“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 spoke 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.”
From this opening sentence we are slowly drawn into the world of this family, as told through the narration of the daughter as she, her brother and their mother wait for the head of the family to come home. Sat at the family table around a large pot of now cooling mussels, prepared earlier by the mother - they wait for the father, not realising they have a long wait ahead.
The evening progresses, and we learn more about this family and it’s absent head. Although the absence is only physical as his presence, like some barghest, haunts every page, revealing a patriarchal figure who controls every aspect of family life, through physical and mental violence. A petty irrational despot whose own obsessions are destroying all he seeks to control.
Slowly as the mussels go cold and the wine bought for his arrival is opened and drank, the family relax and, though hesitantly at first, they start to open up to each other and in so doing begin questioning everything they’ve been told to believe in. Everything that they were to scared to air in the cold light of day is revealed and as though performing an exorcism, they haltingly lay the spirit that has dominated their lives for so long.
After reading this I had to look the author up, as it states on the back cover that it was a modern German classic, and yet I was totally unaware of it. It also turns out that this Novel was published in 1990, won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, is part of the school curriculum in Germany and has never been out of print, not bad for a debut novel. It also turns out that Birgit Vanderbeke has written another twelve books, I can only hope Meike and Peirene Press have got their eye on them, because based on this one, that’s a fantastic collection of books that I would love to read.
Birgit Vanderbeke was born in 1956 in Dahme/Mark in the GDR, and moved with her family to West Germany in 1961. She was brought up in Frankfurt am Main, where she later studied Law and French. Her first novella, Das Muschelessen [The Mussel Dinner] (1990), received the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. In 1993, Vanderbeke moved to the south of France. She is the author of twelve subsequent novellas, a cookbook, and a travel guide. A volume of essays, interviews, and reviews concerned with Vanderbeke appeared in Germany in 2001. She has won several awards including
Solothurner Literaturpreis (1999)
Roswitha Prize (1999)
Hans Fallada Prize (2002)
The Translator, Jamie Bulloch is a historian and has been working as a professional translator from German since 2001. His most recent works include The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatter for Quercus and Ruth Maier's Diary for Harvill Secker. Peirene has selected him for the translation of Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman because his sample translation received unanimous admiring praise from the editorial panel. His self-effacing approach to the original text will undoubtedly allow the rhythm of the sentence to come through in English. He lives in London with his wife and three children.
“Vanderbeke portrays her calculating anti-hero with chilling precision” Der Spiegel
“Vanderbeke’ s words draw the reader into a frightening whirlpool of obsession and misfortune. Ultimately , however, they create a beautiful image of hope” Marie France
“I love this monologue. It’s the first Peirene book which made me laugh out loud. The author lays bare the contradictory logic of an inflexible mind. This is a poignant yet hilarious narrative with a brilliant ending” Meike Ziervogel