Elke Schmitter: Mrs Sartoris – Frau Sartoris (2000)

Mrs Sartoris

Part confessional, part thriller, Elke Schmitter’s explosive first novel is the story of Margaret. Jilted by a rich boyfriend when only eighteen, she finds herself many years later married, with a daughter, to Ernst, a war veteran with a penchant for routine and order. Living out her days in a small German village she is emotionally frozen, until one day she embarks on passionate affair with a married man. Planning to run away with him, she seems unaware that her plan is a fantasy that can never come true, and similarly unaware of the shocking repercussions that could result from chasing such a dream.

Why does someone commit a crime? Especially someone who isn’t really a criminal, but an ordinary person. Mrs Sartoris is an ordinary person, still, she kills someone. How that happened and who she killed is at the heart of this captivating and masterful novel.

Mrs Sartoris is a troubled woman. She drinks too much, is unhappy and once upon a time she spent a few months in a psychiatric hospital. She lives with her mother-in-law, her husband and her daughter in a small house. The only person in her life she’s truly attached to is her mother-in-law. She makes life bearable. There is no warmth between her and her husband and, as we will learn later, there are reasons for that.

The book opens with a cryptic short paragraph in which Mrs Sartoris, who tells the whole story, writes about an incident. What it is will be revealed very slowly. Small chapters on that incident change with chapters on her life. Her childhood and unhappy love story, her dreadfully boring and conventional married life, her affair with Michael.

Mrs Sartoris isn’t an entirely unreliable narrator but she’s highly deranged and depressed which clouds her judgement.

The story as such is interesting and suspenseful. And there is a twist at the end, which is very well done. But what makes this book truly masterful is the way it’s told. There are passages in the narration that I would call “litanies” in which Mrs Sartoris enumerates things. In one instance she talks about all the meaningless sentences she doesn’t want to say anymore. Reading them in rapid succession is eerie to say the least and makes the reader think how often one uses empty phrases just like that. How many meaningful conversations do we have day in and out? Another litany enumerates all the things Mrs Sartoris has never had in her life and this reveals so much bleak emptiness, it’s  chilling.

Mrs Sartoris has been compared to Mme Bovary. I don’t think I would have made the comparison if the blurb hadn’t told me to make it. Sure, there is an adultery, but other than that? Mrs Sartoris’ husband is as conventionally boring as Charles Bovary, Mrs Sartoris is lost in a dream world and her lover resembles Mme Bovary’s lover a tiny bit but that’s that. I would, if I had to, much rather compare it to Tim Parks’ Loving Roger.

Mrs Sartoris is the tightly woven story of a life, an analysis of a crime written in a chilling, and revealing style that will haunt readers for quite a while.

For another take on the novel here is Stu’s review.