of control when all around feels like abject powerlessness. In contrast, Stammered Songbook is a far more personal work, a memoir written by Erwin Mortier, of his mother’s gradual decline due to dementia.

My mother, a house that is slowly collapsing, a bridge dancing to a tremor.

The memoir, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent, is a stunning work. With fragile, achingly beautiful prose, it was unbearably painful to read. Only a slim volume, a collection of brief paragraphs of Mortier’s thoughts and observations, yet each hangs alone like a pearl or a fallen tear. I could not manage more than a few pages in a single sitting. In fact, it felt wrong to read too much in one go, as though to race through would be breezing over enormity of his loss. There is sadness here, anguish, anger, even bewilderment. Memories are recalled and there is much pondering over the nature of mortality.

Whenever I have to go there I am overcome with rage and terror. This is the hidden monoculture of our welfare state, I think. Fields and fields of grizzled heads sagging, half-depressed (lonely, probably) or anxious (also lonely, perhaps), and crammed with pills for want of human companionship.

I wish I could think of you as you were, but I can’t. Memories well up in us or ambush us, but they never provide us with shelter. Nostalgia does not issue from the tension between a dreamed or an imagined past and a reality that looks totally different. Nostalgia is the experience of the immense distance between us and our recollections…I wish that I could remember you again as the woman you were before the disease started spinning its mesh of holes in your mind, that I didn’t again and again collide with that darkness, the teeth-grinding shroud of your pain and your boundless suffering.

I remember her rust-coloured corduroy trousers with the orange back-pockets. Her pancake trousers, the trousers she always wore when she was going to make pancakes in the evening. I remember we waited for those trousers like Druids waiting for the solstice.

Whilst I had been eager to read The Vegetarian, and did enjoy its thought-provoking, if deeply disturbing subject matter, I felt a decided reluctance to begin Stammered Songbook. I knew enough about the book to know that this would be heartbreaking and raw, and I felt myself putting on emotional armour to read it, to protect myself from the pain I was about to encounter. The fact is, if you are fortunate to have loved ones who are alive and in good health, you don’t want to be reminded of the inevitable pain that you will most definitely have to face, if not soon, one day. It’s coming. There’s no escape, but I don’t want to step into the shoes that I will some day, absolutely certainly fill, to see what that will feel like.

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My reluctance made me think about the power of fiction. Fiction allows us to make ourselves vulnerable to the most raw and painful of human emotions because we know we’re safe. We do try on all manner of human experiences for size, and in those moments, those experiences feel very real, and, I believe, stretch us – prepare us, even. It’s why we need stories. I read Stammered Songbook because I had to, and if it had been up to me, I probably would have avoided it out of sheer cowardice. I think it is no surprise that one review (Libération) calls it ‘A wonderful source of sustenance to survive the shipwreck’. I might have wanted to avoid it now, but when the time comes that I have to face the terrible anguish of loss, this is the book I will want by my side.

 

*I’m currently away but will catch up and respond to comments when I get back next week!

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