Tag Archives: Peirene Press

The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke (trans. Jamie Bulloch)

imgres-1Peirene Press is doing an amazing job of creating a space for themselves in the world of books as a publisher of punchy, meaty and memorable translations of short European fiction.  The Mussel Feast is the second of their books I’ve read and I have been blown away again by the quality of writing, the narrative style and the amount that can be packed into so few pages.  Not to mention the beauty of the translation from the original German.

Peirene curate their books by theme; this year’s is Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments.  Birgit Vanderbeke wrote her debut, The Mussel Feast (Das Muschelessen), just before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the action mirrors the feeling of revolution that was in the air all over Eastern Europe at that time.  She very cleverly uses the idea of a family awaiting the return of a tyrannical father to explore how revolutions starts.    I really enjoyed reading it, despite a slightly oppressive overtone, I was desperate for the characters to follow through with their mini revolution, should the opportunity arise.

A mother and her two teenage children await the husband and father who has been away on business and is due to return with good news about his job.  All afternoon they have been preparing 4 kilos of mussels, the standard family celebratory meal of choice, although only the favourite of the father.  He is uncommonly late, so they wait, and become impatient.  While they wait, they begin to talk and soon stories emerge and the three discuss things they’ve never talked of before.  None of them seems happy and as the minutes tick by it becomes clear that they would be fine and much more able to relax if the head of the family never returned.

On the surface this is a story of family discontent, three members ruled over by a controlling, unflinching and inflexible father and husband; a patriarchal megalomaniac.  He runs his family with a rod of iron, stamping out any misdemeanor before it becomes embedded, controlling through fear and thinking up interesting punishments.

My father regarded flights of fancy as childish, my father stood for sober objectivity and reason, and of course my mother showed consideration for his objectivity and reason, conforming and switching to wifey mode when he came home….You see we all had to switch for my father, to become a proper family, as he called it, because he hadn’t had a family, but he had developed the most detailed notions of what a proper family should be like, and he could be extremely sensitive if you undermined these notions. (pgs 17 & 22)

Looking a little deeper at the wife and children’s unhappiness and their murmurings of dissent having finally found safety in numbers, you begin to see the similarities of their microcosm rebellion with a much larger revolution, the snowball effect of losing all fear in community and togetherness.  It becomes a commentary on the wave of revolution that flowed across Eastern Europe, gathering speed until it was battering down the Berlin wall and knocking on the very symbol of German separation, the Brandenburg gate itself.  Because of her observation on “die Wende”, Vanderbeke’s book has been a staple on the German school curriculum for some years.

Its place on that curriculum might also have something to do with its unusual form.  It is narrated by the teenaged daughter in one, sometimes breathless, paragraph (which is why I think the translation is amazing, Jamie Bulloch has done an great job with this text).  This structure gives the whole thing much more of a confessional feel, a means of catharsis or even a testimony.  It makes for interesting reading, just make sure you don’t get distracted and lose your place – this form makes it more difficult to find where you were!  It shouldn’t be too much of an issue as you can read the The Mussel Feast, like all of Peirene’s titles, in one sitting.

So my advice would be; make a pot of coffee, find a quiet corner and get stuck in!

Thank you to Peirene Press for sending me this copy.

My reading year 2012

This year reading has been pretty similar to previous years.  The books I’ve read have been a mix of recommendations, book club choices and stuff that takes my fancy, chosen at a whim.  Where things have differed massively this year, is this blog.  I started it in February to offload some of my thoughts on books, but it has become so much more than that.  I have met, albeit virtually, many lovely people  through blogging.  Whether that’s readers popping by, or stumbling across other bloggers with interesting things to say about books and reading.

I might not have been dependable as a blogger (just see my last post where I promised one more review this year – that’s not happened!), but I have managed to maintain my reading habit and to some extent upped my game in certain areas by reading books slightly out of my comfort zone.

Having also challenged myself to read a few more books by women, I managed to exceed the number of post 1950 books I wanted to read.  This exercise made me realise that there is some brilliant writing out there by women and I don’t know why I’ve not read more.  I will continue this policy of positive discrimination into next year!

I’ve read so many great books this year, I’m not sure there is much merit in me writing my “Best Books of 2012” but I will mention four books that really touched me and still mean a lot to me weeks and months after finishing them, if you fancy discovering something different in 2013, I can highly recommend any of the following (I’ve left my favourite till last).

TofWHThe first is a classic Victorian novel.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is special for me because unlike other Bronte novels where I slowly grew to admire the characters, I instantly fell in love with Helen and Gilbert and was completely swept away with their misery, desperation and difficult lives.   Anne Bronte gets the action going almost immediately in this book, there is very little scene setting, which I absolutely loved.  She also had great courage publishing this book as some of the themes would have shocked to the Victorian reader.  The beautifully descriptive language is a pleasure to read but the main thing going for it is its fabulous story of love overcoming many pitfalls, rooting it most definitely in Bronte country.

L-shapedThe L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks is a book everyone should read just to get a glimpse of what life was like for women and minorities in the 1950’s.  The story follows a young woman after she is thrown out of her home when she accidentally falls pregnant.  She moves into a boarding house and encounters various characters while there.  They become her surrogate family.  It is a wonderful tale of survival and friendship as well as being an amazing commentary on the social norms of the mid twentieth century.  Reading this book makes you appreciate how far we’ve come since then, but also makes you realise how different things were only a generation or so ago.

next worldI read Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (trans. Anthea Bell) for the only common reading/blogging event I joined this year.  German Literature Month took place in November and is quite self-explanatory by its name.  Peirene Press is fairly new and specialises in short European fiction.  They chose a corker with this book.  It well and truly fills its 140 pages with more than some lengthier books manage, focusing on how a small change can cause a devastating ripple effects, leaving upset and destruction in its wake.  It is a sad story of ageing, loneliness and  fear of dying, but it is so sensitively written you can’t help but admire it.

pig ironIf you’ve visited this blog before or read any of my twitter feed you will know that Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers is a real favourite. It is not only my favourite book of this year, it is quite possibly the best book I’ve read for several years.   Reading my original thoughts on Pig Iron, I’m not sure I did it justice.  It is a haunting tale of a young man trying to do the right thing whilst attempting to distance himself from his violent past.  John John Wisdom’s voice is so engaging and realistic it sucks you in and elicits an emotional response.  It is beautifully written and Ben Myers deserves much more praise for this book than he gets.  I tell everyone who will listen how brilliant it is and now I’m repeating myself to you!

So there you have it.  There is a definite theme running through the four books getting a special mention above.  They all deal with loneliness, personal hardship and dealing with the crap life deals you sometimes.  Maybe, these sorts of books make me appreciate what I have in my own life, who knows?!  One thing I do know is that I’m looking forward to finding some more gems next year – I’ve already read a couple that I’ve not managed to review in December.  So roll on midnight and a new year of exciting bookish finds!

Next World Novella – Matthias Politycki (trans. Anthea Bell)

This is my first review as part of German Literature Month and I don’t think I could have chosen anything more stunning as an opener.  Peirene Press claim to offer translated fiction that can be read in one sitting.  Next World Novella (Jenseitsnovella) packs a punch in its 140 pages.  It is a compelling and quite spellbinding tale of love, death, relationships, deception and disappointment.

Hinrich, a Sinologist in his 60s, enters his study one morning expecting to find his wife Doro, also an academic, editing his work as usual.  She is there, but upon close inspection Hinrich realises the smell he thought was rotting flowers is actually the beginnings of death decay.  His wife has died at the desk while working.  He is devastated, but wants to spend time with her, so doesn’t phone a doctor, ambulance or funeral home.  This day he spends with Doro, while she becomes ever stiffer, will be the most enlightening of his life.  The church tower clock in the square strikes the hours as Hinrich discovers things about his relationship with Doro that he had no inkling of while she was alive.   Doro and Hinrich’s relationship was based on a promise which was a lie all along.  When they were still students, Doro tells Hinrch she is petrified of dying and obsessed with a painting depicting the lake the dead must swim across to reach the afterlife.  Hinrich adores the distant and unattainable Doro, so to win her over he promises to help her when the time comes to cross the lake – she is convinced, but he doesn’t truly believe in the lake and Doro eventually realises his lie.

Before she died, Doro was editing a piece of long forgotten fiction Hinrich had once attempted to write.  She annotates the story with her own commentary, remarking on its similarity to a recent episode in Hinrich’s life.  This episode is triggered by laser eye treatment to correct extreme myopia.  After the treatment his life comes into focus, and he notices things which were previously a blur.  This revelation brings about a sort of mid-life crisis, he becomes infatuated and obsessed with a woman he sees in a bar.  Doro’s annotations reveal that his wife befriends the same woman.  The more he re-reads his fictional story and his wife’s notes, the more he feels disassociated from the woman he married and loved.

In New World Novella Matthias Politycki has created a piece of short fiction that reveals so much in just a few pages.  Through his wife’s notes, Hinrich’s marriage is revealed as something very different to what he thought.  Doro – who is dead at the beginning of the book, reveals her intellect and forthright personality through her annotations.   As Hinrich reads his wife’s vitriolic scribble, the reader is shown that a small change can cause a ripple effect and devastation to relationships.  It is a sad, sad story – I felt really quite emotional reading it.  At the same time, however, I loved the writing so much (and Anthea Bell deserves serious praise here for a fabulous translation), I felt strangely quite uplifted by it.  On a purely personal note, I was reminded of scenes from my student days while studying at Trier University.  I had a job at a Kneipe called Pumpe on a tiny side street in the town centre.  The bars described in this book reminded me of that dingey place where I waited tables or worked behind the bar, with its host of oddball regular drinkers, guzzling beer and Feigling, arguing into the night, the pub regularly staying open until dawn.  These are happy memories for me, and this book brought them to the fore, having not thought about Pumpe for several years.

I will admit that I wasn’t immediately convinced by the ending, but having thought about it a bit more over the last few days, I’ve realised it is there to remind us not to take things for granted and to be honest in our relationships, so I think it is apt.  I’m really pleased to have picked this up as part of German Literature Month and I will try to seek out more translations from Peirene Press as a result.