Not Enough German Literature & Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast

Not enough German literature!
Not enough German literature!

I don’t read enough German literature.  Americans don’t read much German literature, or literature in translation, period.  According to the Economist’s blog, Prospero, only 3% of the books published annually in the U.S. and UK are translated from another language.

Universities have expanded their Spanish departments, shrunk or cut their German departments.  Spanish is practical, they say. I often wonder how practical it is:  do Spanish students rush out and converse with their Hispanic neighbors, do they read Bolaño in Spanish, or do they only remember a few words?  Aren’t German, Italian, French, Russian, and other languages important?

But how to learn about contemporary German literature when it’s not translated?

I learned about Birgit Vanderbeke’s graceful novel, The Mussel Feast, translated by Jamie Bulloch, from a review in the TLS, which I incidentally began to read after Ursula K. Le Guin gushed in January about the wit of  “‘NB,’ the reliably enjoyable last page of the London Times Literary Supplement.”

The Mussel Feast by Birgit VanderbekeThe Mussel Feast, published in 1990, won the German literature award, The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.  It is published by a British press, Pierene, a publisher of European novellas, and has not yet been reviewed in the U.S.

It is a family story.  The mercilessly observant teenage narrator, her brother, and mother await their father’s return from a business trip.  The mother is preparing a feast to celebrate his much-vaunted dream of promotion, which is expected to coincide with the trip.  And so Mum prepares a mussel feast, though she doesn’t much like mussels. The narrator dislikes mussels, too.

The narrator describes in detail the messy cleaning of the mussels.

That evening my mother, alternating between the small kitchen knife and scrubbing brush in her bright-red hand, was holding the mussels one by one under ice-cold water, all four kilos of them, scraping and scrubbing and rinsing several times – since my father couldn’t bear the crunch of sand between his teeth – because he would be coming through the door with his promotion virtually in the bag; not officially of course,…

The mother’s hands are red and hard-worked:  she does the cooking and housekeeping.  Her hands are unlike the perfect hands of her husband’s much-admired assistant, who is unmarried, fashionable, and paints her fingernails red.  Sometimes the mother paints her fingernails shell-pink to please him, but only right before he comes home, because it chips off.  The narrator says her mother goes into “wifey” mode when he comes home, and she and her brother despise her for it.

Their mother is a good teacher–she is very strict at school–but when she comes home, she is a housewife, constantly working to please her domineering husband.

The narrator and her brother help their mother prepare the dinner (her chips are perfect, even if they don’t like the mussels).  They are happy and relaxed, but know it will end when the father comes home.

Suddenly there is an ominous noise.

The noise was coming from the mussels, which had already been cleaned and scrubbed; they were sitting in the large, black enamel pot that we always used, because it was the only one large enough to hold four kilos. My mother had fled from the East with this pot, she told us; it was indispensable for washing nappies, and she used to wash our nappies by hand, or rather with a wooden spoon.

The rattling is the sound of the mussels’ shells opening in the pot.  The narrator finds this “creepy,” and is also angry because she doesn’t want to think about their being alive when they are cooked.

Birgit Vanderbeke
Birgit Vanderbeke

Time passes, and their father doesn’t come home.  Finally they cook the mussels, but don’t eat them.   They stare, repulsed.  They begin to drink the wine, and as the hours pass, they get drunk.  Gradually they express their hatred for the father.

The narrator, born with black hair all over her body (which fell out), was hated by her father from birth.   As a baby she didn’t sleep, and once he threw her against the wall. The violence and abuse have continued throughout her girlhood.  She is brilliant, and gets all 1s at school, but he says the standards are lower now. He equally dislikes her brother, who  is pretty,  who wanted to wear dresses when he was young, and who gets 4s at school.  They are forced to spend Sundays with him, listening to Verdi, whom the mother hates, and then to go out on walks in the afternoon.

Both parents grew up in east Germany, and the trauma of the escape has affected them differently.  The father needs total control:  they must be a “proper family.”  The mother had wanted to be a musician like her brothers, but the father won’t let her play the violin.  She admits to her horrified children that she  fantasizes that she is Medea, poisoning the family so she can have time alone.

Taut, pitch-perfect prose, riveting story, and an open ending that can be interpreted more than one way.  A great book:  hope I can find more by her.

6 thoughts on “Not Enough German Literature & Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast

  1. Thanks for mentioning this book, it sounds great. Although I’ve read and love most of Heinrich Boll, I am sadly ignorant about what is happening in German literature today.

  2. Yes, I wish I knew more about it, but I find most of my books in translation while browsing at bookstores. It’s astonishing how few German books I find. Of course I have to drive 100 miles to get to a good bookstore.

  3. Very interesting statistic about how few books in translation are read. I’ve read quite a few German books and enjoy them usually. This one sounds good – Peirene are doing some good work aren’t they.

  4. Very good point. I wish I could read more German articles. I suggest the lack of German texts, film, art comes still from WW2; much of the art world in the US has been influenced by Jewish-European artists & writers too. German is also not the vehicular language that French has been and continues to be. Only a few come across and there’s often a political context for what does. One favorite of mine I’ll mention is Christa Wolff.

  5. Tom, I know you ARE the person who reads a lot of literature in translation, one of the many things that makes your blog so interesting. I wasn’t familiar with Pierene, but will certainly browse their catalogue with interest.

    Ellen, it would be interesting to know why some languages get translated, some not. My impression is that there is a lot of French, Italian, and Spanish–so maybe nothing with guttural sounds. But of course that’s probably not it at all. I don’t know what the statistics are: does anybody?

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