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My Mother’s Lover by Urs Widmer

November 26, 2011 18 comments

Der Geliebte der Mutter by Urs Widmer. 2000. French title: L’homme que ma mère a aimé. English title: My Mother’s Lover. 

Clara is the only daughter of a self-made-man from Italian origins. In the 1920s and in her twenties, she gets involved in the creation of a young orchestra whose brilliant conductor is Edwin. Clara volunteers for the orchestra, taking charge of the organization of concerts. Edwin and Clara have an affair but aren’t on the same page. He’s looking for a sexual partner; she’s in love with him. Edwin marries someone else. Clara never falls out of love with him.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig. There are similarities. Two women desperately in love with a famous man (a writer / a conductor); two men unaware of the consuming love they have kindled. Contrary to Zweig’s woman, Clara is unbalanced, she’s had a hard childhood with a dominating father, has known poverty, rejection. She’s madly in love with Edwin, in the literal sense of the word. She behaves like Virginia Woolf, going into the water at night, all dressed up, carrying a heavy rock, as if she intended to drown herself. She’s suicidal, a terrible mother dragging her boy in her crazy behaviors. I pitied the poor boy and I wondered where his father was. (I think there’s a book about the father’s story)

Clara’s son relates her story, as the title shows it. I didn’t find it convincing. How did he get to know how his mother felt? How did he know about her sex life, her internal turmoil, her personal demons? Is it healthy for him to know that? Clara had no friend, she couldn’t have confided in anyone. Now I found that I miss the 19thC device that consists in an introductory chapter in which the narrator explains where he/she knows the story from.

When I was reading, I saw black and white news films from before WWII. People move slightly faster than their real pace, there’s no sound, only a voice over. I saw the images of Clara’s life and heard her son’s detached tone commenting. A voiceover, flat, matter-of-factly describing things with well-chosen words, maybe taking a necessary distance with it to protect his sanity. I remained aloof too, it didn’t reach me. Plus I had guessed one of the key things of the story, which irritated me a bit.

I wonder if I could rate the books I read according to the number of quotes I note down. I guess on this scale of stars, it wouldn’t grant a high rating to this book. No quote at all. The style is good though despite a wild use of punctuation. Sometimes I was tired of exclamation marks, constant insertion of text in brackets or – and so on. It has a musicality but it didn’t move me. Honestly, that’s me, not the book. Caroline loved it; I perfectly understand and it’s worth reading her review as it covers parts I didn’t mention. What she writes is absolutely true but didn’t have the same effect on me. I recommend reading it in one to three reading sessions (It’s short) to have the time to enter the book and hear the music of Widmer’s words. Something else may have prevented me from fully enjoying it: I’m a zero in classical music and I didn’t get the references included in the book. For someone better informed, it can be more enjoyable. So, to sum it up, it didn’t work for me but it’s a good book, very well-written.

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