The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

Purchased at The Book Depository

Purchased at The Book Depository

The Mussel Feast is an interior monologue, the thoughts of a young girl looking back at the evening that supplies the title. I’ll admit that monologues are not my favorite form, generally featuring too much introspection and not enough observation of the broader world for my tastes. But this 1990 novella from Germany not only works, it works exceptionally well — and I would like to focus this review on why it put paid to my ingrained prejudices.

The process started, in fact, from the very opening:

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 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 of coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet.

(A note on the quotes in this review: The Mussel Feast is only 105 pages but, true to monologue form, the paragraphs in the narrative extend for several pages. Vanderbeke’s prose and its pace are vital to the book’s success, so I want to quote her — but I warn that what is excerpted here are mere snatches from far longer passages.)

Those opening sentences did two things for me. First, for a monologue to work, the reader needs not just to be hearing the narrator’s story but to be a participant in it. The author immediately does that: note that there is no “I” but a lot of “we’s” in those six sentences. The narrator may be looking back on what happened — the reader is encouraged to become part of the “we” who were there as well.

Secondly, there is the combined sense of foreboding (“a bad omen”, “our abortive feast”) and desire for denial (“that’s nonsense, too”, “interpret our decision”). We know from the start that the evening did not turn out well. We also know that the narrator doesn’t want to acknowledge what happened or why but the mere fact that she is engaging in the monologue indicates that she is eventually going to have to do that — the reader is encouraged to become a fellow traveler on that journey.

The feast of the title is in honor of the father’s return from a presentation: “…that day, which we knew in advance was a special, even historic day for our family, for this business trip was to be the last step on my father’s path to promotion”. Mussels were father’s favorite food: “My brother liked mussels too, whereas my mother and I never cared for them too much”.

While mother is painstakingly cleaning the mussels (“because my father hated nothing more than grains of sand crunching between his teeth”), the narrator and her brother are preparing the chips that will accompany them:

But we were allowed to cut the chips; you always have chips with mussels, I don’t care for them much, either, even though Mum cooks the best chips I have ever tasted. My brother, on the other hand, goes crazy for them, they’re unrivalled, he always said; once he even invited all his friends who doubted and teased him about the chips to our house, and my mother made chips for them all, and my brother was terribly proud of her. Since then we’d sometimes help prepare the chips; that evening we peeled the potatoes and cut them into thin batons, increasingly feeling twitchy. Afterwards we said that this was when we started to become anxious, when we suspected something was up; of course it was only afterwards that we knew what would happen. So maybe we were simply twitchy because we were waiting; we always felt twitchy when we waited for my father, there was always a certain tension.

There again is that foreboding, uncertainty and implications of denial and it has been ratcheted up a fair bit. The monologue diverts a bit to slip in some backstory: the mussels are to be cooked in “a massive pot” that the mother had brought from the East on one of her preliminary trips that set up their escape to West Berlin. These thoughts come to mind as the narrator contemplates the mussels cooking. “It’s mass murder, I said” — which prompts a response from her mother to stop thinking fanciful thoughts:

…although Mum harbored plenty of fanciful ideas herself; when my father was on business trips the three of us told each other the most fanciful stories, without ever being appalled. Before my father came home, however, all those fanciful ideas vanished, especially my mother’s. My father regarded flights of fancy as childish, my father stood for sober objectivity and reason, and of course my mother showed consideration for his objectivity and reason, conforming and switching to wifey mode when he came home. And when my mother said, what are you talking about, I knew at once that she had switched to wifey mode, and the rage of disgust which I felt toward the mussels was now directed at my mother. Aren’t we allowed to think any more, I said, but my mother said, is that what you call thinking, can’t you think something useful rather than those sinister thoughts. In our family sinister thoughts and fantasies were regarded as squandered thoughts, especially when my father was at home, and although he wasn’t there yet he might arrive at any moment.

That last quote comes from page 17 of the novella and by that point I was completely engaged in the narrator’s return to the mussel feast, particularly since a putative villain has now been identified. She had introduced enough detail and innocently raised enough disturbing questions about an event that we know turned out badly that I was more than willing to enrol in the memory. Suffice to say the slender volume supplies answers to all the questions that have been raised.

I realize I am copping out by not telling you more, but I figured this review would be of more value as an “enticement” than a complete overview. If you would like a more conventional (and thorough) review of the book, I would point you to the one that brought me to purchase it, Kimbofo’s at Reading Matters. In that review, she describes reading the book as like peeling an onion — I’ve peeled off the first couple layers, but I’ll leave finding the heart of the story to yourself. It is well worth the effort.

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13 Responses to “The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Monologues aren’t my favourite either, and for me they work better if the speaker is a nut-job. Not sure if I’d like this one.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It is noir enough, that I think you would quite like it — since it only takes about 90 minutes to read it is a reading version of trying out a dark movie. And it leaves you much to think about afterwards.

  2. BookerTalk Says:

    I know what you mean about interior monologues. The voice has to be very individual for it to hold my attention long. This one sounds good though.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      All too often the device is used as an excuse for self-indulgent meandering. In this case, the narrator was genuinely exploring a very troubled family history — and as Kimbofo points out in her review, the book also succeeds in developing an allegory on the German “family” experience of East and West.

  3. Scott W. Says:

    But at least let us know whether the mussels were good! I could actually envision writing a 105-page monologue about a feast of mussels (or a least about a particular feast of mussels that one time in Franceā€¦)

  4. sshaver Says:

    This site would be found innocent, but I just wanted to mention that VIDA has just come out with their current “Dudesville” list of major magazines that review far more male than female books (and have far more male than female reviewers).

    Makes me mad.

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    I haven’t read this one, but every review of it I come across inclines me to.

    Peirene have produced some really strong, interesting and unheralded books. Anything of their’s that I’ve read has been worthwhile.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      The book has quite a good provenance — it won Germany’s most prestigious award when it appeared. And while it is Vanderbeke’s first publication, she has written 16 more since (I have no idea if any are available in translation).

      You are right that Peirene has a good track record — I won’t say that I buy every title they publish, but I pay attention when I see one.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    771 pages? At 771 pages it needs to be more than good, it needs to be great. That’s a serious investment of time.

    While I was reading the early part of your review I was quite tempted. The different episodes each sounded interesting and sufficiently different to each other to maintain interest.

    This though: “(which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch)” – is he a teenager at that point still? What teenager says “knew not a word” instead of “didn’t know any” or similar? I know it sounds picky, but that’s very ornate for interior dialogue.

    Generally though that quote felt to me overwrought. I wasn’t taken by it.

    So, given there’s plenty of interiority and I don’t like the interior quote, and given there’s plenty of plenty too, I’m with Leroy. Thanks for reading this one Kevin so that I don’t have to.

    That said, I don’t fully rule out ever reading it. I may need something like this if I have an extended hospital stay at some point say, but that’s now its mental category for me.

    Nice review as ever.

  7. Max Cairnduff (@MaxCairnduff) Says:

    In the hope of posting a comment that is relevant to this review, you do make a good case for this Kevin.

    I’m suspicious of monologues, but Schnitzler’s Fraulein Else which I read way back in 2009 according to my blog (back when I had more time to blog for that matter) showed me how well they can be done, and the quotes here are great.

    I don’t think I have this Peirene yet, though I planned to get it anyway. You’ve definitely bumped it up the queue though.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think you would like it — Vanderbeke has said she wrote it using the overbeating, manipulative father as a means to create an allegory between East and West Germany, so there is a broader angle that I did not bring up in the review. I always find it difficult to make reference to allegorical interpretations in reviews — it seems to me they are meant to be discovered by readers themselves, rather than being suggested to them.

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