Urs Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover

Urs Widmer~Switzerland

He’d been a musician, a conductor.  Three days before he died, he conducted his final concert in the Stadthalle.  Gyorgy, Ligeti, Bartok, Conrad Beck.–My mother loved him all  her life.  Not that he noticed.  That anyone noticed.  No one knew of her passion, not a word did she ever speak on the subject. ‘Edwin,’ mind you, she would whisper when she stood alone at the lake, holding her child’s hand.  There, in the shade, surrounded by quacking ducks, she’d look across at the sunlit shore opposite.  ‘Edwin!’ The conductor’s name was Edwin.

Many may not have heard of Urs Widmer, but if you’re wanting to get a good taste of modern Swiss literature, he’s definitely the man to start reading.  Born in 1938, he looks like the love child of Perec and Gene Hackman.  And if it weren’t for Seagull Books, we may not have had the pleasure of reading this contemporary author.     My Mother’s Lover is a quick-paced and tragic tale of obsession.  If you’re into grim fairy tales about unrequited love, this is the book for you.  Beginning around the turn of the century, it chronicles the love affair between Edwin and Clara. 

At turns digressive and narrative, the first part of the book focuses on their burgeoning relationship and their familial heritage.  They meet in the ’20’s in a town in Switzerland.  Edwin is a poor musician and Clara is rich and beautiful.  Edwin, remote and talented, conducts The Young Orchestra which dares to bring the works of new composers to his town.  Half the audience would cheer and half would hiss in disapproval. Clara, a devout music lover, becomes a volunteer secretary for Edwin and the Young Orchestra who are youthful, eager, and all working for free. Clara does an excellent job fixing whatever problem arises and without much notice from Edwin.  Until a trip to Paris when after a joyous performance, the go back to her room and consummate their relationship. 

After this, the Depression hits and tragedy strikes Clara.  Her father dies (her mother had been dead many years) and she loses everything.  Because Edwin is becoming successful, he offers her a room.  Soon after her father’s death, she visits his relatives in Italy.  Welcomed with love and fanfare, she feels a unity she has not felt before and admires the strength of her uncles. When she returns home, Edwin is cold and cruel, only visiting her to sate his sexual needs.  She becomes pregnant.  Edwin cannot abide this at his point in his career.  She aborts.  Edwin’s best friend, Wern, than asks her to escort him on a trip to Frankfurt.  When they return, she is heartbroken to learn that Edwin has married a rich heiress and lives on the lake in huge mansion.  By this time, she has quit her job with The Youth Orchestra
out of anger.

This is when Widmer covers a lot of historical ground.  Clara marries and lives on the other side of the lake from Edwin.  Widmer decides never to mention the husband’s name or anything about their relationship, which is because her love is for Edwin only and he doesn’t matter to her.  At night, she walks along the lake and takes the heaviest stone she can find in her arms and walks into the lake repeating ‘Edwin’.  This ritual continues, even when she has a child and replaces the stone with a child.  This is a gruesome image and it is explored more in the dreams she has which are blood-filled and violent. 

This obsession with Edwin is never revealed to anyone.  And is often the case with unrequited love, if it is not processed, it implodes and madness becomes the result.  As her madness becomes frenetic, Edwin’s success and riches abound.  Eventually, she becomes hospitalized and given electroshock treatments.  When she returns home, it is during the lead-in to WWII, and she rips out all the flowers and begins to plant trees and vegetables.  This is where Widmer’s intention of paralleling the rise of Hitler and the demise of Clara who could be seen as the blind followers of the Nazis and the Fascists, as he cleverly shows in this passage:

She put wood wool beneath the still green strawberries.  She sprayed poison.  (Hitler bombed Coventry to bits.)  She ran with the wheelbarrow, full of peat or old leaves, along the paths between the vegetable patches, paths the width of her feet.  Yes, she ran, she didn’t ever walk.  She forced the garden hose into a mouse hole, turned the water on, and used her shovel to kill the mice that fled from the other holes. (Hitler had now reached Narvik too, the North Pole, or almost.)

The her use of the garden hose on the mice symbolizes Hitler’s hunt for Jews.  These political themes are present in the beginning but grow much more ominous as the novel progresses.  When Clara decides during this time to visit her Italian relatives, she is ignored because of the arrival of Il Duce (Mussolini) at her relatives house for a meal. They have succumbed to Fascism, but Clara is oblivious to who Il Duce is and to the horrific war happening.  All she has is her love for Edwin. 

The prose is clipped and sparse.  Nothing seems extraneous which also speaks well for the translation because his minimal style loses nothing in the translation by Donal McLaughlin.  This reportage style contrasts the sadness that permeates
My Mother’s Lover.  Edwin’s name is used most often and Clara is most often referred to by the narrator, Clara’s son, as ‘my mother.’  This emphasizes the rich and powerful vs. the poor and powerless construct that threads through the narrative as well.

It’s obvious that this isn’t going to end well for Clara.  Until her death, she keeps her devotion as her link to life.  A tragic story, told in a fairy talesque manner,
My Mother’s Lover examines how love destroys in many manners–love of nation, unrequited love and love of self.  The males in the novel are regarded highly while Clara represents the silenced women of a patriarchal society.  And like the men who wage wars, Edwin dismisses Clara and smites a life and a love of a person her never really knew.

My Mother’s Lover

By Urs Widmer
Translated By Donal McLaughlin
Seagull Books
Hardcover, 130 pp.
ISBN: 9781906497965


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