Archive for the ‘Birgit Vanderbeke’ Category

You Would Have Missed Me

May 12, 2019

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, from 2013, remains one of my favourite Peirene publications – it is, in fact, the Peirene novel I most frequently recommend to others. Peirene policy, however, has largely focused on bringing authors who have not been translated before to an English-reading audience, and therefore to publish only one work from each author. 2019 sees this ‘rule’ broken as Jamie Bulloch offers us a second Vanderbeke novella, You Would Have Missed Me, originally published in 2016. It, too, centres on a family with a powerful male figure at the centre, and is similarly narrated by a child, a seven-year-old daughter isolated not only by the absence of siblings, but by her fractured relationship with her mother.

As with The Mussel Feast, You Would Have Missed Me has a conceit in which the story takes place during one particular day, in this case the narrator’s seventh birthday. It begins as she waits for her birthday gifts, accepting once again that she will not get the kitten she desires:

“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside.”

The birthday song, begun on page 34, is not completed until page 78. In the meantime, her thoughts range across her brief life so far, the family’s escape from East Germany to the West and their time in a refugee camp. Her mother, it is revealed, comes from a wealthy family, but one that sympathised with the Nazis, as (her husband points out) did that of her fiancé, who was killed during the war:

“…everything his family owned would have been expropriated after the war, and then life wouldn’t have been quite so rosy, even if they hadn’t been Nazis, but because they were Nazis, like all land-owners and fat cats, I don’t suppose they would have had much to laugh about under the Russians.”

Her husband, Osch (though I’m not certain this is his name – we’re told more than once he doesn’t like it – or simply a Flemish sigh) feels exempt from Germany’s loss (“May I also point out that you lost the war?”) as he arrived in Germany as a child from Belgium:

“My father was a foreigner because his mother had brought him to Germany from Belgium when he was very small and the war had already begun.”

The war, and her fiancé’s death, ends the mother’s first dream, but the West, the “Promised Land” as the narrator calls it, becomes her second. In a novel which opens with the narrator’s disappointment of not receiving her dream present, the disappointment of adults is also to the fore. This is perhaps best exemplified in the teak furniture that was her mother’s first acquisition in the West:

“Before we came to the West my mother had always dreamed of teak furniture, but of course she didn’t know you had to polish teak all the time because she’d only ever dreamed of it and had never owned any.”

The marriage and move to the West was, in itself, a dream of her mother’s:

“The moment a dream of a husband and child and another life had been planted inside my mother’s head, long after her landowner fiancé was out of the picture and she could have let the matter rest – at that moment everything stared to get complicated an descend into chaos.”

Osch’s dreams are different, harking back to his “East German student life with the Western cinemas and girlfriends”:

“As far as my father was concerned there was nothing promising about this land.”

As for the narrator, “I wasn’t exactly the child they’d dreamed of,” disappointment being the corollary of dreaming:

“Dreaming, however, was absolutely fine in the Promised Land. The wonderful thing about this country was that as soon as my mother had acquired the teak furniture… and was disappointed because they weren’t exactly what she had been dreaming of, she could immediately start dreaming of larch furniture…”

Initially the mother’s lack of affection, and attempts to isolate the narrator with prohibitions of who she can associate with, seems to be the greatest hurt the child suffers, but we slowly become aware of the threat of the father. A visit to a doctor reveals “a few broken bones that hadn’t fused back together very well” which the mother denies any knowledge of, and frequent references to the father’s hands (often clenched in his pockets in anger) prove to be prophetic.

But, just as with The Mussel Feast, the novel offers hope when the narrator frees herself from the present with the aid of a globe she receives as a birthday present (along with a prescient copy of The Time Machine):

“I’d done it. At the ripe time, I’d shot myself into the future…”

From there the narrator literally discovers her own voice:

“Ever since I’d heard my voice, I’d been saying things I’d never have dared say before.”

You Would Have Missed Me is another complex, provoking fable from Vanderbeke, exploring numerous themes – the twisted relationship of an abusive marriage, the attractions and disappointments of a consumer economy, the shifting status of the refugee, the power of the imagination – through the eyes, and voice, of a child. It, too, now belongs among my favourite Peirene publications.

The Mussel Feast

February 20, 2013

mussel feast

It is perhaps the fact that Peirene Press deliberately select novellas, stories which encourage, if not demand, an uninterrupted reading, which allows them to forsake cheap gimmicks such as page-turning plots and immediately sympathetic characters in their choice of texts. Instead we are given something to immerse ourselves in, something where mood can be as important as action, and where the ordinary can slowly grow into the extraordinary. Their latest publication, The Mussel Feast by German writer Birgit Vanderbeke (yet another author brought into English for the first time, on this occasion at the hands of Jamie Bulloch) is no exception.

Its very title is the antithesis of thriller, and although the mussel feast is to some extent symbolic, the mussels are very real, opening the novel and only vanishing at its conclusion, “the shells rattling” as they are emptied into the dustbin. The story begins with a mother and her two teenage children preparing for their father’s return. Their father has gained promotion at work and the mussels are part of a celebratory meal:

“We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion, though in a very different way from what we’d had in mind.”

As the family await the father’s return, we learn more about him and the influence he has on the rest of the family:

“…when my father was on business trips the thee of us told each other the most fanciful stories… Before my father came home, however, all these fanciful ideas vanished, especially my mother’s…switching to wifey mode when he came home.”

The father seems something of a tyrannical figure, imposing his values on the rest of the family, and the novella can be read as an allegory of East Germany before the wall fell, or as a critique of patriarchy. The father, we learn, has had to work his way up from poverty, whereas the mother is a teacher. The children are prevented from any activity they enjoy – for example the narrator can only practise her piano playing when the father is absent – and are frequently told how they disappoint him. He is not beyond punishing them physically:

“…he tried to use violence to knock the stubbornness out of me, just as he tried to use violence to knock the wimpishness out of my brother.”

It is the father’s non-appearance when he is expected that allows the family to experience a sense of freedom. The longer they wait for him the more they resent the effect he will have on them when he walks through the door. Vanderbeke’s ending emphasises, not the fate of the father, but the family’s will to resist him. If a novel is a banquet and a short story is a snack, The Mussel Feast is the perfect meal.