When mom takes control of your life and your romance
We know that the sirens of Greek myth, those beautiful winged women, lured sailors to destruction with the witchcraft of their song. A lesser known fact is that, according to some post-Homeric authors, they were deeply vulnerable to their audience. If they failed to enchant those who sailed, they would throw themselves into the ocean. One wonders if the sailors were attracted as much by an unconscious pinch of obligation as by the ethereality of the music. A mermaid’s survival hinged on her ability to make people fall in love with her. When she succeeded, her targets may have sensed it was their desire to keep her alive.
Mermaids were among the first femme fatales, and they still speak of the dangerous ways in which charisma can burn with need. A typical mermaid tale features a character whose magnetism drives people to ruin. But the most interesting contemporary take on the trope – often involving intense but not romantic relationships, like that between friends or between a parent and child – courts the possibility of a lucid sacrifice, an act of devotion. Perhaps the “ordinary” character is not so much looking to own the mermaid as to save her: to offer her the necessary adoration, whatever the cost. In literature – I’m thinking here of “Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel, excerpts from “The Great Gatsby” and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet – such a desire can seem both ennobling and suspect. Is it the voice that is so compelling, a reader wants to ask the narrator, or your power over it?
These tensions boil under the surface of “The Book of Mother”, a marvelous and disturbing debut by Violaine Huisman, translated from French by Leslie Camhi. (The book is captioned “a novel,” but Huisman, who wrote a richly imagined family history, makes a familiar claim: that “the truth of a life is the fiction that sustains it.”) Catherine, the mother de Huisman, play the mermaid. She is what you would expect: “one of the most beautiful women to ever walk the face of the earth”, rude, impossible, passionate. Mom, as her daughters call her, is a former ballerina and chronic self-performer. She drives fast, smokes with abandon, loves freely and fiercely. Her tirades inevitably end with a version of “fuck you” and she cooks with her fingers, tossing “two-handed noodle salads”.
But there is another mom, whose eccentricities are less endearing. This mom frequently faints from drugs and alcohol, leaving her children on good terms with members of the local fire department. This Mom assaults a policeman; drags her daughter through the apartment by the hair; and despises the “moans of weak little brats,” whose cups she disinfects with ninety percent alcohol. This mom is (probably) arson. When her husband cheats on her, she uses a kitchen knife to slaughter the family dog and tells her discouraged daughter that grandmother, that slut, drowned him in the Seine.
Mom suffers from manic depression. She was diagnosed in 1989, when Huisman was ten, and the author still associates her mother’s disappearance – Catherine was hospitalized for months – with footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “I was fascinated,” writes Huisman, “riveted to our television set, in which I discerned – beyond the glare of the screen, among the ruins, debris, rubble – traces of my mother: her mutilated face, her scattered body. parts, its ashes. This register is extreme, but it corresponds to the content of the novel. Mom “was overkill in everything,” writes Huisman, and the novel contains flashes of her ardor – showers of kisses, impromptu dance recitals – as well as a surprising amount of gore. (At one point, Catherine’s biological father, who is also her rapist, performs an abortion on his daughter, her brutal treatment setting off “a geyser of blood.”) The genre of the book shifts, like a mermaid, between horror and transcendent romance. When Mum comes to tuck in Violaine at night, “a slight odor of death lingered” on her lips.
The tumult of Huisman’s childhood is reflected in the chaotic experience of reading his book. Mom’s voice “was so much prettier in her outrage,” writes Huisman, and she bends her own style to its rushed rhythms. (The clausal extravagance of the work makes it difficult to quote – but consider a passage, in which mum and dad are fighting: “They tore their hair out, they threatened to tear their eyes out, he warned that he was about to die of a heart attack, she threatened to end it once and for all, and then he clicked out, which might have sounded conclusive, if we hadn’t heard him so many times. times before: you are living hell! ”) For the first third of the book, Huisman jumps back in time, recalling conversations with loved ones and his quest – as a calm and devoted child – to draw some kind of boundary between her and her mother. (The collapsing wall proves to be an apt motif here.) Recalling Catherine’s series of affairs, Huisman hesitates to call her own lovers men: bodies that take up more space than mine. . . but because the men belonged to mom.
The most striking quality of the section is the way in which it stages, through its form, a balance of power between Catherine, the subject, and Violaine, the narrator. Violaine often speaks in the first person, but sometimes she slips into a free indirect speech from Catherine’s point of view. These monologues are then punctuated by glosses by Violaine, who tries to regain control. For example, here the two women collaborate, ill at ease, on a description of Catherine’s stay in the psychiatric hospital: “She has told us many times about the barbaric treatments to which she had been subjected” (Violaine). ” She’s lying down. She bargained with other patients on the sly to make calls to the phone booth because she didn’t have a dime, not even to buy cigarettes, and there was nobody, nobody, to help her. ‘to help ! (Catherine). “She called all her most loyal friends in Paris—all that is to say the two or three that she had not alienated or outraged – at least trying to be transferred ”(Violaine and Catherine, with the beard of the first on the second pier like a key in the gears).
The message here is not subtle, but it is superbly effective. The book depicts and executes both a relationship of monstrous love and zero-sum logic. Sometimes Violaine seems eager to give up the floor, tenderly unwinding Catherine’s slogans: “People are morons! “What does this have to do with the price of tea in China? “Oh, fucking shit, what fucking shit!” But this is no mockery, no matter how funny the novel may be. One reader understands Violaine’s erasure as an act of concern for mom. Channeling his mother brings joy and heroic purpose to the narrator. As Violaine explains, she and her sister “had been brought up without limits, we had been forced to redefine the realm of the possible, by overcoming all barriers and by harboring within us the fantastic power to keep mom alive”.
In the second section of the book, this power is exercised at what appears to be its maximum. Violaine more or less entrusts her narration to Catherine, telling the story of her mother, from beginning to end, in the close and uninterrupted third person. The results of this self-erasure are fascinating. There are detailed portraits of Catherine’s mother, father, stepfather and grandparents; of her first, second and third husbands; and most of his in-laws. The themes are repeated: physical violence, rape, neglect. But stability remains elusive. The proliferating characters behave in unpredictable ways, as if they have been born again in every scene, much like Catherine herself, who swings wildly between elation and despair. While the structure of the first section of the book makes it difficult to pinpoint who’s who, the torrent of personalities – all malleable – in the next section achieves a similar effect. This second stab in Catherine’s story, which poignantly tends for polish and form, only intensifies the sense of identity as borderless, messy, inclusive.
A highlight is Catherine’s first meeting with the one who will become Violaine’s father. At this point, Catherine survived meningitis, a consenting and freezing mother and a suicide attempt, and she ensured the stability of the working class, having opened her own dance studio and married a real estate agent in the great heart. But Antoine, an obscenely rich libertine, rushes in, inviting Catherine to a date in a Venetian hotel. Partly bewitched by the man’s dark green jaguar, she accepts, and, in the following setting, an employee observes the caviar class: “[Catherine] hears names she doesn’t recognize, she understands that [Antoine] has a lot of worries, but she doesn’t know what kind, exactly, it seems he has all kinds of problems, money problems, work problems, heart problems, health problems, problems psychological, clearly, a seemingly endless number of issues. ”Catherine sees right through her new suitor, but doesn’t neglect him, and later falls madly in love with him. This is a testament to Huisman’s poise as a author – or perhaps the low bar set by the rest of the cast – that we close “The Mother’s Book” with a soft spot for Antoine.
I insist in part on this interlude because it distills something in the work as a whole. We develop a soft spot for many of Huisman’s characters, despite their hideous and sometimes criminal behavior. Their larger-than-life swagger is the first decoy. Their human frailty is the second. And yet there is, there must be, a degree of clarity between cherishing someone and feeling the need to save them. When the middle section of the book ends, Huisman picks up the narration as itself for a brief coda, and we no longer hear Catherine directly. Without too much spoiler, mom’s song cuts off when it stops working, that is, when it can no longer lead others to self-destruction. What remains is Huisman’s own novel, a labor of love, which views primitive conflict with tender psychological keenness. It’s as if Huisman got into a fight with his mother, surrendered to her and finally left. The book is dedicated to Huisman’s sister.