Thursday 11 June 2015

Portable Magic. I've been disappearing into novellas: The Mussel Feast & The Library of Unrequited Love

Hi hi, settle in with a cuppa, we've got another a few books to disappear into ...

And if it's an especially portable book you're looking for - perhaps to take on your summertime travels - then today's collection of lightweight, read-in-a-few-sittings, novellas might be just the thing.

Maybe if I was a bit slicker [or any amount of 'slick' in fact] I would pretend to you that I'd read these two books one after the other as careful research for a feature about monologues delivered in the novella format by European female authors.

But slick is not my middle name. [Thank goodness. Doesn't really fit with 'Kirk' does it? And what would my parents have been thinking?!]

Anyway, yes ... back to slick planning and novellas ... while I absolutely did read these books, back-to-back, one right after the other, there was no grand plan involved.

With books [as with many many things in my life] I'm more of a browser than a planner. More fond of the delight of serendipity than the logarithms of 'if you liked X then you might like Y'.

And so it was that, by providence rather than design, I ended up reading two books in a row - The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke and The Library of Unrequited Love  by Sophie Divry - both of which just so happened to use the novella format to deliver a monologue spoken by a female narrator.

Both simply happened to catch my eye, from their shelves in two different libraries, and I just picked them out and read them. Which didn't take me very long at all seeing as how - put together they total a mere 208 pages between them!

Chances are, that after carrying around several whopping, shoulder straining, 500, 600, 1000+ pagers with me this year ...  it was their slim profile that appealed to me most!

How about we dip into them now?

The Mussel Feast ¦¦ Birgit Vanderbeke
Trigger warning: this book - and my review of it - contains themes of domestic abuse.

This book has been translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch and, according to the publisher Peirene Press it's "the modern German classic that has shaped an entire generation."

Here's how it's described on their website:
"A mother and her two teenage children sit at the dinner table. In the middle stands a large pot of cooked mussels. Why has the father not returned home? As the evening wears on, we glimpse the issues that are tearing this family apart."
And here's a note from the author herself:
'I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.' Birgit Vanderbeke
As those descriptions might suggest this is a lightweight book in grams/ounces alone! The subject matter is certainly heavier and darker although the harder elements of the story kind of sneak up on you as you're reading.

The lone voice we hear throughout this book is that of a teenage girl, and we only ever hear the story from her point of view; however, while no one else has direct dialogue we do hear from other people through the filter of her limited understanding and her child's naivete. Here she introduces us to her father - the character who looms large over the entire monologue even though we don't hear from him personally:

"We already knew that my father was a brilliant and highly influential speaker; he was known for, and very proud of, his extraordinary didactic skills which he unfurled during these lectures. He also possessed a very winning and endearing manner with the public, a natural charm in addition to his expertise in one of the most difficult and controversial areas of science. This endearing manner with the public softened the rigour of his expertise, and audiences were consistently delighted by the lectures and by my father himself." 

At first glance this sounds pretty over-the-top and you might wonder what kind of teenager - outside of an Enid Blyton story or an etiquette book from the 1950s - would actually describe their father in such glowing, reverential terms??  But as the monologue continues our narrator - unknowingly - reveals more about her father's true nature and we begin to realise that the kind of teenager who would say such things ... is a frightened one. One who's being controlled, brainwashed?, to not question the way of life he forces upon everyone in his household.

When describing how her mother's hands are red from repeatedly scrubbing the eponymous mussels she lets slip the reason why such care has been taken: "since my father couldn't bear the crunch of sand between his teeth". And later her mother tells the children to stop helping because: "if there’s any sand in them then at least neither of you will be to blame". 

After this our adult, experienced, ears are on alert for other alarm bells indicating just what an unpredictable, demanding, unpleasant and abusive man the father actually is.

Cleverly and rather painfully all while the author is dropping us hints about just what kind of man the father is she maintains the voice of the teenager who - like so many children who've grown up in abusive homes - doesn't realise that what she's describing to us is NOT the norm in most homes. She doesn't know that we hear something quite different to what she thinks she's told us. She doesn't know that the family activities and experiences she relates to us don't happen in homes that aren't ruled by a controlling parent.

But we do realise it. And, if you're anything like me ... you'll want to rescue her and her family from him. Get them out from beneath his tyranny.

When the book begins he's already late and they're wondering where he could be - and you too may spend the next 100 or so pages hoping that he won't return home; that something, anything, will prevent him. Or you hope that, even if he does come home, that somehow they'll join together to fight back, to overthrow him, and at last they'll be set free from his oppressive regime.

And suddenly you'll understand why Vanderbeke used a domestic, small scale, tale to explore the idea of a wider national revolution, as the author herself stated.  Maybe many of us can't conceive of what it would be like to decide to overthrow an entire political regime ... but perhaps, in this setting, we can imagine wanting to be free from an individual.

This may be a very thin, speedy, read - but The Mussel Feast really does provide a lot of food for thought. And both its subject matter and its clever [if necessarily claustrophobic and narrow] narrative technique really does linger longer than its fleeting length might at first suggest.

Strangely enough ... and adding to the already huge coincidence of reading two monologue-based novellas by European female authors ... this next book also concerns itself with notions of revolution. Not that you'd guess it from the rather cutesy title ...

The Library of Unrequited Love ¦¦ Sophie Divry
Our narrator in Divry's monologue [translated from the French by Si├ón Reynolds] is a middle-aged, over-looked librarian whose contempt for Napoleon Bonaparte - who she calls a "barbarian and tyrant" - is matched only by her love for a student called Martin who frequents the library.

The entire book is a one-sided conversation she has with a man who's been locked in the library overnight and, after her initial annoyance of his presence wears off, she launches into using him as a sounding board for her stream of thought, which is the entire book.

Here she's often critical of men ranging from Melvil Dewey [he of the Dewey-decimal system of book organising] to "men making marks in books" and architects who've historically not spared a thought for the people who need to work in their buildings [her area of the library is dark and tucked away].  But it's a different matter when she's rhapsodising about Martin; here [from page 26] she's talking about that part of his body she finds herself admiring while he sits reading; the back of his neck:
"Yes, intimate, It's the part of the body you can never see for yourself. A few inches of neck, with a trace of down, exposed to the sky, the back of the head, the last goodbye, the far side of the mind."
But it's not just Martin who stirs her passions. There's a lot of talk of revolution from a historical perspective in this book [she is running the history section after all] but it's also revolution from a cultural stand point. Some of my favourite, expressive, parts of the book are where our narrator champions the role of books and libraries within society:
"Well, anyway, libraries do attract mad people. Especially in summer. Of course, if you closed the libraries during the summer holidays you wouldn't see them. No more lunatics, poor people, children on their own, students who've failed their exams, no more little old chaps, no more culture and no more humanity." [page 62]
"Help yourself, it's free. Borrow, because as much as accumulation of material things impoverishes the soul, cultural abundance enriches it. My culture doesn't stop where someone else's begins. I fact, the library is the place where the greatest solidarity between humans takes place. Humanity, in its most depressing and suffering state, the  most beautiful humanity there is, actually, the sinners, the unemployed, the cold weather refugees, they're all around me here, Knock and it shall be opened." [page 67]
I love this!!! I'm a huge fan of libraries and there's no doubt 'cultural abundance' has enriched my soul and - more pragmatically - my bank balance! I simply wouldn't have read the breadth of stories and I'd never have risked so many unknown quantities if I'd been paying for them.

But I think I'll leave that train of thought there for now ... I think my love of the library deserves a post dedicated solely to it sometime soon!

If either of these titles has grabbed you, or if you'd just like to ponder furher on the short, condensed, almost poetic nature of the novella structure then here's some further  topical 'cultural abundance' for you!

On The Mussel Feast:
On The Library of Unrequited Love:
And on the format of the 'novella' in general [might help you if you're looking for additional easy-to-carry, quick-to-read books]:
If you do read / have read any of today's titles  - or if you've got a great novella to recommend - then let me know in the commets. 

Thanks for stopping to chat over a good book with me today. See you soon.


This is another post in my Portable Magic series ... 


  1. I can totally attest to that feeling of solidarity in a library. I have spent New Year's Eve manning a desk..just me and one customer. The fact that he had chosen the library was enough to make us feel we had something in common. We shared some Christmas gift Quality Street, wished each other a Happy New Year and then he left. Sometimes I wonder where he went, at the end of the year..

  2. J, hopped over, delighted, to read your to the 'difficult' bits about The Mussel Feast (sounds like she describes that kind of home perfectly) and can't read on at the mo (a 'down' day today) but didn't want to leave without leaving some sort of comment....I'll be back soon...(at the weekend!).....H xx
    P.S. Sian's comment above is delightful! Imagine!

    1. So sorry H. I've put a 'trigger warning' at the start now in case any one else struggles with the theme. I'm sorry it wasn't there earlier. x

    2.'re so thoughtful....thank you....

  3. Your reviews are always very detailed and thoughtful, Julie - I feel as if you ought to be writing for the above mentioned newspapers yourself! I like the novella form and have an aversion to long, heavy books, so I may just dip into one of these.

  4. Back again....loved loved loved your Alexa says, you should be writing for a wider audience....the broadsheets would be lucky to have the sound of the second book (and have made note of the first book for 'future reference') the discussions around the purpose of libraries.....and love her line "the accumulation of material things impoverishes the soul".........GREAT post. Thank you so much: it was truly a joy to read (once I'd got over the shock of the first bit and came back to read it on one of my 'better' days)....

  5. Love this post and it came at a great time just when I resolved to browse less and read more over the summer. Will have to check out your recommendations. I agree with Alexa that you write very well!


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