Elke Schmitter’s Mrs Sartoris has been described as ‘an explosive first novel – Madame Bovary in modern Germany – about a wife and mother whose failed love affairs have driven her to the edge of sanity and to a startling attempt at vindication.’ It has been translated from its original German by Carol Brown Janeway, and was first published in English in 2002.
Mrs Sartoris opens in rather an intriguing manner: ‘The street was empty. It was drizzling, as it often did in this region, and twilight was giving way to darkness – so you can’t say that the visibility was good. Perhaps that’s why I was so late in spotting him, but it was also probably because I was deep in thought. I’m often deep in thought. Not that anything comes of it.’
Our protagonist is Margarethe Sartoris, transcribed in the English version as Margaret. After she is jilted by a rich boyfriend, with whom she is much in love, at the age of eighteen, she is sent to a sanitorium. Reflecting on her experiences, she says: ‘A nervous breakdown didn’t belong in our circle. Such a thing required a cause, and the cause arbitrarily existed.’ When she is released, she ‘throws herself into a comfortable and stifling marriage to Ernst, a war veteran with a penchant for routine and order who still lives with his mother in a small German village.’
Margaret, who has a wealth of psychological scars attained in her past, quickly becomes dissatisfied in her choice, and ‘neither Ernst’s adoration not the birth of a daughter can reawaken her frozen emotions.’ Of her decision to marry Ernst, she writes: ‘From that moment on, it was a form of ice-cold delirium. When I awoke next morning, I allowed myself an instant’s reflection – but my mind was made up. I had enormous willpower, and I had no desire to stop myself. I was grateful for the rage that had swallowed everything up: the exhaustion of the last six months, the sense of indifference and alienation and the feeling of not being at home in the world. I thought of all that and was terrified.’
When she first studies her daughter, Daniela, whilst in the hospital’s maternity ward, Margaret muses: ‘She had inherited nothing from either of us… Ernst’s hair was mouse brown, and my own mop of curls was dark blond… and this daughter of mine, my first and last, had red-gold down on her head and was so delicate she could disappear at any moment, whereas the rest of us were tall and quite well built.’ She is both loving towards, and scared of, her daughter, and becomes indifferent towards Ernst, a catalyst which pushes her in the direction of affairs with a series of troubled males.
Mrs Sartoris is structured in a series of rather short sections, which contain both threads of Margaret’s present story, and memories and reflections of scenarios in her past. Schmitter’s portrayal of Margaret is a searching one, and there is a strength in both her writing and her creation of a believable narrative voice. Mrs Sartoris does become taut and tense as it progresses, and is engaging from the first. Despite being rather a slight book, it is packed with a lot of depth and feeling, as well as much darkness.