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.
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.