Written in Germany in August 1989 , just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this entriguing monologue is simple in it's telling, but huge in it's comprehension and impact.
One evening, a mother and her two teenage children are awaiting the anticipated return from work of the patriach of the family. Everything has been prepared and set out as usual on the dinner table, but tonight they are having mussels. Tonight is to be a celebration. A surefire promotion is expected and they are waiting for him to announce the wonderful "news." Uncharacteristically, of father there is no sign. Why is he late? Why no phone call explaining his delay?
As the mussels are cooked and allowed to go cold and a bottle of Spatllese is opened and consumed by all three, the atmosphere subtly changes. Told from the daughter's perspective, the lives of these seemingly ordinary people are pulled apart and, glimpse by glimpse, the reader begins to realise that things are not what they seem.
As expected from the wonderful Peirene, a justifiably respected publisher who go from strength to strength in their choice of impeccably translated European fiction, this is another jewel in their crown. This modern German classic by multi award winning Birgit Vanderbeke displays subtle storytelling, which suddenly delivers a virtual punch to the face to the unsuspecting reader, "The Mussel Feast" is a must read and highly recommended.
In this novel, first published in Germany in 1990, a mother and her two children sit at a table with a cooling dish of mussels, awaiting the arrival of the family's father. "The Mussel Feast" is narrated by the daughter in a continuous monologue full of repetition and reported speech. The description of the wait is interspersed with recollections of the past and gradually a picture of the family and its tyrannical head emerges.
The hellish vision revealed by the daughter is often difficult to read, although the book is lightened by moments of wry humour. In her portrait of a family Vanderbeke has given us a microcosm of a repressive state and it is no coincidence that the novel was written shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"The Mussel Feast" is a short book which can be read in a few hours; it leaves a powerful and long-lasting impression, however, and I finished admiring Vanderbeke's skill and wanting to read more of her work.
A mother and her two adolescent children, a boy and a girl, are sitting at the dinner table, mussels almost cooked, tensely awaiting the arrival of the delayed father. Today should have seen him promoted, hence the mussels feast and the wine. But the time for him, always so punctual, to be back has passed, and so starts an incredible, breathless, relentless narrative, as told by the young daughter, while the evening slowly degenerates. The intensity of the monologue catches you as if by a whirlwind, with circles back to the present, and it does not let you go until the very last, dramatic line. This is a superb feast of writing indeed. Minimalist, precise, subdued yet utterly moving, riveting, I was captured and impressed by this book from a german author, written just before the fall of the wall. It would spoil the story to reveal it obviously, let's just say that from a 2 hours situation, broken with revealing flashbacks on the family history, you come to learn a great deal. Story of a family, or of a particular time in Germany, or a timeless tale of tyranny and oppression, there is certainly a lot to ponder about in this powerful, magnificent and rather devastating book. One that certainly stays with the reader and leaves a very distinctive mark in one's memory.
Translated from the German and written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Birgit Vanderbeke's brief debut novel makes for an unusual and very unsettling read. Narrated by an unnamed teenaged girl, we read of how she and her brother and mother are anxiously awaiting the return of her father from his work. He is expecting a promotion and the mother has prepared a huge bowl of mussels for her husband in celebration of his almost certain advancement; she does not particularly care for mussels herself, but she has scrubbed them assiduously under the cold tap and cooked them carefully. At six o'clock, when the father usually returns home, there is no sign of him; the three of them sit around the table unsure of what to do - the father can be a difficult man and none of them want to upset him by starting the celebratory meal without him. However as the time passes and still there is no sign of the father's return, the mother daringly opens a bottle of Spatlese, sharing it between herself and her children and, while the wine flows, the three of them begin to relax and open up with each other. And as the reader listens to the girl's increasingly chilling narrative, we gradually learn that the father is a sadistic tyrant who bullies and terrifies his entire family, and he is all the more frightening because he is convinced that he is helping them to become what he thinks of as a proper family...
Deftly translated by Jamie Bulloch and attractively presented by Peirene Press 'The Mussel Feast' is, as commented at the beginning of this review, an unusual and very unsettling read, and the further one reads, the more unsettled one feels. The narrator's somewhat restrained and repetitive monologue serves to make this story an even more uncomfortable and upsetting read and although I can admire this as a piece of literature, it's not a book I would necessarily recommend to everyone. If you are looking for something well-written, but rather different and possibly disturbing, then this, like some of the other Peirene Press publications, should fit the bill for you.
on 28 May 2013
I love the way the Germanness of German shows through no matter how good the translation (and this one's exemplary) but this grim domestic interior makes Thomas Bernard seem a humourist. Maybe it's the small number of words per line in Peirine's dinky format, but I found myself scrolling forward furiously, something I really hate doing. BOY was I bored!!! I wonder what Katherine Mansfield would have done with this - or my favourite depressive, Mary Lavin? (And can what is presumably neu-alt not be better rendered than by new-old? Reproduction? Retro?)
A mother and her two children, a son and a daughter, are waiting for the father to come home. The mother has prepared an enormous bowl of mussels. While she doesn’t like them very much herself, they are her husband’s favourite dish and so she has spent a long time scrubbing the mussels in cold water. The family waits: he is usually home at six o’clock. He is not home at six o’clock, and while the family waits we learn more about the father and his role in this family mainly through the thoughts of his daughter.
‘It’s astonishing how people react when the routine is disturbed, a tiny delay to the normal schedule and at once everything is different – and I mean everything: the moment a random event occurs, however insignificant, people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose and they tear each other’s heads off, still alive if possible; terrible violence and slaughter, the fiercest wars ensue because, by pure accident, not everything is normal. Broadly speaking, that’s what happened.’
As we wait with the family (where is this father, and why is he late?) the other family members become more alive and step slightly outside the roles they seem to have assumed within the family when the father is present. Time ticks by: perhaps he’s not coming home, but will anyone really care? He has been critical of his wife and of his children, he is inflexible and seems to be uncaring. But in his wife’s words:
‘There is much goodness in him, and he is as noble as a man without real love can be.’
This is a powerful novella. We are left to do our own thinking and form our own conclusions about this family and especially the father’s role. Early anxiety – about making sure that everything is just right for when he returns – decreases as the wife and the children seem to become more relaxed (and how can this be?). And we readers are drawn into the scene: wondering about the father and why he is late, and his impact on his wife and each of his children. We don’t meet the father in person, but by the end of the novella I don’t like him any more than I like the mussels.
In fewer than 120 pages, Ms Vanderbeke creates a story that expands beyond the situation she has described. It took less than two hours to read this novella, but I’m still thinking about the characters. Wondering about the father, and about what happened once the final page was read. Thinking that there has to be more to it.
At only 105 pages in length, this Peirene production is weirdly compulsive. Peirene specialise in translated fiction and you can subscribe, if you wish and receive a small package of books every month. I felt quite tempted, but perhaps I'll read a few more before deciding.
As the Guardian review on the flyleaf says, "This is one of those books that doesn't tell us what to think, but sets us off thinking," and the Independent review says the book is "Sinister, funny and heartening." Funny ha ha, or funny peculiar? Well, neither, or perhaps both.
The family at the heart of the book consists of mother, father and two children. The daughter is the narrator. As the book opens the family is preparing dinner and waiting for the father to come home. There is quite a degree of repeated thinking in the narrator's tale, but there is also a distinctly anxious air. Some of the usual routines are rehearsed, but the father doesn't arrive. We never find out why and are left to wonder. But as the mother and her two children talk and the narrator goes over some of the events of their lives, we get a distinct sense that something is very wrong at the heart of this family.
It would also be very wrong to reveal more of the plot because, in essence, nothing happens. Except, we understand as the family rehearse their past and their future in small asides, casual remarks, revealing moments, and the thoughts of the daughter of the house, a horrific truth is gradually revealed. I was hooked from the first page. A 105 page masterpiece.
Ostensibly a monologue by the unloved, unappreciated, and stubborn daughter of a tyrannical father and his long-suffering wife, as they await his return from an important life-defining interview, this is a novella that becomes both more droll and more tense the longer you read it.
It's grimly, nervously funny in a distinctly Kafkaesque way, with repetition of key words and phrases deftly deployed by Vanderbeke as her fable-like tale becomes ever more incantatory, almost as if a wind-up doll is speaking.
The most vital, potent figure in the whole story, nasty piece of work though he obviously is, turns out to be the absent father, whose tirades, explosive temper, and violent punishments are described again and again by the mouthpiece of this strangely isolated family, which also includes a young son.
It is also of course a kind of allegory about East & West Germany and the lead-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, though nothing is made too blatant. The final pages are chilling, haunting, and tentatively cathartic...
This would work well (perhaps condensed) as a radio monologue. An unusual book that I'm very glad to have found.
on 5 February 2015
This is a compelling read; the author visualises the chains falling away from the Father/Husbands tyranny over his wife, son and daughter. It is domestic abuse where fear won out with collusion over strength of numbers. No-one dares compare their experiences for fear one of the other two will blab. The violence is physical, sexual, financial with negative language, put downs and loveless relationships.
The book starts with hope; the man of the house is returning to a feast celebrating his promotion. When he is late his lack of presence and control leads to a revolution of ideas and reflections. It mirrors the fall of the divisions between East & West in Germany and challenges our prejudice and attitude in relationships.
It is well translated and is poetic prose. However the repeatative style of stressing points is at first funny then a little grating. The lack of breaks in the monologue leaves one wanting to come up for air.
A pleasure to read; it is short enough to return to again and deep enough to reveal more of its treasures for the returning reader.
on 7 February 2013
Not all revolutions have to involve falling walls and tumbling statues - sometimes it's important to stand up against petty tyrants too. In Birgit Vanderbeke's 'The Mussel Feast', a German family waiting for the father to come home start talking about their miserable lives and decide that enough is enough; it's time for the tyrant to fall... It only takes a couple of hours to read, but the author packs a lot into her pages, letting the reader know page by page why the family have got to the point of revolution (and how they let it get that way in the first place). I've read almost all of the Peirene books so far, and this one would be up there with my favourites :)
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