Mother. Diary of a Farewell

Melitta Breznik

German, 2020

“The hours slip by while I talk to her, and I talk myself into a trance that transforms my pain into mellow grief. I sit by Mother’s bed. The photo albums and my notebook are on the bedside table, next to them a mug of peppermint tea. I sip the tea from time to time feel the taste of my childhood on my tongue.”

Nominated

Mother. Diary of a Farewell is a finely tuned account of the final weeks of a mother’s life, as chronicled by her daughter, who has become her carer. Breznik observes both her mother and herself, and reflects on their occasionally fraught mother–daughter relationship. In parallel, she recounts her family history, and in doing so links back to her 1995 debut, Night Duty, a memoir about her late father.

What happens when a long life flickers and dies? This is what Melitta Breznik describes, based on her 91-year-old mother’s slow demise. The perspective she brings to bear is that of a professional physician and carer, but also of a loving daughter who, for the last time, steps out of her own world back into her mother’s. Roles are reversed – she is no longer a little girl, but a mature woman taking on responsibility for her mother.

The chronicle of this farewell spans just over six weeks, from 17 October to 1 December, yet Breznik packs more than one life into this timeframe. Caring for her mother drives the author to her mental and physical limits, especially as the daily demands increase, but she is comforted by memories of a childhood that was beautiful, if not always easy. The memories are also tinged with sadness: “I am mourning my own childhood too, which will vanish irretrievably with Mother.” (p. 87)

Breznik’s narrative style – always in the first person – is spare, unadorned, almost journalistic. “There’s a taboo in the air, as if dying is a private matter and no-one but family can be involved” –Breznik seeks to break this taboo with her diary. She lets us share intimate moments as “Mother” approaches death, as a daughter prepares to say goodbye, as the two of them share memories and family anecdotes. There is no sensationalism or voyeurism here, just unflinching honesty. It is a wonderful and moving declaration of a daughter’s love for her mother.

Nominated for the Austrian Book Prize 2020

Text by Jan-Jesse Müller

Title
Mutter. Chronik eines Abschieds
Publisher
Luchterhand, Munich
Translation rights
Anna Webber, United Agents, awebber@unitedagents.co.uk
Publication date
May 2020
Pages
160
ISBN
978-3-630-87506-4

Author

Melitta Breznik

Melitta Breznik, born in Kapfenberg, Austria, in 1961, studied medicine in Graz and Innsbruck and trained as a doctor before specialising in psychiatry and psychotherapy. She lives in the Swiss canton of Graubünden (Grisons). Melitta Breznik is the author of the following books, all published by Luchterhand: Nachtdienst (a short story, 1995, translated by Roslyn Theobold as Night Duty for Steerforth Press), Figuren (Figures, short stories, 1999), Das Umstellformat (The Adjustment Format, a short story, 2002), Nordlicht (Northern Lights, a novel, 2009), and Der Sommer hat lange auf sich warten lassen (It’s Been a Long Wait for Summer, a novel, 2013). She was awarded the Swiss ProLitteris Prize in 2020.

Photo: Peter von Felbert