By Matt Hanson
Michel Layaz’s narrator is juggling much more than nostalgia — his traumas are overwhelmingly odd and disturbing, almost to the point of absurdity.
My Mother’s Tears by Michel Layaz. Translated by Tess Lewis. Seagull Books, The Swiss List, 192 pages, $21.50.
The narrator of French/Swiss novelist Michel Layaz’s novella My Mother’s Tears, first published in 2003 but newly arrived via English translation, is in the midst of a very specific kind of emotional crisis. After his difficult and demanding mother’s death, he’s returned home to clear out the personal objects that have accumulated over a lifetime. Each of them holds a specific meaning which is inexorably entwined with a memory of his childhood. Layaz is fascinated by the way in which these tokens from his past still hold a powerfully Proustian sway over him.
This is by no means an unusual experience — many people feel overwhelmed by the experience of returning home after many years. Everything feels pregnant with different kinds of meanings. What used to be so meaningful — indeed, what filled up a world once upon a time — can seem oddly foreign, distant, newly strange. But Layaz’s narrator is juggling much more than nostalgia — his traumas are overwhelmingly odd and disturbing, almost to the point of absurdity.
Not long after throwing out a pair of his mother’s old shoes, he is sitting at a table with his head in his hands, poking at his closed eyes with his fingertips. The skin around his eyes is slightly irritated. “I press once more on the same spot, but with more strength, more conviction, and the more I press, the more the skin swells…I quickly summon all the strength I can bring to my fingertips…I scratch, I press my fingers into my eyes…My eyes are mush but I don’t stop, caught between unbearable pain prolonged only by not ending this carnal shudder, this gasping massacre.” I understand where he’s coming from — I admit that I’ve been neurotically compelled to do this kind of thing before — but the last two terms he uses to describe the sensation are a little too overdramatic. “Carnal shudder” makes a certain kind of neurotic sense, but “massacre” seems to be overstating the case considerably. “The mystery and panic of the eye” is an interesting phrase, but it’s a little too grandiose for what it describes.
In contrast, at times there is a lucid plaintiveness to the narrator’s ruminations: “I’d like to have binoculars instead of eyes. I would see every detail of your face. Without your knowing, I’d see its most subtle inflections and would experience the world’s inflections. With that, it might be easier to breathe.” This is a lovely way of suggesting an emotion that is very difficult to render into words. It might be directed at his departed mother, or perhaps someone else, but either way the sentiment still conveys an ineffable desire.
There is a sweetness, almost a reverence, to some of the ways in which the narrator talks about the objects that fill up the rooms of his parent’s old house. Things like candlesticks, darts, carving knives, and orchids all seem to intimate tiny worlds that have stories to tell. But these anecdotes alternate with darker, more complex reminiscences about his mother and her odd and sometimes faintly sinister peccadilloes. When certain surreal memories start to bubble up, My Mother’s Tears becomes more than a little weird.
One paragraph describes the revulsion the narrator feels towards a fellow passenger on a bus — “sleeping an animal sleep, exposes his baseness — mouth agape, cheek pressed flat, neck flushed, Adam’s apple twitching — is a sight that disgusts me.” The bus is apparently careening “like a madman over bumpy roads” which gives the narrator’s response some kind of sense but at the same time his murmured reproaches for this innocuous fellow passenger’s obliviousness comes off as annoyingly self-centered and cliched, like a minor character in Sartre’s Nausea. Layaz’s narrator rhetorically asks “what is more demeaning than this abandon without true fatigue, without voluptuousness, this defection from being?” I’m not sure if I know the answer, and I’m not sure there is one, and I’m not convinced that I should care. What exactly should this snoozing passenger be doing? Freaking out? What good would it do anyway? Expressing revulsion at the world’s lack of cohesion, jeering at the randomness of things? This kind of alienation from the ordinary already been done before, and better.
In a typical chapter, the narrator remembers being in the bathtub as a child, his mother soaping down his tiny body, which gives way to her methodically scratching his head. It is soothing at first, but then “her nails suddenly jab, scrape my skin, back and forth, wounding me. I say nothing. My life contracts into this pain. My mother’s nails persist, meticulously, like hooks carved specifically to dig into my flesh, to mangle, mutilate, ravage it. I picture the blood on my mother’s nails. Would she like to lick it off?” I hope not! This fairly ordinary parent/child experience gives way to something fit for a David Lynch film. It’s hard to tell if this is a dream, the return of a repressed memory, or something in between. Whatever it is, it isn’t made clear, so the concept is that much more disturbing.
In a narrative as elliptical as this, enormous emotional weight is placed on the objects accrued over a lifetime. But there’s not enough context provided to help us understand their essential meaning. Having an unnamed narrator whose biographical chronology isn’t entirely made clear doesn’t necessarily ruin the story in and of itself. Adding some mystery and indeterminacy to a story or a narrator’s background has long served as an effective device in fiction. Readers fill in the blanks because they long to know more, intrigued to close the rhetorical circuit with their own imaginations.
But it is a tricky strategy. Especially when readers aren’t provided with enough backstory/detail to see (or feel) what makes the things in the narrative important — Why is his mom so weird? Why is the narrator so devoted to her? What’s more, the character who means the most to the protagonist and his meditations, his mother, is portrayed solely through brief, intense, dreamlike glimpses. There simply isn’t enough essential information here to become invested in the characters. Mystery, by all means — but when our curiosity isn’t rewarded, interest, even in a mother’s tears, fades away.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.