While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier is a First World War novel with a difference – a number of differences, in fact. Both its author and setting are Belgian, a country under represented in WW1 literature given its pivotal role in the conflict, something Mortier himself has commented on in an excellent interview at Bookanista:
“My first concern in writing the novel was that for some strange reason in Belgium we don’t have a tradition of Great War novels, there’s a hiatus in our collective memory, as it were. There are a lot of private documents, letters and diaries, et cetera, but no great novel was produced during or after the war. I found that to be a strange condition in our collective imagination and literary heritage, so I decided to write this novel as a kind of symbolic gift to our national memory.”
The novel is also notable for being narrated by a woman, Helena, now ninety years old and remembering her youth. For this reason much of it takes place away from the fighting, and yet Mortier manages to movingly convey the effects of the war on both place and person.
Be warned: Helena will not be rushed in her telling of the story. As she says herself:
“’Helena, my child,’ my mother would moan if she could hear me, ‘where is this leading to? You’re shooting off in all directions.”
Mortier himself is in no hurry, carefully establishing Helena’s character in past and present, and giving some indication of life before the war with a series of childhood memories. Her mother’s voice features prominently – a voice Helena continues to hear:
“Where on earth does her voice still keep coming from? The voice, unexpectedly clear and articulated, unmistakably hers, that dry alto, that light vibrato, that I so often hear just before I go to sleep and that seldom says anything but my name.”
Helena’s mother is one of the novel’s great creations (in fact, the female characters are more memorable in general), and an important part of Mortier’s determination to set the scene prior to the conflict. Helena, too, despite 100 pages of meandering back and forward in time, becomes a compelling narrative voice. We are given some clues as to what is to come when she recalls an outing with her brother, Edgard. He calls those wounded in the war the “lucky ones,”
“They can blame their misfortune, strange enough perhaps, on the arm or leg they are missing…The others, who supposedly have nothing wrong with them, they’re the real poor devils. They never get the bombs out of their body.”
This preamble to the novel’s main events is perhaps partly explained by Mortier’s intention to write two other novels using the same characters – one from the point of view of Edgard (already published in Belgium), and another from that of the Englishman she fall in love with, Matthew Herbert. He is a war photographer, accompanied by Helena at points, and used by Mortier to show the effects of the war. That our description of the devastation near the front line comes from Helena, a civilian, perhaps adds a different perspective:
“There was no logic in the destruction, no system in the alteration of house fronts pounded totally into rubble and others that apart from the empty window frames seemed intact.”
Helena sees it in contrast to the setting she has left behind, her eye picking out the domestic detail of those houses where the façade has been blown off:
“Wherever the shadow of the clouds lifted, the glow of the afternoon sun flooded the surface of wall cupboards, beds and washbasins which had congealed snow white on tables, licked at wallpaper, and brought a gleam to dusty bell jars, under which saints’ images balanced on a chimney piece as if on the edge of a ravine.”
The novel ends with the war and Helena’s return to her home and her father, who has been separated from them throughout. Mortier demonstrates the effects of the war on occupied Belgium simply though the difference in her home: the house “cleaned out”; the vegetable beds in the garden.
How well readers get on with While the Gods were Sleeping will very much depend on how they take to Mortier’s discursive / rambling (delete as applicable) style. I often felt I was having to work quite hard to dig down to the best of the writing, however, there were moments of lyrical beauty amid the cacophony of wordiness that kept me reading.