Posts Tagged ‘Erwin Mortier’

I discovered Erwin Mortier’s ‘Stammered Songbook‘ when I was browsing through the catalogue of one of my favourite publishers, Pushkin Press. I loved the description of the book and I got it. I started it today and didn’t stop till I finished reading it. Erwin Mortier is from Belgium and Belgium is a strange country because the main language there is not Belgian (there is no language called Belgian), but half of the population speak in French and the other half speak in Dutch. Mortier speaks in Dutch and this book was originally written in Dutch. I think this might be my first Dutch book ever, whether it is Belgian-Dutch or Dutch-Dutch. That realization makes me happy, because it means I accomplished something new today, because I ventured into uncharted terrain. That is uncharted for me at least.


Stammered Songbook‘ is a memoir and it is about Erwin Mortier’s mother. In the book, Mortier describes how his mother got Alzheimer’s, and how she forgets one word – the first word she forgets, sadly, is ‘book’ – and then another and before long she starts forgetting the names of her children and finally she forgets who they are. As she descends from Alzheimer’s to dementia, she transforms into a child, who fears the world around her, and whose emotions become unpredictable, and who is not able to articulate her fears and emotions because she has lost the facility of language.

Stammered Songbook‘ is a tender memoir – it is poignant and heartbreaking, but also heartachingly beautiful. It is a love letter to Erwin Mortier’s mother, to language, to memory. Erwin Mortier’s prose is delicate, lush and lyrical, and perfectly compliments the story it tells. In many pages, I lingered over  the beautiful lines and read them many times to appreciate better their beauty and the insights they offered. The ending of the book was beautiful and made me remember the ending of the film ‘Amour‘.

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book to give you a flavour of Mortier’s prose.

“I realize that I only write to hear sentences dancing without interruption through my head. To make rhythm, acceleration, rallentando, to make pauses sing. Just to be able to hang from dashes – the trapezes of syntax – weightlessly for a moment from the roof beam of a sentence, I let these words loose. What luxury it is to be able to swing through the rainforests of language from creeper to creeper like a performing monkey?”

“How must it feel to see the world around you lose its contours, the whole network of language, language memory, which hangs over things so unemphatically that we only notice it when it develops holes? Does everything become hazy, or does it, on the contrary, stand out more sharply as the unsayable gains strength?”

“What strikes me most about her, what makes me saddest, is the double silence of her being. Language has packed its bags and jumped over the railing of the capsizing ship, but there is also another silence in her or around her. I can no longer hear the music of her soul; the existential aura around her, that whole vibrating fabric of symbols with which she wove herself into the world – or, conversely, the world into her.”

“She didn’t like babies, she liked being pregnant. One evening, when she was heavily pregnant with my youngest brother, she pulled her blouse up and stood in the light of the reading lamp looking at her belly. It seemed as big as the moon, that belly of hers, and she embraced it with both hands, blissfully. I never saw her cherish anything or anyone like that belly.”

“…a human being is difficult poetry, which you must be able to listen to without always demanding clarification, and that the best thing that can happen to us is the absolution that a loved one grants us for the unjustifiable fact that we exist and drag along with us a self that has been marked and shaped by so many others.”

I loved ‘Stammered Songbook‘. Though it is early days yet, I know that it will be one of my favourite reads of the year. It is a book I would like to read again, to savour the beauty of Mortier’s prose and contemplate on the insights that the book provides.

Have you read ‘Stammered Songbook‘? What do you think about it?

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