I discovered Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’ through Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) post on contemporary German women authors. When I read Caroline’s review of it, I decided that I had to read the book for German Literature Month.
‘Mrs.Sartoris’ is narrated by Margarethe, a forty-year old woman, who is the Mrs.Sartoris of the title. She is married to Ernst and has a teenage daughter, Daniela. The whole book has two story strands. In the first of them, which starts the book, Margarethe talks about how one evening it was raining and she was driving and she saw a man in front of her trying to cross the road and deliberately hit him and killed him on the spot. The police are investigating the case, but because there are no eye witnesses, they are not able to make much progress. We don’t know the identity of the dead man, but from Margarethe’s description, it looks like there is a past story and our heroine had a strong reason for doing what she did. In the second strand, our heroine describes how whenever she goes out to meet her friends and comes back her husband checks her breath discreetly because he is worried about her drinking. To explain why, our heroine talks about her past, starting from her first love and how she fell in love with a young man who turned out to be from a rich family and how he broke her heart. She also describes how she met Ernst later and got married to him. There is a beautiful portrait of Irmi, her mother-in-law, who was one of my favourite characters in the book. She also talks about the troubled relationship she always had with her daughter Daniela, since Daniela’s birth, because Daniela always seems to look beyond the façade and see the real face of her mother. Margarethe talks about how, though she tolerated her life with Ernst, she didn’t really love him (though she loved Irmi) because of her memory of her first love and wondering what might have been. Then one day she meets a man at a music concert she performs in and there is an immediate spark which leads to an affair. Michael, her lover, gives her things that Ernst cannot and after a while, our heroine starts making long-term plans with him. Michael is very circumspect about it, though. Then one day, Margarethe tells Michael that they should leave their families, move to Venice and start life anew. Michael, after dithering a bit, agrees to it. Do Margarethe and Michael manage to get away from their families and start a new life? What about those who are left behind – the loyal Ernst, the loving Irmi and the troubled Daniela? What about Michael’s family? What about the second strand of the story in which our heroine kills someone deliberately? The answer to these questions and how the two strands get woven together in the end form the rest of the story.
I loved ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. Elke Schmitter’s prose is smooth and elegant, like a Rolls Royce or a Merc, and there is no superfluous word. Not even one. The first half of the story is slow-paced with beautiful sentences and is a pleasure to read. In the second part, the pace picks up and it becomes a page-turning thriller. And it is still a pleasure to read. The book is just 143 pages long and Schmitter has managed to pack in so many things in those few pages. I liked the main character, the narrator Margarethe, though her moral compass doesn’t exactly point north. When she starts her affair with Michael I found myself asking her : “Margarethe sweetheart, why are you doing this? You have a wonderful, solid, loyal husband and a loving, warm and affectionate mother-in-law. Most people would kill for a mother-in-law like that. Why are you throwing all this away?” It looks like Margarethe hears my question and lament, because she gives her reply in page 99. It is passionate and convincing, but it doesn’t change my mind. I must be getting old, I think. My favourite character was Irmi, Ernst’s mother and Margarethe’s mother-in-law. When I read the description of the scene in which she makes her first appearance :
When we got engaged, Irmi had just turned fifty, and she dazzled me. She was a war widow, her only son had had one lower leg blown away in battle, her income could even be described as wretched – but she always looked as if she’d won the lottery and was just waiting for people she could share it with. The first time she saw me, she immediately embraced me and led us into the parlor for coffee s if I were the daughter of a queen. Ernst told me you are beautiful, she said as she cut into the cake, but he didn’t tell me just how beautiful you are!
I totally fell in love with her. I wish she had a bigger part to play in the story.
Ernst, Philip (Margarethe’s first love), Michael, Renate (Margarethe’s friend), Daniela all have their parts to play. Daniela’s part increases in importance towards the end of the story.
I loved ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. I loved Schmitter’s elegant prose, I loved the even pace of the story, I loved the heroine and her thoughts and questions about life and I loved Irmi. This book is a perfect little gem. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I can’t wait to read Elke Schmitter’s next book. I checked in Amazon and discovered one more book by her – ‘Leichte Verfehlungen’ (Minor Misdemeanours) – and one slated for release next year – ‘Veras Tochter’ (Vera’s Daughter). I hope both of them get translated into English.
I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.
Daniela was made of feathers, light as a butterfly, with red-gold down for hair, eyes that were almost transparent, more of a delicate moth than a baby.
I have always had trouble – and it’s never gotten any better – taking in a face and a name at one and the same time. I always settle for the face…
I had always thought that poetry was not worth much because it was hopelessly exaggerated; now my reservations were reversed : I thought, if that’s all the poets have to say, it’s totally inadequate, a tepid half-representation of reality.
We didn’t need things to keep us busy and I no longer had any idea how we spent our time; I remember our happiness, but I don’t remember the shape it took.
Ernst wanted a girl, which surprised me a little; I thought all men wanted a son. I’m lucky with women, he said, looking happily at both me and Irmi, and his wish was granted.
His life’s goal was to be comfortable, he was as transparent in that regard as a glass of water, and he only thought about people in any serious way if they troubled his comfort.
The animals calmed me down, in particular the huge eyes of the cows, which observed me neutrally. I wished passionately that I was seventeen again; if I were as old as Daniela, I thought, or just a little older, this scene would have an innocent charm, because everyone believes a young girl is entranced by ruminant beasts; it’s somewhat laughable in a grown woman – you don’t stand there by a trampled field in a silk dress making yourself loved with lumps of sugar.
The clock in here was never accurate, but Irmi felt that wasn’t the point, a kitchen clock was only there to make you feel comfortable and at home, and she was probably right.
In the moment when I fetched a glass of tap water and sat down beside him, as if for a great debate, and looked at him in silence, in that moment I lost the chance to make a nothing out of all this something, and make the catastrophe simply go away.
You can find other reviews of the book here.
Have you read Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’? What do you think about it?