Monthly Archives: January 2013

Review of The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

I didn’t choose The Mussel Feast. In a manner of speaking it chose me. It came to me as the first book since I subscribed to the Peirene Press.

The Mussel Feast was first published in 1990 in German. Birgit Vanderbeke says, ‘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.’

The book is written as a monologue by the daughter, who is waiting with her mother and brother for the father to return from a business trip, with a promotion in the bag. The story starts as they prepare the mussels for the 6pm arrival of the father, and ends at quarter to ten, when the father has still not arrived and the telephone is ringing. In just over 100 pages the fractured relationships and the abusive behaviour of the father are gradually revealed through the monologue.

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The distinctive tone of the writing is illustrated by the opening lines.

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 speak 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. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign or coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet. We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion although in a very different way from what we had in mind.

These lines also form a near perfect opening. Something is going to happen (we never discover exactly what), and they didn’t know it was going to. The reader must ask, who ‘we’ are, and what was the event that the mussel feast did not prefigure, why was the feast abortive, what was so monumental that they have not yet got over it … So many issues and questions, so much drama and change but the tone is even, un-dramatic, determinedly calm, careful, accurate. The writer has been described as playful and arch (on the website of the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies).

The style is curiously hypnotic, inviting the reader almost to take it or leave it. The daughter shows us the ways in which the father has controlled each member of the family, where the slightest mishap – like forgetting the salt on holiday – endangered family unity. We come to see why she writes in this way as the girl unpacks the awful dynamics of the family.

Another idiosyncratic aspect of this writing is there no direct speech. Writing classes are taught that dialogue moves the action on, and too much exposition turns the reader off. Teachers who say this should read The Mussel Feast. There are other stylistic challenges for the reader: such as very long paragraphs (one lasts, for example, from p40 – p66) and the characters are never named.

I liked all of this about the book. I thought it was brilliant.

The translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch is excellent, as the extract illustrates.

Birgit Vanderbeke won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, the most prestigious German-language literature award. Well deserved.

A subscription brings world class, contemporary European novellas three times a year, beautifully designed and produced. I’m feeling very pleased with my Christmas present to myself: the Peirene subscription.

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5 ways other people decide my reading

Do you have a tall pile of books-waiting-to-be-read? I certainly do – that’s mine in the picture. And how did they get into the pile? Mine are mostly the result of other people’s actions. I have identified five ways they pick my reading.

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1. Recommendations:

  • Newspapers (especially The Guardian Saturday Review) eg Diego Mariani’s New Finnish Grammar which was highly recommended by Nicholas Lezard in his weekly choice. I read all those end-of-year choices. You know, the ones where writers, or readers, or columnists write half an inch about two or three books they have enjoyed in the last year. Then the paper sits around for months until I transfer the items I’ve marked as interesting into my notebook, or polish my walking boots on it.
  • Literary publications (such as London Review of Books, Slightly Foxed, Mslexia). I tend to read the very erudite reviews in LRB, instead of the book. But occasionally I follow up a review by actually reading it: eg Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.
  • Blogs were invented for people like me. It was a review on Book Snob blog that led me to Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost. I read a review of Miss Ranken Comes Home by Barbara Euphon Todd on Cosy Books and now I want to read that too. Both these books are published by Persephone, by the way, in their tasteful and elegant grey jackets, endpapers that reproduce a relevant fabric design and – delicious treat – tucked inside is a matching bookmark. I love a book that is beautifully produced.
  • Radio programmes such as Woman’s Hour, book and arts programmes. Radio was invented for reading aloud: poems, children’s stories, serial chapters, short stories and god bless public service broadcasting.
  • My friends always talk about what they have been reading. Out comes my pen and notebook and I make a note, or I borrow from their shelves, or pitch in with my recommendations.
  • Literary prize long- and short-lists. Some of the literary prizes are like The X Factor for the literati but I think these work well when they bring unknown but brilliant writers to our attention, like Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. I would never have met Futh without the MBP. And for non-fiction you can’t beat picking from the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
  • Literary events such as festivals and readings. At Ways with Words in Devon I heard Anita Desai talking about the importance of place in fiction and read The Artist of Disappearance. Nadine Gordimer at the South Bank Centre told the audience she was most pleased with The Conservationist and Burger’s Daughter. I’m reading the latter at the moment.
  • Writing classes can produce great recommendations through the examples provided by the tutor, and discussions with participants.

2. Book Club. One of the joys of a book club or reading group is the requirement to read designated books. Some people avoid them for that reason, but I love serendipitous discoveries, like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. We wont dwell on Absolom, Absolom!

3. My local library. It doesn’t exactly select my books, but it adds to the randomness of my reading because reservations arrive in any order and I have often forgotten the impulse that made me request it. I like the idea that others have and will read the same copy.

4. Gifts. My sister sends me books from time to time, which I love. She introduced me to Barbara Kingsolver a decade or so ago. I like to set an example by giving books to friends and relatives.

5. Subscription. For Christmas this year I bought a subscription to Peirene press for which I get three books a year and access to other goodies. They are translations of books that are best sellers and award winners in their countries of origin. What a good model for a small independent publisher. And, as a bonus, they are beautifully presented, great design, nice paper. I loved my first volume: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch – what a treat.

If this makes me seem like a reader at the mercy of other people, well perhaps I am. I don’t suppose I am alone. And although I don’t have a reading plan, I manage to satisfy my intention to read more foreign fiction and more classics and to read as a writer. I’m more than happy to receive your recommendations.

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My novel’s in a drawer …

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My novel is in a drawer. I began writing it 18 months ago on an Arvon course at The Hurst (thanks to tutors Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman and to the other participants). The theme, story and plot had been in my mind for about a year. I finished the first draft in early December 2012, about four weeks ago. Now the 22 chapters, all 90,000 words are in a drawer. Well, that’s what the how-to-write-a-novel books call it. Actually it is in 22 files on my computer, and in 22 plastic folders slipping about on a shelf in my writing room. There also notes on characters, timelines, newspaper cuttings about my theme, post-it notes to remind me about details I didn’t want to stop for, chapter outlines, scene outlines and in a folder called parking.

What is my novel doing, not in a drawer? It’s resting. Everyone says you should let your first draft rest. Stephen King says it, and, despite never having read a novel by him and avoided most of the films made from his novels, I rate what Stephen King says about writing (in On Writing). Not just writing, but what he says about editing, your strongest critic, paragraphs, readers and resting. Don’t let anyone see it, just rest it.

He had made a parallel with bread being left to prove. I like what he says about writing, but not what he says about novels being like baking bread. I would be seriously worried if my novel started bubbling, smelling rather yeasty and rising gently on its shelf and (even worse) on my computer. And he says you should probably leave it for ‘a minimum of six weeks’. I’ve never left bread to prove for that long, even when I forgot it.

And the purpose of all this is to get a little distance. It is also, as my non-fiction co-author would remind me, to allow time for us to complete our non-fiction project, which we promised to deliver to the publisher in mid-February. She gave me the NICE WORK badge. But there is writing to be done and not on the novel.

Back to my novel-in-a-drawer. Parts of it have been read and commented on by other people: the first and most worked over chapter, because I wanted to see if people reading it would want more. They are the ones who want to read the first draft. So I have my answer about that. And several scenes have been read by fellow-participants in writing classes and groups.  These were always second or third drafts. Comments, reactions, suggestions have been absorbed to make third or fourth drafts. I expect to find unevenness when I return.

But I miss the people in my novel. I like them, their company, their quirks and habits, their interactions and failings. I would like to visit them. Not writing my novel is like watching them on a CCTV camera. I think about them, wonder about them, their hopes, dilemmas. I’d like an update. I’d like a phone call, an email, a text. But they remain incommunicado in the drawer.

My fingers itch to get back to writing. I’m sitting on the bus, say, and I wonder if I’ll catch them talking behind me, a bit like everyone almost reminds you of an ex-lover when you’ve just split up. I know I will have work to do on showing my protagonists’ reactions and feelings. There are some plot issues to sort out – whatever happened to the sister-in-law? I think she died in a car crash, but if she did I didn’t tell the reader. She was sympathetic, so she deserved better. (Not better than the car crash, better than being neglected in her death). And wouldn’t the daughter have what my generation called a love life? Wouldn’t this feature somewhere in the 12 months timespan of the action. And perhaps I should erase one of the twins? And none of these things are my darlings to be killed, which those how-to-write-fiction books tell me Virginia Woolf said is good practice.

So what should I be doing about it while I am not writing my novel? Any suggestions?

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At the Queen’s Gallery …

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At the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace I meet again the companions of O level History – the Tudors and Stuarts and some of their European contemporaries. There’s Erasmus, and Durer’s Rhinoceros, Henry VIII, some of his wives and courtiers, Martin Luther, and some fabulous silverware, chalices mostly. They feel like family friends, and I’m calling in on them to catch up, finding them reassuringly unchanged. (The Northern Renaissance, Durer to Holbein – until 14th April 2013.)

After that thought comes the idea of late evening in the gallery. The Queen in her pink fluffy dressing gown and soft slippers is padding down to her Gallery with a mug of cocoa. Behind her is a footman with an upholstered chair (red velvet, of course), which he places in front of her favourite picture of the moment. A second flunky discretely positions a footstool. A corgi flops down to wait, its chin on its paws, at ease with this routine. Tonight she contemplates Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk, a rather mean-faced man dressed in ermine and holding a pool cue (actually the gold baton of Earl Marshal). He has become familiar to readers through Hilary Mantel’s novels: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Strangely, in the Gallery he is not being played by a well-known English stage actor, but takes his embellishment from his costume and his staffs of office.

The Queen can visit her gallery at any time, have an insider’s view into its quiet night-time secrets, then glide back to her cosy bed. Perhaps librarians can do the same? They can indulge in putting the newspapers back in order, shaking them so that the front page is neatly ready for recycling. They can alphabeticize the encyclopaedias, in reverse for once. They can find that secret volume they slipped behind the ranks, page marked with a slip RETURN THIS BOOK BEFORE THE DATE STAMPED BELOW OR RISK A FINE. PEOPLE OVER 60 AND UNDER 16 PAY NO FINES. Or replace the books in the stacks ready for readers in the morning. Or read in the special quiet of a room full of books.

But what of writers? Did Jane Austen sip her tisane nightcap while considering what gothic horrors she would avoid inflicting upon that silly Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) the footsteps on the stairs, the disturbances in the attic, the scraping at the window and the voice on the wind calling ‘Cathy, Cathy’?

Writers visit their books, their stories, their characters before they sleep. They mull over who will tell this story. Ishiguro says he interviews each character to arrive at his decision. They consider the next scene, its pulse, its tension, its connection with the previous scenes and the next. They search for the image to catch the reader’s attention, to show their characters’ reactions. They change the sex of their protagonist, their marital status, their occupation, date of birth, location. Sitting at the computer or the notebook, the glass of whiskey close by, the darkness looming beyond the pool of their desk lamp, writers exercise their dominion over their subjects.

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