Tag Archives: Belgium

While the Gods were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier

This novel was suggested for the Older Women in fiction series by a reader of this blog. It is narrated by an old woman who is trying to make sense of the life she has lived and the changes she has seen. On the cover it is described as ‘a beautifully unorthodox novel of the Great War’. So, is it a war novel or an account of ageing?

These descriptions are not incompatible, and the novel is broad in its themes, allowing for both perspectives: war novel and older woman in fiction. It is a weighty work, but full of humanity, and written with a prose that is at times sumptuous and at others unflinching. This novel, originally written in Dutch, is focused on one small corner of northern France on the border with Belgian in the early years of the 20th century. 

This is the 60th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

While the Gods were Sleeping

Helena is in her nineties and sees herself as a lonely survivor from her generation. She requires 24-hour care from Rachida (a young Moroccan woman) and her less sympathetic stand-in. She is reviewing her life, not just to give an account of it but rather to interrogate the influences and experiences. 

Helena was born into a bourgeoise family in pre-WW1 Belgium. The first 70 pages describe her upbringing in a bourgeois household in a Belgian town where her father owns the hardware store. He mother upholds the conventions of the class, expressed in particular through the sewing circle of local women that meet in her home and by her very close supervision of her daughter. Her mother is very happy with her life and believes that all is good in the world. Her view will be violently shattered by the war.

The next section is concerned with Helena’s brother, Edgard, and reveals the double standard in their upbringing. Edgard is gay and enjoys considerable freedom. He is called up eventually and is wounded in the latter part of the war. To Helena as they sit on a terrace overlooking the sea in his convalescence, he reports on his dreams. This is among some of the most powerful writing in this book. And perhaps this example will go some way to explain why this is a war novel.

A languor hangs over the terrace, a blanket of lethargy. At the same time I feel the jealousy of my men behind me and rage wells up in me. Who is drinking our blood? Who is eating our flesh? And then there is the sadness again, that gnawing, amber-coloured regret – why do the years bring so much regret, my little gazelle? What loans must we repay, what losses must we redeem? Who has lived above his station and mortgaged our existence? Usually I wake up in tears. (281-2)

Helena retells how she went with her French mother to France in the summer of 1914, for their annual visit with that side of her family. War is declared while they are there and the border closed, and they must stay for the next few years in France. Her father remains in Belgium. She experiences the war at first hand, seeing the first impact on the community as the men are called up, the injuries and mutilations, the deaths, the death of a child, the front and finally her brother and lover who are both injured and in a hospital. 

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

The damage to human life, the damage to the landscape, the damage to communities are each explored in turn as Helena is taken up by an English officer and they visit the area near the front line. He will become her husband. What it means to be in the army, what it means to be afraid or to be wounded, these aspects of war are also revealed. She visits the area behind the lines with her lover;

The plain that I no longer recognized, or only half, because it was no longer, or not completely, the plain where we used to come on excursions by coach with my uncle and the aunts, under the parasol of August, to the villages where we drank the idleness of summer from earthenware jugs, the bitter beer.
The villages with their towers, their sun-scorched squares, their ochre spires which now seemed different villages, different towers, toy villages which had fallen out of the overfull box of a giant child while it had been lugging it across fields in boredom where old corn lay snapped over the earth, overgrown with grass tussocks and thistles. Roofs showed their skeletons, seemed to have rejected their tiles. Windows, shutters, hung loose from the window frames in walls riddled with bullet holes. … (208-9)

The prose is very pregnant, lush even, baroque. We see her childhood dominated by her mother’s stiff understanding of what girls should do. She falls out with her mother who discovers that she has spent unsupervised time with her lover. And alongside the bystanders and participants we experience the horrors of war, the damage – not just on the Front, but over the years, and to families and communities. The novel is about ageing, but ageing in times that are tragic, not ageing that is simply looking back over the past.

The narrative is deliberately disrupted and disruptive. Helena’s marriage to her British photographer husband is prefigured for she refers to him as ‘my husband’ from the outset. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was the spark that set in motion the events that led to the outbreak of hostilities and this news broke while they were on the train to France. We find this out much later, after we have met Helena and her mother at her uncle’s farm where they will live for the next four years. This is Helena’s account, after all, and we do not remember things in chronological order, but as they are connected to other memories. In addition, Mortier makes much use of lists as the examples above demonstrate. The prose and the disjointed chronology reflect the turbulence of the events of the times they describe. 

Erwin Mortier

Born in 1965, Mortier was brought up in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, before moving to Ghent. While the Gods were Sleeping is his fourth novel, all have been translated. He is much admired in Europe for his fiction, his poetry and his translations into Dutch.

While the Gods were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, first published in 2008, and then in the English translation in 2014 by Pushkin Press. 364pp Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent 

Related posts

On her blog The Book Binder’s Daughter refers to the confusing and disruptive structure of the novel and to its language and prose as ‘disintegrated’. But she found it a memorable novel about WW1. (February 2015)

The Bookword page about the series Older Women in Fiction can be found here.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, translation

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Her name has been linked to Jean Rhys and Katherine Mansfield; she has been compared to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir; and yet I hadn’t heard of her. Then Pushkin Press invited me to review a copy of her short stories, and I noticed that Heaven Ali is reading a novel by her called Marie

She is Madeleine Bourdouxhe, born in Belgium in 1906, who lived in both the French and Belgian capitals. Her first novel, La Femme de Gilles, was published in 1937 and Marie appeared in 1943. Her short stories were published in literary magazines in the late ‘40s. They were collected and published in Paris in 1985. Madeleine Bourdouxhe died in 1996. 

The Women’s Press published her translated stories in 1989. Pushkin Press published the English translations by Faith Evans in June 2019. My copy was provided by Pushkin Press, and I am most grateful.

A Nail, A Rose

The collection contains seven short stories and a novella. Her stories were mostly written after the war, in that period of economic depression and reconstruction and before French culture really flowered with the existentialists. France had much to consider in the post war years, some parts had been occupied for 5 years.

The writer’s style is spare and, at times, abrupt. The author assumes that the reader will do some work: for example, notice that the objects or people mentioned early in a story will be of significance later. 

Each story features a woman, sometimes giving her name to the story, sometime anonymous. She might be the narrator, or the focus of the third person narration. In every story there is considerable pain, often physical, sometime of love that has disappeared, or of relationships strained and in tension. She does not shrink from the visceral. The female body is ever present with its smells, leakages and lusts. ‘Anna’, for example, is a story about a woman who loves to dance, but her jealous husband uses violence to contain her spirit. 

Very little is explained, for example why the man hit the woman in the title story and why she then was calm with him and met him again. Precisely located in the story’s present, explanations are short or omitted. Sometimes flashbacks move the story on, as in ‘Leah’, where they refer to the woman’s earlier political activism.

I found myself responding strongly to the story called ‘Louise’ where a single mother works as a maid for Madame. Madame lends Louise her blue coat and Louise goes out to meet the man she wants to attract. As she waits for Bob to appear she begins to doubt herself.

Minutes passed, more and more slowly, and time began to drag. It must be lovely to wait when you know that someone is going to turn up, Louise thought to herself. Lowering her head, she went off into a sort of dream. She felt very pretty and very alone. (76)

In this way the author reveals much about Louise, and about her loneliness. The relationship with Bob proves to be an empty and unsatisfying one-night stand. But the experience of wearing Madame’s coat is much more significant and satisfying to Louise.

The novella, ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, follows a new mother who has to evacuate from the hospital immediately her baby is born as the Germans invade, and mother and child leave with the convoys to go to free France. She appears to only go a little further than the Loire, but eventually meets the Germans. This story is based on Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s experiences. As in her other stories, the people who appear are ordinary folk, and the mother with her baby experiences many small acts of kindness and care. She sees the soldiers as the people they are, first those in retreat and later the victorious ones.

I loved her writing, with its bare starkness. I was pleased to have been given a copy to review, because I would not have noticed her otherwise. Thanks to Pushkin Press. I might follow @Heaven_Ali soon by reading one of her two novels.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (2019) Pushkin Press

Translated from French by Faith Evans

Copy provided by Pushkin Press. 224 pp

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women in Translation

So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield

It would be easy write off EM Delafield as a one-hit wonder. Her most famous work is Diary of a Provincial Lady and it is very funny and very to the point. First published in instalments in the feminist periodical Time & Tide, it has been republished by both Persephone and Virago Books.

EM Delafield is another neglected and underappreciated woman writer. She deserves more recognition especially as she wrote so much more. Consequences is also republished by Persephone Books, and the short story Holiday Group was included in the Persephone Book of Short Stories. This writer still has a great deal to say to us.

Let’s celebrate her 138thbirthday on 9thJune.

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

Consequences by EM Delafield

I chose to read this book because I did not know this writer well enough. It is the earliest of her works that I have now read, published in 1919, just after the end of the First World War. This was the moment when women’s lives were changing, when expectations for women were widening. Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a feminist novel as well as a tragedy.

Alex Clare is born into an upper-class family, not especially rich, with a catholic father and is the oldest child of 5. She is required to be obedient to Nurse and her parents who hold old-fashioned views about what girls should be, do and look like. She is expected to grow up as they require, come out as a debutante, find a husband and repeat the cycle for her own daughters.

But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, not given at home, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. Throughout her life Alex fastens onto people as objects of desire, wanting only their affection. This brings her up against the nuns when she has a ‘pash’ for Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.

She tries to get it right, but receives no guidance. Her sisters Barbara and Pamela learn to do what’s expected and embrace it with enthusiasm. Alex does not enjoy the debutante scene in London, resolves her discomfort by becoming engaged, realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right, but runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude.

After 10 years as a nun the Mother Superior is posted to South America and Alex comes to see that again her life has been fixed on the approval of one person. She revokes her vows and returns to London, but is quite incapable of managing for herself. She is 27 years old, has no understanding of what an independent life could or should be.

Endpapers fror Consequences: Thistle, a Liberty Art Fabric, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

While one may wish that the wretched and miserable girl had taken some responsibility for her life and for changing it for the better, we are in no doubt that Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.

Consequences by EM Delafield, first published in 1919. Republished by Persephone Books in 2006. 421pp

Holiday Group by EM Delafield

Holiday Group is short story, first published in 1926. Again we read of women’s restricted lives. The Reverend Herbert Cliff-Hay comes into a modest legacy and takes his wife and three young children on holiday. It is a holiday for everyone except his wife, who is exhausted by ensuring that her husband’s ambitions for this rest time are realised. Her name is Constance. He has no idea that it is so bad for her, and indeed EM Delafield deftly shows this, does not tell us.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories, published by Persephone Books in 2012. 427pp

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

In this lively, funny and well-known novel some of the same themes emerge. The protagonist, the provincial lady, has wit, perception and skill as a writer, but the life she portrays is every bit as limited as Alex’s in Consequences or Constance in the short story. Here is a middle class lady living in the provinces (Devon) whose spirit clashes with expectations of social deference and behaviour and rebels against the mundaneness of her domestic life. Here is no self-pity or sentimentality, yet she manages to convey the limits of her life with lively self-deprecation. Here are the opening paragraphs.

November 7th

Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed the bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.

Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? … (1)

Published in 1930, there were further novels in the sequence.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, first published in 1930 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2014. The complete collection of Diaries has also been published by Virago Modern Classics in 1984.

EM Delafield

EM Delafield was a pen name. The writer was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture on 69hJune 1890. Like Alex she spent some time in a convent before the First World War. However at the start of the war she became a VAD nurse in Exeter and married Arthur Dashwood in 1919. After some years in the Malay States they settled in East Devon, in Kentisbeare. She was a prolific writer. I counted 49 works on her Wikipedia page, including many non-fiction works, such as biography, and short stories. She died before the end of the Second World War in December 1943.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors which caught my eye. This post represents my support for her celebration of the birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease enter your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews