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My Mother’s Lover by Urs Widmer

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. November 26, 2011 at 5:50 am

    I just read Caroline’s review, and she is definitely more enthusiastic! I’d love to read this one, but I have so many writers to try – and even more after this month 😉


    • November 26, 2011 at 9:43 am

      Too bad you won’t read it. It would be interesting to have a man’s (and a son) reaction to this novel. It’s more enjoyable than Herta Müller, you know. 🙂


  2. November 26, 2011 at 7:48 am

    Now you agree with Lizzy. She read it but decided against reviewing it because she didn’t like it.
    It did speak to me for obvious reasons and I think it’s highly believable. Mothers like that tend to tell their children everything, including things they should leave out… I agree it isn’t healthy but hat doesn’t mean it isn’t realistic.
    In my case including quotes doesn’t mean much. I include them when it’s effortless, mostly because I read a book in English and just feel like it.


    • November 26, 2011 at 10:00 am

      I wish she had reviewed it.
      I’ve been thinking about you when I was reading.
      It made me uncomfortable because he was always saying “my mother” when relating the story, he never let the reader forget who the narrator was.
      Also I didn’t like Clara. She’s as stupid as Emma Bovary. The trip to Frankfurt is unbelievable. She doesn’t see the Nazi taking the country under control, she’s so self-absorbed.

      Did your copy mention Black Friday instead of Black Thursday for the 1929 crisis? I wonder if they say Friday because of time difference (Black Thursday in Wall Street gives a black Friday on European stock market, although I’ve always heard of it as Black Thursday) or if the French edition was proof-read by a single-minded fashionista.


  3. November 26, 2011 at 10:24 am

    I’m not sure about Black Friday.
    I don’t know why she chose not to review it, maybe because she had interviewed the translator for German Literature Month. No clue. She was just not into it much.
    I liked the dnese writing, the compression of so much on a few pages and thought he handled it well. It must have been an awful thing to experience. There were a lot of speculations as to how much is true and who is who. I wanted to read the book of the father but didn’t feel like it.


    • November 26, 2011 at 10:32 am

      Let’s hope she’ll drop by and leave a comment.
      I agree with you about the style. It’s good. Only the punctuation bothered me.
      If it is partly autobiographical, then his father must have filled the gaps the mother left. If not, then the son is really resilient. I always wonder what kind of lovers, husbands, fathers, these sons become.


  4. November 26, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I understand what you mean about the number of quotes gathered as we read. I’m still working my way through Can You Forgive Her? (Over 800 pages) and the book is full of post-it notes.

    I see Custom of the Country is coming soon. My favourite Wharton.


    • November 26, 2011 at 9:38 pm

      I’m impatient to read your review of Trollope as he is a writer I’ve never read but think I’ll like.
      The third try with The Custom of the Country seems the good one. Is it because I can read it in English now? I’ll never know, I guess.

      PS: I managed to put my hands on the film version of The Killer Inside Me at the library. At last.


      • November 27, 2011 at 12:25 am

        I think you would like Trollope a great deal, but I’ll have to think about which one to recommend first as I don’t think I should suggest starting with an 800 pager.

        Let me know what you think of the film.


        • November 27, 2011 at 9:40 am

          I’ll be glad to have recommendations.
          I’ll leave a comment on my Thompson post when I’ve seen the film.


      • November 27, 2011 at 1:44 am

        Did someone mention Trollope? Currently ploughing through ‘The Eustace Diamonds’ (for the umpteenth time), and I am rather partial to old Anthony’s work 🙂 I’ve read about sixteen so far, but a lot of them are *very* long!

        My beginners’ recommendation would always be ‘The Warden’; not only is it one of his shorter works, it’s also the start of the Barchester Chronicles, and introduces many of the characters you meet in the more popular ‘Barchester Towers’.

        LOTS of reviews at my site if you’re interested 😉


        • November 27, 2011 at 9:42 am

          Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to decide in which language I’d better read him. (I’m not ready for 800 pagers in English anyway)


  5. December 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    I share your ignorance of classical music, which is a concern. I’m not utterly ignorant, but I know less about it than almost anything else excepting Norwegian death metal and dance music (assuming we exclude dubstep from dance, which we should).

    Some mothers definitely overshare, but it doesn’t sound like it shows the oversharing so the question of how he knows remains. I can’t say I’m grabbed.

    I was pleased though to stumble over a Trollope beginners’ recommendation. How very handy, and how potentially dangerous.


    • December 2, 2011 at 11:21 pm

      I only like piano pieces, big stuff with big orchestras don’t move me and I’m really frustrated that I’ll never be able to play Chopin. I think you need someone to guide you to enjoy classical music; I never had that someone.

      Reading this book, I thought about books about book lovers like Firmin and how difficult they must be for occasional readers.


    • December 2, 2011 at 11:34 pm

      But that’s what e-readers are for – free classic e-texts for you to taste before splashing out on the real thing 😉


      • December 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm

        I’ve already downloaded a copy Tony. It’s not the cost though that worries me. It’s the risk of discovering another writer with a vast back catalogue.

        Money I can probably find. Time on the other hand…


  1. November 30, 2011 at 10:13 am
  2. December 1, 2011 at 7:07 am

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