150+ essays on literary topics
People travel more easily than books. You can get by on your holiday with a phrase book, but if you don’t know the language you can only read a book in translation. It’s easier to be well-travelled than well-read, especially if you’re British and less likely to be fluent in other languages than other Europeans. If there exists a league table of the number of languages spoken per head of population in European countries, I would expect Britain to be at or near the bottom. My bet for top place would be Holland, with Germany and Poland close behind.
I speak French badly but read it quite well (it’s the way languages used to be taught) and make the effort to read anything French in the original. But for books in any other language I have to rely on translations. If I could not read French, the only book by Alphonse Daudet that I could read would be Letters from My Windmill. There’s a lot more to Daudet than his first collection of short stories, but nothing else that is available in translation.
French bookshops always seem to be full of novels translated from other languages. Best-selling English and American authors are as ubiquitous there as they are here. But they are not all they have on their shelves. They have their own best-sellers too and those of other countries besides, whose authors are almost all unknown in this little island.
Das Muschelessen, a novella by Birgit Vanderbeke, was published in Germany in 1990 to wide acclaim. I would never have heard of it, let alone been able to read it, if it had not been published here last month as The Mussel Feast, translated by Jamie Bulloch. The publisher, Peirene Press, specialises in novellas translated from European languages. It publishes three a year. This is number ten.
It is the story, told by a teenage girl, of an evening spent waiting, with her mother and brother, for her father to come home from a business trip, which he never does. It is about middle class aspirations, misplaced family values, a dominant father, a submissive mother, repressed and resentful children, violence, habit, individualism and freedom. It can be read equally as a story about a German family and a story about German society. The family live in the West but used to live in the East – or ‘over there’ as they call it.
The style is a kind of literary minimalism. Words, phrases, even whole sentences keep recurring. The narrator says the same thing over again in slightly different ways. Reading it sometimes feels like watching the tide come in, sentences overlapping like waves, making progress which is barely noticeable until it rushes towards you and you have to step back. The tide is coming in, the story is being told.
At one level, the style imitates the way we speak (repeating ourselves, groping towards meaning), at another it echoes the poetry of the old epics (using stock phrases to conjure up a time or a place, like Homer’s ‘rosy fingered dawn’ or ‘wine dark sea’). The effect is hypnotic, owing something perhaps to the dramatic monologues of Samuel Beckett.
It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we sometimes spoke of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen – that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence.
So it begins and so it goes on, the tide coming in imperceptibly, one page at a time. When it’s finished, you look back and there it is – the sea! Thalassa! Thalassa!
Birgit Vanderbeke has written several other novellas, but this is the only one that has been translated into English. Amazon.fr lists three, so at least I can read those. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to reading number eleven from Peirene Press, Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson, translated from the Finnish.