9 December 2017

Louis Wolfson: Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu de mai mille977 au mouroir memorial à Manhattan (1984; revised 2012 )

This book – by an American – is one of the most amazing ever written in any language. I've mentioned it before, so I'll be brief with the general background here, which is in a little more detail in the link at the bottom. Louis Wolfson's previous Le Schizo et ses langues (1970) contained a Preface by Gilles Deleuze and received an enthusiastic welcome by Raymond Queneau and J. B. Pontalis. Michel Foucault, J. M. G. Le Clézio and Paul Auster have also expressed their fascination for the man. This is Wolfson's 2012 update of his Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu du mois de mai mille977 au mouroir memorial à Manhattan (1984): on the surface, simply about the death of his mother.

I've already stated that, after being sent to a psychiatric hospital in his adolescence, diagnosed as a schizophrenic and subjected to EST (or ECT 'therapy' in English), Wolfson emerged into the outside world hating English, his 'mother' tongue, the language of the mother who subjected him to psychiatric abuse. So, teaching himself French, German, Hebrew and Russian, he devised an extremely complex way to by-pass English by automatically mentally converting sounds and meanings into equivalent sounds and meanings in those other languages. His constant use of his cassette player and his headphones also helped to drown out his intrusive mother tongue.

When I wrote the previous post I hadn't read Ma mère, musicienne, ..., I'd only read reviews of Wolfson's books and articles about him. I'd imagined that this three-hundred page book, dressed in black and where Wolfson sort of makes his peace with his sort of aggressor, would be rather bleak and daunting. How wrong can you be? This reads very much like an accomplished novel, the writer knows how to lead the reader into the story and it's actually surprisingly humorous in many parts.

In fact, although in places Wolfson's obsessions show through, it's nevertheless really surprising how, er, 'normal' he seems, and the book in parts reads as though the apparently sane aren't so 'normal': in other words he's turning madness on its head: how about his brilliant reference (for once in English) to 'Harry Pot o' Shit'? Could any comedian do a better put-down of J. K. Rowling?

Yes, Ma mère, musicienne, ... is about Louis Wolfson's mother's death, and is punctuated throughout with Rose Wolfson's diary notes of her illness (ovarian cancer), the times she sees the doctor, the medication she's given, etc. But in the first half of the book Rose plays second fiddle to the horses Wolfson obsessively backs, and the reader is treated to betting odds, scrupulous details of how he made his way to the stadia, his arguments with a black bus driver (often called a 'nigger': Wolfson has his prejudices), his preoccupation with the cost of things, and so on. In the second half of the book, 'les canassons' ('the nags') give way to Wolfson reading up on cancer.

Wolfson, who lived for a while in Montréal, can certainly write French, although inevitably he has his eccentricities: he uses the archaic 'vivoir' for 'salon', for instance, and the word 'couple' is adopted for a couple of anything; several times, we read 'piastres' instead of 'dollars', and 'liard' is used a few times; he appears to have a healthy hatred for television, and frequently follows it with 'cancérigène ?' in brackets. He also uses the expresssion 'peu ou prou' ('more or less') and the word 'nonobstant' ('notwithstanding') a great deal. He is convinced, as he frequently mentions, that his paranoia is iatrogenic.

These little quirks, tics of language, call them what you will, might sound irritating, but they are all part of the framework of Wolfson's personality, and they very much add to the reader's knowledge of the man as a whole: there's nothing artificial there, we have to conclude – this is Louis Wolfson. And this is a hell of a book.

Link to my previous post on Louis Wolfson:
Louis Wolfson and Schizophrenic Languages

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