Marzhan, mon Amour by Katja Oskamp tr. Jo Heinrich

A totally delightful, kind-hearted, empathetic read.

Peirene Press German Literature Women in TranslationMarzhan Mon Amour is a memoir-ish novel, collective history and a character study of a group of people living in and around a multi-storied communist-era plattenbau prefab apartment building in the working class quarter of Marzahn, East Berlin, told through the eyes and ears of a woman facing her middle years.

The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming. You pause, at a loss, and turn around in circles, again and again. Fear sets in, the fear of sinking halfway, without a sound, without a cause.

The narrator is a 45 year old woman (referred to in some articles as the author herself), whose partner is ill, requiring her to abandon her career as a writer and take up something else. She retrains as a chiropodist and joins Tiffy who offers beauty treatments and massage and Flocke who does nails, in a salon at the foot of an eighteen storey building.

Katja Oskamp Peirene Press German literature

Photo XU

If the opening paragraph quoted above, sounds melancholy, it represents a turning point.  Leaving the writing studio for the salon, though initially motivated for financial reasons, provides both practitioner and patient an incredible sense of connection, community and perhaps even at some level, healing.

Many of the clients have lived there since the housing estate was built forty years ago,

…now bravely coming to the ends of their lives with their walking frames, their oxygen cylinders and their state pensions, sometimes spending whole days not speaking to another soul, pouring out their famished hearts to us when they come to the salon, gratefully absorbing every touch, happy for once not to be treated like imbeciles…

Fed up with rejections, she becomes part of this small team and larger community, seeing her regular clients, getting to know them, listening, observing, caring for them, being part of the fabric of a unique, idiosyncratic neighbourhood.

Marzhan mon amour chiropodist chiropody Katja Oskamp

Photo Nico

In each chapter, we meet another client, another character, a life, shared in an engaging and often humorous way, as she participates in the ritual of what is something between a pedicure and reflexology, an hour long treatment of the feet, listening to or being silent with the person who occupies that quiet hour, a temporary escape from their day to day lives.

A chronicler of their personal histories, we witness the humanity behind the monolith structures of these housing estates, the connections created between the three women and the warmth and familiarity they provide to those who cross their threshold.

And that one day of the year, when they close the salon and go together on an outing, described in a way that will make you almost feel like you are experiencing it yourself.

Superbly translated, Jo Heinrich, had this to say about the experience:

There are poignant sections, but it’s an ultimately life-affirming book; it’s funny and warm-hearted, the characters (mostly) feel like good friends and Katja’s writing is so well crafted that it was always a joy to retreat to.

I absolutely loved it, Katja Oskam has penned an ode to an unappreciated, disparaged area, its ageing population and the power of touch. If you’re looking for an uplifting, life-affirming afternoon read, look no further.

Highly recommended.

Katja Oskamp, Author

German literature in translation ChiropodistKatja Oskamp was born in 1970 in Leipzig and grew up in Berlin. After completing her degree in theatre studies, she worked as a playwright at the Volkstheater Rostock and went on to study at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig.

Her debut collection of stories Halbschwimmer was published in 2003. In 2007 she published her first novel Die Staubfängerin. Her book Marzahn, Mon Amour, published by Hanser with the subtitle ‘Stories of a Chiropodist’, was selected for the ‘Berlin Reads One Book’ campaign and thus literally became the talk of the town.

She is a member of PEN Centre Germany. Marzahn, Mon Amour is her first work to be translated into English, published in Feb 2022 by Peirene Press.

Further Reading

Review: World Literature Today by Catherine Venner

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Peirene Press for the Advance Review Copy.

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen tr. John Irons #WITMonth

This is a tragedy about a woman who yearns for love but ends up in a painfully destructive conflict with her sister. It is also a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological. Facing the prospect of a life without love, we fall back into isolating delusions at exactly the moment when we need to connect.

Mieke Ziervogel, Peirene Press

Looking Glass SistersTwo sisters have lived in the same house all their lives, their parents long gone and they can barely tolerate each other. They are bound together in one sense due to the practical disability of the younger sister, but also through the inherent sense of duty and responsibility of the first-born.

At times like these, in the dark, maybe with a candle lit, a sudden, intense feeling overcomes me that Ragna and I are one body, completely inseparable. We have gradually let go of parts of ourselves in favour of the other. Over the years, through conflicts and confrontations, we have shaped, kneaded and formed ourselves into a lopsided, distorted yet complete organism. Ragna has the body and I have the soul. She puts on the firewood, I do the thinking. She makes the tea, I read and write.

They manage with their hostile acceptance of each other until the new neighbour Johan begins to visit and competes for the attention of the able, caring, repressed Ragna, a potential disruptive threat to her invalid sister and to the way things in their household have been for a long time.

Days and weeks go by, I glide into a soothing rhythm of calm everydayness. It is an illusion, I know that, for beneath the dependable surface conspiracies smoulder, along with my sister’s hot-tempered desire for her own life.

Narrated from the perspective of the crippled sister in a stream of consciousness style, its intense, frustrating and laced with a sense of foreboding as the third character, Johan, arrives and either in her imagination or in reality – we are never quite sure – convinces the sister to make plans to change their circumstances.

Can it be that I, the sick one, have given rise to impatience in Ragna because of my exaggerated gestures and unreasonable demands? Can it be that I, the helpless one, have bred the anger in her by making myself more pathetic than I am? And can it be that I, in my struggle to gain the inviolable position of victim, have forged and fashioned Ragna the violator?

Claustrophobic, at times surreal, it fits perfectly with the Peirene Press Close Encounters theme, which comprised the three novellas below.

Chance Encounter Series

Peirene Press publish three books a year in a themed series. Their 6th series ‘Chance Encounters’ comprised three books that explored different aspects of interpersonal relationships and the importance of the Other in our development as individuals and our understanding of ourselves.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius tr. Jamie Bulloch

Portrait of the MotherThis 117 page long single sentence in a novella, is the third and final book in the Peirene Press series entitled Female Voices: Inner Realities.

If you missed the first two, you can read my reviews here:

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (translated from French by Adriana Hunter)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell)

In my previous review I mention the enticing page at the beginning of all Peirene books where publisher Mieke Ziervogel shares what drew her to choosing this book for translation into English.

Here is a glimpse at what she says about this book:

Portrait 2

The book is set in Rome in 1943 when Italy and Germany remain allies during the second world war. The narrative takes place during an afternoon stroll as our young woman on the brink of becoming a mother is walking towards a Lutheran church where she will attend a classical concert.

Eight months pregnant, she is the young wife of a German solider and had been waiting for him to join her in Rome; after briefly reuniting, one day later he is redeployed to Tunisia. Alone again so soon, she walks to the Bach concert thinking about how her life has changed now as a married woman and how distant she feels from everything around her. She recalls recent memories of the short time spent with her husband wondering whether he will return to her safely or not.

Rome 1943Being outside her own country, without her husband and not yet active in her role as mother, it is as if she becomes more acutely aware of who she is, there is little to distract her and she often prefers to keep to herself.

Even the friendship that naturally developed with her room-mate Ilse, she keeps in check, worrying about the implications of being associated with those whose views are more vociferous than her own, she who wishes for a quiet life.

she worried about Ilse, who rarely had a good word to say about authority that was

invested by God, about Hitler and Mussolini, only a few days ago she had said Hitler always demanded that people show no weakness, but human beings were not made like that, and Mussolini always demanded that people had to hate the enemy, but the Italians that she knew were not fond of hatred, why should they hate the English and the Americans,

fortunately Ilse had broken off at this point, perhaps out of consideration for her, because she,

the younger woman, who was always silent when national and political questions were discussed, had just for a second wondered why it was necessary to hate the British and Americans, and in the same instant this forbidden thought made her feel guilty, confused and horrified,

She is not despondent for she has a deep faith and whenever her thoughts turn towards herself she recalls that war is God’s most difficult trial, lamenting:

“God, who is love, delivers this all to us, that it may benefit us in the end,

for it was un-Christian to shed tears for one’s own misfortune and to forget the far greater misfortunes of others, the joys of life were limitless”

Her thoughts enable the reader to understand her reluctance to do anything that might jeopardise what slim chance she may have at a normal life, she dislikes that by virtue of being foreign she already stands out, the opposite of what might give her peace of mind.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a spellbinding portrayal of one woman’s internal conversation, her method of coping with the strangeness of her environment, talking herself into maintaining a calm state of mind, rationalising why they have found themselves in this situation. Though it is a trial for her, it is not enough to prevent her dreaming of the life she wishes they were living, something that seems increasingly like a fantasy, as the probability of her husband’s return grows slimmer as each day passes.

Poignant in its simplicity, expressing that universal feminine desire for love in a safe, nurturing environment.

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal, tr. from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

Stone  in a LandslideThis is the second in the Female Voices: Inner Realities series from Peirene Press.

Publisher, Mieke Ziervogel introduces each of their books with one or two sentences in extra-large font on the second page and it’s a page that you find yourself looking forward to whenever you pick up one of their books.

She shares what attracted the team to selecting that title as one of the Peirene books to translate into English and share with readers.

For Stone in a Landslide, she had this to say:

“I fell in love with Conxa’s narrative voice, its stoic calmness and the complete lack of anger and bitterness. It’s a timeless voice, down to earth and full of human contradictory nuances. It’s the expression of someone who searches for understanding in a changing world but senses that ultimately there may be no such thing.”

We meet Conxa as a 13-year-old girl living in the Catalan Pyrenees, Spain at the beginning of the last century, though she narrates the story from the other end of her life, reflecting back on her journey as an old woman.

One of six children, the opening lines tell us how she came to live with her childless aunt and uncle, leaving her family, home, village and mountain behind at such a tender age.

“Anyone could see that there were a lot of us at home. Someone had to go. I was the fifth of six children – Mother used to say I was there because God had wanted me to be there and you have to take what He sends you. The eldest was Maria, she, more than Mother, ran the house.  Josep was the son and heir and Joan was going into the church. We three youngest were told a hundred times that we were more of a burden than a blessing….So it was decided that I, who was level-headed and even-tempered, would be sent to help my mother’s sister, Tia.”

LandslideShe remembers going to school and how fortunate she was to be able to, on account of having older sisters who stayed home to do the work. Three winters she went to school, until she joined the family of her aunt and uncle and then had to help them with the outdoor work.

In short chapters of around two pages, we observe the change in Conxa’s life, her new duties, how people perceive her initially as an outsider and how that perception begins to change, she has become an heir to land thus her marriage prospects have increased. She suffers silently from being separated from her family, but in time accepts her new role and life.

“Time passed and no one spoke of home. Of my family. In five years I had seen Mother and Maria only once, when they came for the Festa Major during my first year at Pallarès….My aunt and uncle said nothing about going back and I didn’t dare mention it. Was I happy there? I had no idea. I’d lived with my heart in my mouth a bit, worried about what they might throw back in my face. Maybe the poverty of my family…But I’d got used to them and their way of doing things. And it’s true, the thought of leaving Pallarès to return to Ermita became stranger every day.”

We learn through Conxa’s experiences how people were perceived, eldest sons were destined to be the heir, a second son may have had to learn a trade and were therefore seen as lesser prospects. Ownership of land accrued status, men who earned a wage were less desirable.

“They knew him to be hard-working and quick-witted but, because of the nature of his work, he appeared to be a drifter and freer than most men, who only looked at the ground to work it or the sky to figure out what the weather will bring. I realised that they saw him as an outsider, someone who’d managed to earn himself a living, but this had more or less divided him from his family.”

Falling in love with a tradesman is about as rebellious as Conxa gets, her aunt and uncle soon realise that Jaume is a good match, and as with her life as the adopted daughter Conxa becomes as accepting of her new circumstances in her life with Jaume, who must by necessity travel a lot for his work.  He is more outspoken and for this Conxa will experience hardship as the Spanish Civil War impacts even the quietest villages.

Stone in a Landslide is such an apt metaphor for Conxa and yet she was not like the others. She doesn’t complain, she loves genuinely, she accepts her circumstances and only at the end when she is physically removed from her natural surrounding does she come close to realising how much a part of that landscape she is as a person. She coped with many changes, from daughter to adopted daughter, lover, mother within her natural environment, but the final move puts her somewhere beyond reach, beyond comprehension of how to be who she really is.

“Perhaps I had turned into a living stone, or it was just that I had never known how to rebel…. I felt that I was going to need to be strong, but I had no idea why.”

Another excellent addition to the collection and discovery of another wonderful writer.

Maria Barbal, born in 1949, is considered the most influential living Catalan author. The clarity with which she presents human relations and the passage of time has earned her critical acclaim and a wide readership. She lives in Barcelona.

Next Up: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Deluis.

Female Voice Inner Realities

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

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda tr. by Adriana Hunter

We are in the city of Tripoli, bordering the Mediterranean in the 1960’s, though this is no seaside idyll.

Tripoli SkyThe narrative follows in the footsteps and the mind of a boy named Hadachinou who prefers the company of his mother, her friends, great-aunt’s and escorting girls sent on errands who are not yet kept indoors, bound by the shackles of marriage, in a society where a river of seething discontent courses through the veins of many, where the sexes barely tolerate each other and anyone who seems to have escaped the marriage trap is resented their so-called freedoms.

Hadachinou is privy to the thoughts, gossip and attitudes of women, a witness to their interior lives, he listens to their stories and absorbs their repressed desires as his own begin to awaken.

The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real times and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties , all in the same breath and their bodies were at peace.

I sometimes wondered how these women who were all so different were able to spend hours at a time, each talking about her own god, her own people and thoughts, free to be wildly outspoken but without provoking any true conflict. It was because they had no power to preserve and no possessions to watch over. That was for the people on the other side of the wall: the men, the sheikhs, the governors and their hunting dogs! Scheming and calculating, diplomacy and power struggles were their domain.

Here with the women, my guardian angels, there were just words, spoken openly and easily, flitting and whirling about, a life force in themselves. Without these moments of trusting abandon, they would have dried up with sorrow. Or imploded as they toiled over their cooking pots.

Taynal Mosque

Taynal Mosque Source: wikipedia

While the men are at work, or at the mosque or in the coffee houses, the women finish their work and make time to see each other.

Here, great-aunt Nafissa has had enough of the women bad mouthing his mother’s childhood friend Jamila, words they only speak when his mother leaves the room, venomous remarks spiralling into bitterness about what they perceive as her secret life; flushed with rage, aunt Nafissa rails against them:

‘Leave Jamila alone,’ she cried. ‘Let her live her life. Its only because you’re jealous that you see evil in everything. She and her friends allow themselves freedoms you don’t have, freedoms you envy because your husbands keep you on a tight leash. What would you have her do? Stay at home like you, sitting on cushions and sucking on loukoums while you wait for men who never come home? You think those women are living bad lives? You make me laugh! But you don’t know when to hold your tongues, that’s for sure, and you’re full of spite. And, anyway, it’s not as if any of this has ever stopped you taking their money!’ she added, always ready to speak out against injustice.


Old Tripoli Source: wikipedia

It is not easy to read about a repressed patriarchal society without much glimmer of hope, a slice of life narrative set in a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change.

I found it a sombre read, left wondering if this boy will be changed by virtue of his proximity to the women folk, or whether that might become a reason for his need to escape, lest he not fit in.

Looking out to sea, I remembered what Hadja Kimya had said: ‘Hadachinou, keep yourself busy doing simple things that delight you. Give yourself a goal. The soul of life is the little things, the minor events no one notices… That’s where life is, the pleasure of being alive, otherwise there’s just this vast blueness casting its shadow over us. Go on, keep yourself busy, do something, and then you might find yourself one day.’

This is cultural insight beyond the normal bounds of the English language, thanks to the translation of Adriana Hunter and the passion of Peirene Press in bringing these kinds of stories into the mainstream.

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik

Blue Room2The Blue Room is the latest novella from Peirene Press, a publishing concept I wrote about here.

Peirene’s novellas always promise something a little different, a mix of women and men authors, all of them originating in a language other than English and sometimes writers whose work is being translated into English for the first time.

Perhaps the only positive aspect of there being so little fiction of foreign origin translated into English (4-5%), is the grand opportunity that awaits publisher’s like Peirene Press and Gallic Books to discover true gems of literature to share with the English reading world.

Story telling is universal and equally engaging no matter where it comes from. Just like travel, literature in translation can offer insights into another culture and perspective.

June’s coming-of-age novella, The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik translated by Deborah Dawkin, is already well-known in Norway and internationally; she has written numerous books which have been translated into 18 languages, though not until now, into English. The recipient of literary awards in Norway including the Doblou Prize for her entire literary output, she is one of the most admired  authors in contemporary Norwegian literature.

Provoking readers with her large, bold font message on the opening page, Meike Zeirvogel says of The Blue Room:

“Everyone who has read Fifty Shades of Grey should read this book. Why?

The Blue Room holds up a mirror to a part of the female psyche that yearns for submission. The story shows how erotic fantasies are formed by the relationship with our parents. It then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers – a struggle that is rarely addressed in either literature or society.”

Making us wonder what revelations might unfold.

Johanne lives with her mother in a small apartment, she occupies the only bedroom, her mother hangs a curtain in the living room and sleeps there. The story starts on the day Johanne is due to leave for America with her boyfriend Ivar. She wakes to find the door to her bedroom locked and no response from the other side.

As she spends the day in her room, musing on the likely action and varying theoretical states of mind of Ivar, who would have waited for her and come to his own conclusions concerning her absence, she also thinks back over the past two weeks since she first met him at the university canteen, in between her lectures on psychology, some of which she shares with us, creating a bland kind of irony; the reader can’t help but read significance into the lessons she is learning in class as events play out in her life, where she discovers the essence of her slumbering sexuality, awakened in the shadow of her mother’s history, coming to us in flashes.

BlueFrom the first pages, I recognise it as a slow read, sentences that beg to be read twice, thoughts expressed that benefit from quiet reflection and words that hum from the page in clandestine harmony.

“Suddenly it came over me again and I started to cry. No sobbing, just tears. Water, I thought, nothing but salt water, dropping onto the paper, making minuscule white suns. Clearly the slat had an effect on the colours, erasing them. I didn’t understand what was happening inside me. Then it passed, like a rain cloud, drifting away.”

Although it wouldn’t be called a mystery or suspense novel, there exists all through the pages a sense of foreboding and it was almost with relief that I turned the last pages, half expecting something more sinister to await me or perhaps that was the latent effect of the suspense novel that I did read before embarking on this.

It captures the natural evolution of innocence and like the allure of watching two colours mix on a canvas to see what shade it will yield, first it is necessary to know one’s own true colour before we can observe or understand the effect when it combines with another.

An alluring read, that captivates as it reveals.

Looking forward to the next in the series!




Mr Darwin’s Gardener is Also a Thinker, Kristine Carlson

Darwins GardenerKristina Carlson is a native of Finland and has published 16 books there. Like Tove Jansson, whose work I love, she is known for her children’s stories, but also has a wide adult readership. We are fortunate to be reading the recently published and translated work Mr Darwin’s Gardener thanks to Peirene Press, who describe it as “Peirene’s most poetic book yet“.

“Carlson evokes the voices of an entire village, and through them, the spirit of the age. This is no page-turner, but a story to be inhabited, to be savoured slowly.” Mieke Ziervogel

Less a story than a series of thoughts and observations, though there is one alarming event, it is set in the late 1870’s in the Kentish village of Downe, where Thomas Davies, widower, father of two and the gardener of Charles Darwin, reflects on the dilemma of his life and stays away while the rest of the villagers gather in church.

Just as Mieke Ziervogel suggests, it is a not a book to be absorbed quickly and even when read slowly, it warrants turning back to the beginning and starting over, which is what I did. I read it through twice because once was insufficient for a book whose depth and layers become clearer when we reacquaint with it. To read it once was to see the words on the page and meet the villagers for the first time. To read it again was to begin to understand the collective consciousness of a community and one man who stands outside them, working for another man who is completely out of their reach or comprehension.

Charles Darwin, Author of 'Origin of the Species' Source: wikipedia

Charles Darwin Source: wikipedia

Plants grow, flowers sway, a ray of light streaks through a gap in the clouds, a gardener thinks, women talk, men drink, jackdaws caw, bells ring, a stranger visits and a man writes an article in the newspaper. Like an invisible character hovering over the town, we observe each villager in a random moment just before we inhabit their mind, see what they are thinking and watch what they do, as if we are they. We repeat this sequence from one home to the next and at The Anchor, the local pub where a stranger visits and stays overnight.

The Anchor clinks, clanks, seethes, smokes, susurrates.

The gardener has taken on the role of the village sage,

Though as a rule he barely says good morning.

The tongue is a sort of red carpet. One has to watch what hurries along it.

A gloomy and unhappy man.

But Thomas Davies sits neither in a church pew nor at the bar and he is more often the subject than the purveyor of thoughts, though these are some of his:

Garden at Down House, Darwin's home

Garden at Down House, Darwin’s home

The most beautiful thing about plants is their silence. The second most beautiful thing is their immobility, I wrote when Gywn died. I am reading now, it is evening.

I wrote unscientifically.

Even condolences thundered then, and goodwill would not leave me in peace.

Grief is weighty but it is a stone I bear myself.

Victims of revenge and victims of mercy are in the same position, I believe; other people make their affairs their own.

I may have to read it a third time.

The Mussel Feast

Revolutionary Moments

Mussel FeastThe first novella of the Peirene Press 2013 collection is Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, a reference to an evening meal of a family for whom a mussel feast signifies a special celebration and provokes a familiar family ritual.

This evening however, is a an event (or a non-event) of angst-ridden anticipation, as the mother and her teenage son and daughter prepare the feast and wait for their father to return from work with news that was supposed to have been a given.

There is little action or plot, though much is revealed throughout the course of the evening via the reflections of those present, who, as the minutes and hours pass, become emboldened in their thoughts as they are allowed to run on unchecked and unchallenged by he who normally acts as judge.

Just observing how the words fill up entire pages of this novella, creating a seamless run of sentences without pause or paragraph is admirable and makes me pause in my reading to check if every page is formatted the same, And it is. The constant stream of words is synonymous with an outpouring of frustration, the way the words are presented on the page like a revolutionary act itself. No dialogue, no action, a stream of consciousness charting the psychological passage of a family through the familiar acts of a routine that will manifest in wilful rebellion.

The Mussel Feast should be a cause for celebration when the routine is adhered to. When a crack opens in the routine and the feast is spoiled, who knows what uncharacteristic behaviour may follow.

An original and thought provoking read, one I devoured easily, as promised by Peirene, it is unique in its ability to keep the reader engaged while using a narrative style that is less popular today and yet succeeds in captivating its audience.

The first of her 17 novels, I look forward to reading more of her work and would love to hear any recommendations from others who have read her work.

“I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.” Birgit Vanderbeke

Next up in Peirene’s Revolutionary Moments series is Mr Darwin’s Gardener  by Kristina Carlson, which from the reviews I have read, already sounds just like my kind of book…


A Regular Fix of Contemporary European Literature

While no slave to social networking, I do appreciate those needle in a haystack gems of information that twitter occasionally throws out. It’s a little like a child knowing that there is a lolly scramble going on behind a door that opens once a day and if you stand in one spot with your hand out, you might just catch something. Much of it passes us by, but the one that lands in the hand, is appreciated all the more for the scant chance it had of being captured.

Which is what this little tweet I caught in late May did.

I remembered that when I wrote about Deborah Levy’s Booker short-listed novel Swimming Home and mentioned the subscription based publisher And Other Stories, that @MarinaSofa mentioned Pereine Press. I looked at their website and started following them on twitter.

CIMG4717Pereine Press publish contemporary European literature, in the form of novellas, a new book coming out every 3 months. So they provide an opportunity to introduce readers to new authors, outside what we might normally read in English and a book that doesn’t require a long time to read, each book can supposedly be read in an afternoon. No 400+ page tomes here.

So the tweet reminded me that I did want to read their books and there’s nothing like the threat of a price increase to motivate one to act. So now I am a Pereine Press subscriber and I have the first two books from this years series on the shelf.

Mussel FeastEach year has a theme, in 2013 it is Revolutionary Moments and the first book is the German classic The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke which I have now read and will tell you about very soon. Very well-known in Germany I am sure and a gripping read, I devoured as hungrily as I would moules frites.

Not only does this subscription mean there will be European literature arriving regularly, but subscribers are invited to participate and attend literary events with the authors whose books have been published, including the revival of a literary salon, which sounds intriguing. The events take place in London and I hope one day I might coincide a visit to be able to attend one. I love that this type of event is coming back into vogue.

So more contemporary European literature reviews coming here soon…