The Mussel Feast (1990) – Birgit VANDERBEKE

I’ve taken the plunge this year and bough a subscription to Peirene Press‘ Turning Points series of contemporary European novellas. The blurb on the back of The Mussel Feast tells us that this is a “modern German classic,” one that has been taught in German schools for the last twenty years. With this in mind, one has to wonder why it has taken this long to get translated into English, and why it has fallen on a small boutique publisher to do so.

A family sits down to a normal family dinner, but there is someone missing. The father has not yet returned from work, which is strange, because he is always on time. As the evening grows long, and as signs of the father’s arrival become fainter and fainter, the daughter tells us about the world that this family inhabit. A world where nothing is quite what it seems, and where, just underneath the surface, something terrible is brewing.

There’s a lot to be said for the short novel. It can give the author a chance to explore more deeply a concept or scene that might otherwise simply have been part of a larger canvas in an epic novel. Vanderbeke clearly realises this, and uses The Mussel Feast to closely and forensically examine the life of one family. Though the entire book is set over no more than a few hours, by the end, a detailed portrait of a four-person family has emerged. And it is not a family that I have any desire to get to know any better, though, as a testament to Vanderbeke’s skill as a writer, there is nothing else that needs to be known. Everything you could want is contained somewhere in these 105 pages.

The titular mussels are a symbol of the marriage central to the novel. There’s no greater symbol of familial love and piety than the evening meal, where all members of the family sit down together as a unit and discuss their day. This night’s meal is a mussel stew, the dish that has come to symbolise the relationship between husband and wife. Though she may not like it much, they ate it early in their relationship, and it has become something they return to again and again.

What makes this night different is the fact that the father doesn’t turn up. Which, in many ways, makes the feast even more unbearable. He is always on time, always ready for the evening meal—and so when he doesn’t arrive right on schedule, in many ways, the tension becomes even more pronounced. What will he be like when he finally does turn up? What has caused his delay? No doubt, any change in the schedule will upset him.

The key to unlocking the novel is contained in the phrase I used earlier: “though she may not like it”. Slowly but surely, like an orange being unpeeled, the narrator drops hints about past family dinners, and past family events. As she does it, though, there’s a strange sense of unease about the whole thing, as though there is something that’s not quite right with the whole thing. And then the penny drops. This isn’t a story about a family dinner where the father doesn’t turn up—it’s a story about a drunk and angry father. And once that clicks in your mind, the whole thing takes on a rather uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia.

Though he never appears on the page, it’s easy to imagine a man like the father of the family. I suspect there’s some cultural context I’m missing here (my knowledge of late-1980s Germany Is pretty limited), but it’s easy to gloss over—this is not a unique phenomenon. The father is so caught up in having this perfect middle-class family, he is blind to the fact that he is the one that is preventing this from happening. Embarrassed by his own relatively poor upbringing, he is a part of the aspiring middle-class that tries to erase its own history with conspicuous consumption—he mocks his wife for being cheap and stingy, though by any stretch of the imagination, her frugality is simply a smart way to save a few marks here and there. It’s not just her taste in clothes he despises—the furniture in the house must be well-designed and expensive, just to prove to anyone who might visit that, yes, this family has money it can afford to spend on things like nice furniture.

Of course, once you realise that this man is not very nice, the question of physical violence crosses your mind. For a man this crazy and controlling, resorting to physical violence to ensure his photo-perfect family remains intact doesn’t seem that far-fetched. And, inevitably—depressingly—your thoughts turn out to be correct. Several incidents are mentioned, though never expanded on, but it’s the fleeting, lingering images that take a hold of your imagination, rendering further detail superfluous.

The narrator never names the characters, adding to the sense of beige that seems to permeate the novel. The language is simple without being simplistic, and in many ways, is almost stream of conscious: the paragraphs are pages and pages long, and we slip between past and present with great ease. This all adds to the stuffy, claustrophobic atmosphere that Vanderbeke draws so well.

They say good things come in small packages. If this is the standard of all Peirene books, I look forward to the other 2013 offerings. The Mussel Feast is a glorious book. Everything I could possibly want in a novel is somewhere in here: the language is taut, the symbolism is heavy, and there is nothing superfluous. It may have taken twenty years, but English-speaking readers can finally read a classic novel that lives up to its label.

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5 thoughts on “The Mussel Feast (1990) – Birgit VANDERBEKE

  1. Tony says:

    Yep, this is one of the best Peirene books so far. I read it (in German) recently – and reread it a few weeks after. It’s a nice quick read, but there’s a lot there to think about. My review was just as positive as yours :)

    • Matthew Todd says:

      It’s definitely a deliberate book – everything is perfectly in its place, designed to get the reader to certain revelations at a certain time. I mean that in a good way – it’s perfectly constructed.

      I’m sure there’s a joke about German efficiency in there, but I wouldn’t dare go there. ;-)

  2. Alex in Leeds says:

    Looking forward to this year’s series, I’ve only read one Peirene so far but loved all the space it created for me as a reader to fill in blanks, think about themes and discuss after reading. :)

    • Matthew Todd says:

      What intrigues me most about this – and the other Peirene books – is that the series are given titles that spell out the themes they want us to look at. So for The Mussel Feast, we already go into it knowing it will be about an event that changes people in a significant way. It’s hard not to be thinking about that the entire time.

      I’m interested to see how other people react to it, trying to get away from the “Turning Points” banner.

  3. […] My subscription to the 2013 season of Peirene Press novellas/short novels is chugging along nicely—the second of the collection turned up on my doorstep several weeks ago. I very much enjoyed the first Peirene book I read, and though there’s really nothing connecting this novel—a contemporary Finnish novel from Kristina Carson—with the last—an 80s novel from Germany—Peirene has made a name for itself by being a brand of a certain kind of novel. Does this novel, then, reach the heights of The Mussel Feast? […]

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