Urs Widmer: My Mother’s Lover (2011) aka Der Geliebte der Mutter (2000) One of the Finest Swiss Authors Finally Translated

It’s Switzerland in the 1920s when the two lovers first meet. She is young, beautiful, and rich. In contrast, he can barely support himself and is interested only in music. By the end of their lives, he is a famous conductor and the richest man in the country, but she is penniless. And most important of all, no one knows of her love for him; it is a secret he took to his grave. Here begins Urs Widmer’s novel “My Mother’s Lover”. Based on a real-life affair, “My Mother’s Lover” is the story of a lifelong and unspoken love for a man – recorded by the woman’s son, who begins this novel on the day his mother’s lover dies. Set against the backdrop of the Depression and World War II, it is a story of sacrifice and betrayal, passionate devotion and inevitable suffering. Yet in Widmer’s hands, it is always entertaining and surprisingly comic – a unique kind of fairy tale.

Urs Widmer is one of the finest Swiss authors of German language. He has been compared to Frisch and Dürrenmatt but that isn’t doing him any justice. I personally like him more. His novellas and novels are always very nostalgic, melancholic and bitter-sweet. There is beauty and sadness in equal doses. Recently I looked which of his works has been translated and couldn’t believe that until now there wasn’t any English translation available. Seems as if his novel Der Geliebte der Mutter aka My Mother’s Lover is the first of his books that has been translated into English. It will be out in June. That is incredibly good news. This really is an author to discover and My Mother’s Lover is a good starting point as it is one of the best novels of German language of the last decade. It is rich, it is dense, it is colourful and as powerful as a slap in the face.

My Mother’s Lover is told in first person peripheral, a point of view I like a lot. Some of the best works of literature have made use of it (Le Grand Meaulnes, The Great Gatsby… ). It is a very poetical point of view. In this novel, it is the son who tells his mother’s story. A story that spans over eighty years and begins just before the Black Thursday 1929, when Clara, the mother, is some 20 years old. Widmer tells the story of a life and a century with all the joy, sadness, madness and tragedy there was in both.

Clara is the daughter of an Italian whose great grand-father was of African descent. Her father left his Northern Italian hometown to live in Switzerland, Zürich, where Clara is born. The mother died young and Clara grew up with her father enjoying a life of ease and wealth. They loved going to concerts and that is how she met Edwin, the man who should become the love of her life and one of the most famous conductors of all time.

The Black Thursday 1929 kills her father and ruins her. She starts to work for Edwin and his orchestra and leads a life of joyful bohemianism. Together with Edwin and the orchestra they travel to Paris, sit in restaurants and bars and discuss all night long. She becomes Edwin’s lover.

The descriptions of the cities in the novel are among the best parts. Clara travels to pre-war Frankfurt that was a city full of charm and narrow medieval streets. Clara also travels to Italy where her relatives life on a vineyard, producing some of the best Italian wine. She even sees Mussolini.

Clara gets pregnant and contrary to what she expects Edwin wants her to get rid of the child. She doesn’t realize that this is the end of the affair. Edwin marries the rich daughter of an industrialist and – we never really understand why – Clara gets married to the narrator’s father who stays somewhat non existent throughout the book.

The first part of the book spans maybe 5 years, the second part almost sixty. What is told from now on is the descent of a fragile woman with a great appetite for life and a passionate love for music. She is robbed of the life she loves and the man she desires. The juxtaposition of Clara’s life and the outbreak of the second world war is incredibly masterful. We see Clara like a figure on a stage and the history of the second world war like a moving canvas in the back. Clara plants vegetables, Hitler invades Poland, Clara cooks marmalade, Hitler drives the British into the sea at Dunkirk… It is breathtaking. And so is Clara’s story. After leading a normal life at first and having a child, the narrator, all of a sudden, she slowly goes mad. She who always fantasized a lot invents a dozen ways of killing herself. Of course she thinks of taking the child with her. After a breakdown, she ends in the asylum where she stays for a long time. Although she leaves the asylum again, she returns to it all through her life until her violent death.

Apart from being the story of a life, a century, it is also an homage to classical music and art in general. You will discover many names of musicians you know and maybe a few new ones.

Widmer takes barely 140 condensed pages to tell this century long story. It has a staccato rhythm. Phrases vary considerably in length. Fragments alternate with parataxis and longer phrases with subordinate clauses. That doesn’t make for smooth reading. At least not in German. Another writer would have told this story in 300-500 pages but he would never have made you feel as if you had jumped from a cliff at the end of it. And still, and this is Widmer’s most prominent feature as a storyteller, you know you have witnessed beauty. There is always something tragic about beauty… It doesn’t last, does it? Beauty has to be captured in art. And that’s what Widmer excels at.

20 thoughts on “Urs Widmer: My Mother’s Lover (2011) aka Der Geliebte der Mutter (2000) One of the Finest Swiss Authors Finally Translated

  1. “We see Clara like a figure on a stage and the history of the second world war like a moving canvas in the back. Clara plants vegetables, Hitler invades Poland, Clara cooks marmalade, Hitler drives the British into the sea at Dunkirk… It is breathtaking.”
    This sounds great. I like when a writer manages to mix History with personal destinies.
    Good news : it has been translated in French, there’s even a paperback edition. I’ll probably miss a lot about classical music references as I’m really ignorant in that field.

    • I saw he was translated into French… Maybe it isn’t even the only one. I always liked him a lot. He has written some sort of a sequel. “Book of the Father” that I will have to read as it is said to be the other part of the story but told in a completely different voice. I am very curious.

      • There are other books in French and “Book of the Father” has been translated too.

        I’d be curious too, to hear the other side of the story. It’s something I often wonder when I read a book narrated through a unique point of view: how do the other protagonists analyse/live through the events?

        Something else: the beginning — the son telling the story of his mother’s hidden love — reminded me of The Bridges of Madison County.
        You said it is based on a true story, have you read something about the real persons?

        • Well it is in part the story of Widmer’s own mother but I don’t know all that much about him. People always suspected that the conductor was Paul Sacher but it wasn’t confirmed. Apparently the Book of the Father is more explicit. I will have to read it next. The book I liked best is called Der blaue Syphon in German.

    • You are very welcome. I think he deserves being known better. While reading it did remind me of Véronique Olmi. Didn’t you read that as well? Only Widmer is much more cosmopolitan and history is so important.

  2. The book sounds intense…but it was a surprise when I finally read the end of your post…only 140pages?
    It doesn’t seem like a story from that thin book. A character drive book usually takes more pages than that.
    The son who wrote the story is the lover’s son as well, right?

    I guess some great stories do come in small books. One of Stephen King’s bests, Shawshank Redemption also come in small package, a 107 pages novella.

    • I very often don’t indicate the lenght of a book but felt I had to do so here, so people get a feeling how condensed it is. I still left a lot of the very important parts out. I didn’t know about that Stephen King book, actually didn’t know he ever wrote something short… Might be worth a try.
      The son is the narrator and the main person’s son, yes.

      • It’s short because it was a novella.there are 4 great novellas in one book. I am currently reading the other novellas from the same book.

        have you seen the movie?

        • No, I haven’t, seems as if Bookaroundthecorner has seen it. I sam the book on amazon, almost ordered it and then saw he has a new one with stories Full Dark, No Stars… and had to order it… I haven’t read anything by him in a very long time and wouldn’t want to read a novel at the moment…

  3. Caroline, have you ever read “My Father’s Glory” and “My Mother’s Castle” by Marcel Pagnol? Haunting and beautiful, but should be read in French. I’m not sure if they were ever translated, but they were made into excellent films. This review reminds me of them.

    • What a great reading suggestion! I saw the movies and bought the paperbacks, oldfashioned, absolutely great looking, in a secondhand shop… and forgot about them…I read his Jean de Florette and Manon of the Springs… and meant to read as much Pagnol as possible… Thanks for reminding me. It’s actually funny that you make this comparison because I always thought Widmer had a very French way of telling his story… Only Pagnol takes more time, elaborates more.

  4. I’m adding this to my reading list–another author I’m not at all familiar with. I read Le Grand Meaulnes last year and liked it, so this makes me curious to read this as well. I don’t see it on Amazon.com, so I suspect it is only be published in the UK, but I can still at least order it from over there.

    • You will like this much better… I am sure. They don’t really have much in common apart from the point of view. Widmer is fantastic, I hope this will trigger more translations… There is prejudice when it comes to Swiss authors.

  5. Pingback: My Mother’s Lover by Urs Widmer « Book Around The Corner

  6. I heard about Urs Widmer from Lizzy, and I’ve been tempted to read this one for a while now 🙂 But there are just too many good writers out there 😦

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