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.