Each of us has their own rhythm of suffering.—Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary.
The entry for 24 October 1911 in Kafka’s Diaries reads:
Yesterday it occurred to me that I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no ‘Mutter’, to call her ‘Mutter’ makes her a little comic […], we give a Jewish woman the name of a German mother, but forget the contradiction that sinks into the emotions so much the more heavily, ‘Mutter’ is peculiarly German for the Jew, it unconsciously contains, together with the Christian splendor Christian coldness also, the Jewish woman who is called ‘Mutter’ therefore becomes not only comic but strange. Mama would be a better name if only one didn’t imagine ‘Mutter’ behind it.
Kate Zambreno composed Book of Mutter, whose title is taken from Kafka’s diary, over the course of the thirteen years following her mother’s painful death from lung cancer. Zambreno’s writing is a beautiful mixture of memoir, poetry, literary reflection, historical commentary and diary that is impossible to classify into one genre. Similar to Kafka, there is a feeling that the author’s process of writing is an active and cathartic way for her to remember her mother and their complicated relationship and to work through her grief:
I began to attempt to write to make sense of all of these different memories and tenses of my mother. Was, is, was… It infected everything. I kept on trying to write her down. My dead mother wormed her way into every book I have ever written. I kept on trying to erase her from the pages, change her into other mothers.
And how this thing has expanded and contracted over the years—my mother book my monster book.
Throughout the Book of Mutter Zambreno includes quotes and stories about other authors who have chosen to write in order to soothe a loss. Virginia Wolfe, Roland Barthes and Peter Handke all make an appearance in Zambreno’s text. Furthermore, there is a sense from the fragmented and random order of the text that Zambreno’s attempt to write a book of mutter becomes this monstrous exercise in rambling; at times she feels like a raving Cassandra figure that is screaming for comfort and her mutter turns into a muttering. Her very last words written in the book are “I mutter, mutter, mutter.”
Another recurring theme throughout Zambreno’s book is that of photographs and images and how we use these things to reconstruct someone who no longer exists. Roland Barthes is the perfect author for her to incorporate into her text since his writing about photographs was deeply affected by the loss of his mother. She quotes from Barthes’s Camera Lucida: “It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more.” Throughout her journey of mourning Zambreno continually turns to family photographs to reconstruct, to recognize the woman she knew. Her mother didn’t like to be photographed so she oftentimes was the one taking the pictures. The photos of her childhood that don’t include an image of her mother still feel like the ghost or shadow of her mother is present since she is the one behind the camera.
One final theme that runs throughout Book of Mutter is that of objects and how we associate certain objects with those we’ve lost. “Yet the objects we collect, they can nourish us too,” Zambreno writes. The objects that her mother collected were a comfort to her and now become a solace for Zambreno herself. Her mother had a collection of woven baskets, Clinique lipsticks, her children’s school papers and report cards, and gardening tools. The saddest collection of all is the contents of her mother’s purse which she brings to her in the hospital:
I brought one of her purses to the hospital. It sat on the table next to her bed. It was black with a gold clasp. She guarded it fiercely. It was the only thing she could hold onto, something that was hers, something that reflected who she used to be.
In the purse:
a used tissue
a sample hand lotion
a lipstick never used
a wallet without money
crumbling brown tobacco lining the bottom
In the end all of these things—writing, photographs, objects become apocrypha, which she points out comes from the Greek “things having been hidden away”, because she can never fully know or recapture who her mother was. Like Odysseus, attempting to embrace his mother whom he meets in the afterlife, he tries to grasp her shadowy image three times but does so in vain because there is a permanent division between body and spirit, life and death.
For me reading Zambreno’s book was more than just about contemplating grief; it is a book about the importance of the parent-child relationship and it made me more fully aware of my relationship with my own daughter and how I spend my time with her. She calls me “mama” or “mommy” which might seem jejune since she is now in middle school. But I’ve always found both of these titles more endearing and warmer than “mom” or “mother” (or Kafka’s mutter.) I hope she always feels the same warmth towards me. Which objects, spaces, photographs will she one day associate with me?
About the Author: