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 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.
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
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.