In Praise of Motherhood
136 pp., Zero Books, £9.99.
An effective epigraph should prepare a reader for the rest of the work, and the one for Phil Jourdan’s Praise of Motherhood does exactly that. The quotation from Paul Valéry’s Tel quel, ‘Un lapin ne nous effraie point; mais le brusque départ d’un lapin inattendu peut nous mettre en fuite,’ translates more or less as ‘One rabbit does not scare us in the slightest, but the sudden departure of an unexpected rabbit can make us flee’. It functions as a comment on the suddenness of Jourdan’s mother's death from an aneurysm: ‘But nobody had warned me. Nobody had warned anyone’. Interestingly, the section of Tel quel from which this epigraph comes goes on to observe how a person who lacks foresight is less overwhelmed and flustered by a catastrophe than someone who plans ahead. Jourdan explicitly places himself in this latter category when he writes, ‘And though I didn’t cry I kept a series of notes, tiny memories it was important not to forget, ever-ever, things to stick into the book I had already decided to write about my mother’.
This quality of deliberation appears again midway through the book, when Jourdan writes, ‘I don’t care how things actually happened. I want to rearrange it all, to make it into a streamlined, coherent narrative’. In a way, this desire underpins the project of Praise of Motherhood: memoir as an attempt to make sense of his mother Sofia’s death and her legacy. At the same time, there are novelistic techniques at work, evident in tiny details such as the way Jourdan chooses to spell his mother’s name as ‘Sophia’, but also more broadly in what Caleb J. Ross calls in his foreword a refusal to ‘allow the constraints of perspective or chronology to guide the text’.
Take, for example, Chapter Four, in which Jourdan imagines how his mother might have turned to her friend, a priest, for help in dealing with her son’s teenage struggles with psychosis. The whole chapter is utterly convincing and, were it not for the occasional reminder, a reader could well forget that a good deal of it is being imagined by Jourdan after the fact, ‘guilt-ridden and wearing [his] writer’s hat’. A similar effect occurs in Chapter Ten, where Jourdan imagines the life story of Piotr ‘Brown Bear’ Popov, based on his mother’s claim that she was once a spy, ‘the part of her [he] knew the least, the most surprising aspect of an endless woman now dead but guttering in the back of [his] mind’.
The book continues to eschew the conventional memoir narrative form, yet still persists in elaborating on the book’s portrayal of Jourdan’s mother. Chapter Eleven does this through a mixture of speeches by Jourdan’s parents, each one lopped off at both ends by ellipses, so that they form an accretion of impressions rather than a straightforward narrative thread. Chapter Twelve operates as a series of open letters by Jourdan to different groups of people who crossed his mother’s path, by turns angry (‘Go back to your stupid house with your stupid family and leave me the hell alone, leave my sister alone, and stop attending funerals to which you weren’t invited. Just go away.’) and tender (‘So dear old homeless lady, you will not die while I am around, not because I care about you, but because it’s what my mother would have wanted.’).
In its penultimate chapter, Praise of Motherhood pushes the limits of memoir even further by positing, ‘Let this all have been a lie. Let my mother be sitting here next to me; let her have been here the whole time.’ However, this alternate version of events ultimately devolves into a nightmarish vision of matricide, as his mother falls apart and has to be reassembled using duct tape, only for the rebuilt figure to repeat, ‘You killed me. You killed me. You killed me.’ Yet this grim ending is actually laying the ground for the final chapter’s redemptive opening:
No, I didn’t kill you.
If I had killed you, I would have nothing to write about. I’d already have committed every mistake, burned down every bridge, dismissed every memory I have of you as a facsimile.
You saw the good in me, as I still see the good in you.
In Ross’ forward, he writes that perhaps the book’s ‘great accomplishment is passing on the legacy of what the reader will come to know as a woman simply meant to exist beyond her own years… Jourdan invites the reader to be a member of his family, literally extending his mother’s impact to new generations and new lineages entirely’. Early on in the book, Jourdan writes, ‘Everyone, even in his profoundest hatred, loves his mother’. So whatever his stated reasons for writing Praise of Motherhood, the end result still feels like an incredible act of generosity on his part, affording the reader the privilege of briefly encountering Sofia, this woman who ‘was Love manifest’.
Ian Chung is Fiction Editor at The Cadaverine. He is an MA in English student at the University of Warwick. His work has appeared in Angelic Dynamo, Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure, Foundling Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and The Cadaverine, among others. He has a short story forthcoming in Unthology No. 3 (Unthank Books, 2012). He was nominated by Camroc Press Review for Sundress Publications' Best of the Net 2010. He reviews for The Conium Review, The Cadaverine, Sabotage Reviews and Rum & Reviews Magazine. He also edits Eunoia Review, and has joined Epicentre Magazine as Assistant Editor.