Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, tr. by Adriana Hunter (French)

A single mother of two boys wants to take them on a little holiday near the sea. That might sound simple enough, but for this mother, it is a major life event and a challenge, as she suffers from some kind of mental affliction that normally requires her to take daily medication.

Beside the SeaThis trip is out of the ordinary and we experience it from inside the mind of the mother, the stream of consciousness narrative is so effective here, it gets inside our mind as we read. We feel her sense of anxiety acutely and become almost as sensitive as she is to the threatening hostility of the outside world, that place from which she wishes to protect her children.

She wants them to experience the wonder of the seaside, she takes them for hot chocolate and they visit a funfair, all of which present certain challenges. She observes and reflects on aspects of their characters with a poetic clarity that all mothers will relate to.

“I stopped on the sea wall, my two kids holding my hands, I wondered how to do it, how to say hello to the sea.  It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered. I stayed there, not moving a muscle, watching it…I’d been waiting for it such a long time!”

It is an incredible novella and I appreciated it all the more, ironically, after following  recent discussion on Vishy’s review of Nabakov’s Lolita . They discuss that dilemma many readers have when they recognise an exceptional prose style but feel uncomfortable with the subject or the perceptions of the protagonist. It makes it hard to share an opinion and it takes time to understand our reactions. We observe them first and then try to understand them.

What I found most interesting in those subsequent comments actually came from the more experienced readers, those who had read it more than once and they describe what changed in terms of their own perceptions with subsequent readings. In the first read we react more to the story and character, in subsequent readings it seems the reader has greater insight into the intentions of the writer/artist, beyond surface character and plot.

Those comments made me think more about Beside The Sea and wonder if I might appreciate it more coming to it for a second time. I was in admiration of the style but uncomfortable with the journey. I would recommend it to the curious, thinking reader who isn’t quick to judge and it’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

anxietyThe author does an incredible job in making the reader empathise with the mother, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy going into that state and arriving at its inevitable conclusion.

I also couldn’t help thinking about these kind of stories in the media, the short versions which usually focus on the result and not what leads people to where they end up. I don’t want to spoil the read, so you’ll just have to read it to find out what I mean by that. I think the enjoyment of this book will also be dependent on where one is on the ‘potential for empathy’ scale.

It is an interesting challenge, that an author would choose to travel inside the mind of someone like this and write in the stream-of-consciousness form.  I am sure this was one of the works that the publisher and writer Mieke Ziervogel read as background research in writing her own debut novella ‘Magda‘.

Poignant and thought-provoking given the issues that lie beneath its surface, this is the story that is almost never told and rarely understood by the public, who often only see that end result favoured by the media and judge it far too easily.

This is the first book in the Peirene Press Female Voices: Inner Realities series, all of which I am reading in January 2015.

Next Up : Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan)

Female Voice Inner Realities

Magda

Magda (2)In the course of Meike Ziervogel’s novella, we meet three generations of women in one family, an embittered grandmother, her daughter Magda and the lovesick teenager Helga. They have little in common except the desire to improve their lives and those of their children, something in which all three of them will spectacularly fail.

Magda succeeded in elevating her station in life, though some may have perceived that she achieved notoriety only through marriage. However, from an early age she appeared to decide she deserved better than the position society had set her; taking her destiny into her own hands it manifested physically in the clothes she wore, the adornments with which she accessorised and in her comportment. She kept quiet about her material accumulation, but her gestures spoke volumes and even as she volunteered selflessly to help those less well off, others looked at her with scorn and derision.

Despite her mother’s efforts to do her best by her headstrong daughter, that didn’t mean she should give herself airs and graces she was not born to, at least that was her mother’s opinion.

Was it a consequence of being sent to a convent for schooling at a young age (at the suggestion of a new stepfather) that developed her resourcefulness and sense of superiority? By the time her mother decided to end her education and send her to work in a factory to smother that conceited attitude, the stepfather who had come to adore the charming girl, would have none of it.

We learn of the mother’s perception of Magda after the fall of Hitler, whilst she is being interviewed by a commissar and she is revelling in having an important audience in which to denounce her child – though more through envy, jealousy and a sense of outrage at being unappreciated, forgotten even – not quite the admission of guilt he is looking for, though he hopes it may contribute to establishing Magda’s fanaticism.

It reflects the irony of a mother wanting the best for her baby girl and then having to live in the shadow of who her offspring has become, someone unreachable, who has by necessity let go and left the bitter mother full of resentment behind.

Magda_Goebbels

Magda Goebbels

Upon receiving this book from the author Meike Ziervogel, (also founder of the publishing company Peirene Press), I read a few mentions of intentions to read Magda that indicated a certain wariness, expecting it to be disturbing, as do a few of the more provocative blurb comments, suggesting the portrayal of mother’s as abusers and the association of one mother being a Nazi sympathiser and married to a prominent figure in that regime (Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister).

I didn’t find the book like that at all and found the suggestion that…

…abuse breeds abuse through generation after generation. – Frederick Taylor, author of Exorcising Hitler

…misleading, even false.

I found much to admire in Ziervogel’s depiction of the character Magda, her ability to use disadvantage to her advantage, her separation from her mother allowed her to amass inner resources, to learn another language, to create a persona that made her different. She understood implicitly her mother’s advice that she should better her social status; her falling – or failing – was the direction in which she channelled the fire within her, that desperate need for some kind of meaningful fulfillment, that was at its height at the wrong time in history, her calling came not for Him (God) but for him (the Führer).

She believed in him and his vision with a fanaticism, similar to religious fanaticism and in the same way that a small minority of devout religious followers go to extremes for their beliefs, so too does Magda.

Helga’s is a brief, heart-breaking coming-of-age story, the story within the story and it seems appropriate that she, the innocent, is depicted through a different narrative structure, the intimacy of her private diary.

As I reread the last three chapters a second time, I noted  all the chapter headings which read like flash fiction, framing the story in less than thirty words.

3 generations by Allia

3 generations by Allia

The Preparation

The Girl Behind Convent Walls

The Mother and the Commissar

The Calling

Helga’s Diaries

The Pill Box

The Vision of Magda Goebbels

The Final Task

As a novella, Magda doesn’t waste words, yet it manages to depict the depth of the three generations of its female characters. While it succeeds here, the end remains shocking and disturbing, unjustified, it is impossible to accept.

The book is fiction, inspired by real historical figures and events. I have written these thoughts without having read about the actual life of Johanna Maria Magdalena “Magda” Goebbels (11 November 1901-1 May 1945), wishing to pay closer attention to the author’s story and her character creation than the historical account, which could easily overshadow one’s impression of a work of fiction.