July 25, 2014 5:03 pm

‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’, by Edwin Mortier

An elderly Belgian woman records her experiences of the first world war

Erwin Mortier is almost too beautiful a writer. His sentences are so supple, so soporific, that to read them is to be dunked, sleepily, as if into a half-remembered dream. His new novel considers just this: the haziness of recollection and the difficulty of representing the past in words.

Translated from the original Dutch, While the Gods Were Sleeping is like a Russian doll in which narratives sit within narratives. An elderly Belgian woman, documenting her life through a vast archive of notebooks, records her experiences of the first world war. In her youth she had been stranded, moments from the western front, at the house of a relative with her stiff, bourgeois mother.

The novel is a study of memory, and of language itself, with the footprint of Proust visible on every page as Mortier and his protagonist wrestle with their own subjectivity. Its importance, though, is in documenting a war of which all that remains are second-hand memories and scarred, poppy-strewn fields.

When the Gods Were Sleeping, by Edwin Mortier, translated by Paul Vincent, Pushkin Press, RRP£18.99, 368 pages

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