Peirene Salon

25 September, 2010

Lovely Meike from Peirene Press invited me to her sixth literary salon and I couldn’t resist saying yes! I’ve never been to a literary salon before although I’ve read a lot about them. This one was for Friedrich Christian Delius’ Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman which I enjoyed reading. On an off chance I asked my sister whether she’d be interested in coming and she surprised me by saying yes. So all three of us, including my brother-in-law, who have never been to one wandered over to Meike’s to see what it was all about.

There was quite a large group from the Goethe-Institut as well as people involved in translation and German literature. We met some lovely folk who worked in translation and editing, had some wine and interesting conversation, admired the book-lined rooms and settled down to listen to literary reviewer Chris Shüller introduce and talk to Delius and his translator Jamie Bulloch. They discussed the role of the translator and how important it was to preserve the author’s voice in the novel (especially since it was one long sentence in this instance). There was talk of the war and how it is only recently in Germany that people are able to talk about the experience of German civilians during the war, something which was taboo for a long time. And you may be pleased to know that the Mother in the novel was re-united with her husband three months later in real life^^

The three of us enjoyed the evening tremendously. Especially my sister who discovered the joys of reading later in life (not a big reader when she was young and had to be paid by my father to read) and my brother-in-law ( who doesn’t read except for work and isn’t embarrassed to say so). We had a lively discussion on the way home and are looking forward to participating in more literary endeavors together!

Literary events seem to be having a boom these days. Have you been to any literary nights out recently and if so, what did you enjoy most?

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The previous two offerings by Peirene Press were a delight so I was looking forward to reading the third, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius. I admit I was hooked by Meike’s quote about it being ‘a single 117-page long sentence’. What? I thought to myself, how is that possible? But of course, it’s a stream of consciousness novel made famous by Virginia Woolf in her novels. I haven’t completed any of Woolf’s novels yet (um…no excuse, really) but this being a novella made it a beautiful read. I liked the way the protagonist, the young mother, jumped from one thought to another, but always coming back to her baby and her faraway husband, always coming back to her fears and loneliness. I admired the way she tried to stay positive and strong for both of them, wishing victory on the German army only so as to get back what is most precious to her.

In this novella, Delius traces the thoughts of the young mother as she takes an hour long walk through the street of Rome in 1943, eight months pregnant, and waiting for her husband to return from Tunisia. She is on her way to a concert in a church, aware of but not a part of the poverty and hardship experienced by the locals. She’s wary of them, doesn’t understand the language, but secure in the knowledge that she is in a country that is allied with hers and that no harm would befall her. She thinks of her past, of her meeting her husband, of his wisdom and erudition. And even though she tries to keep her thoughts light, slowly, the fear, the alienation and doubts about the war seep through her thoughts.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman also tackles the sensitive issues of compliance and acceptance of Nazism for a young German growing up in the period. The mother recalls her youth in the young women’s league, her support of the fatherland and what she, as a patriot, believes in that the German victory will make everything all right. In some ways, this naivete is a product of her youth, especially her reliance on her husband’s opinions as well as that of her country, but you have to wonder whether she will live her life sheltered within her perceived ideology. But as the war progresses and her husband is taken away from her, the anxiety slowly shakes her belief in her country and in the end with the growing whispers of defeat, what she is left with is an urgent wish only for her husband to return to her.

I liked the last quarter of the book as she enters the Lutheran church to enjoy the concert, the one place where she can be herself and feel understood. And as the music lifts her spirit, it also enhances her emotions and Delius writes in such a way, increasing the speed of her thoughts, the pace, the intensity that you feel that you are there listening to the music as well.

A beautiful book. It’s not just a book of the young mother’s thoughts, it’s also a history book, a book of the past, of the present and the future. Of hope and fear. And most of all, family.

Many thanks to Meike of Peirene Press who kindly sent me this book to review.

Iris on Books and Novel Insights have also reviewed this book so do check them out!

We get up in the morning but that morning doesn’t actually exist any more than the night before which everyone’s already forgotten. We’re all walking on the edge of a precipice, I’ve known that for a long time.

I wasn’t sure about whether I was going to like this book because of the strong responses it elicited online. Not because of the reviews themselves, but because I began to gather an inkling about the subject matter of the novel. It’s difficult not to give something away when you write about it, especially reviews. But I liked Stone in a Landslide a lot and when Meike of Peirene Press kindly offered me a copy of Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea, I couldn’t really resist. And you know what, I’m really glad I read this.

The subject matter is very controversial, but Olmi seamlessly segues you into her protagonist’s mind and you feel and think like her, slowly disintegrating, and only realising too late what is actually happening.

I was stunned and very touched upon finishing the novel. I closed the book and wanted to start reading it again, just to understand exactly what happened there. I wasn’t very sympathetic towards Olmi’s main character at first; a mother who takes her two young boys on a trip to the seaside on a school day. There is something a little askew with the mother. She’s worried and anxious but loves her boys to bits. And it’s difficult to understand her motivation. Yet Olmi, despite the likeability/dislikeability of her main character manages to make you care about what she does and how she feels. It’s uncomfortable reading but you can’t put the book down. And I’m still thinking about it two weeks later.

Beside the Sea is a very short novella, and I can’t really talk about it without giving spoilers, so I’ll refrain. But I do urge you to give this book a chance. It will make you stop and think about life, belonging and peace of mind. In our busy lives, something that makes us pause and take stock is certainly worth spending some time over.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but you’ll find that you won’t be able to stop reading because you just need to know where the story is hurtling towards. Just give yourself a little breathing space in between books, and some quiet time, to really take it in.

I think Peirene Press took a gamble in publishing such a devastating yet simple story from the point of view of a member of our society whose life has somehow slipped through the cracks. It’s not a subject many would reach out to, but I think Olmi has written a singularly beautiful novel. It’s not easy for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and when we do, it reminds us of what we cherish in our lives.

Adriana Hunter’s translation read really well, but I’m still unsure as to whether I like the vernacular tone with its jarring and jerky rhythm mirroring the protagonist’s state of mind. But this added to the tension in the story, and it probably was the right tone to take. Translations always make me wonder what it would be like to read the book in the original language. If only!

I am the first to admit I haven’t read much Spanish fiction or books set in Spain except for Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and have seen only a handful of films such as Pan’s Labyrinth (which really wasn’t a children’s film). But I did study the Spanish Civil War at length at school and most of the books I like to read are set during the interwar years and reference the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigade, so it’s a slice of history in which I am particularly interested.

I was in the middle of reading a number of books which I wanted to finish, but when this little beauty arrived, I flipped open a few pages and I kept on reading. Stone in a Landslide is a slim book about the life of Concepció or Conxa, a young girl from the deep Catalan countryside. Told in her own words, we see Conxa as she grows up away from home, marries and has children and grows old while her country goes through a tumultous period in history which will affect her and the people she loves. It’s a simple story told in a simple way, yet it touches something profound because it is about history and how no matter how remote your life may seem, you can never really escape from it. There are no histrionics, Conxa is very matter of fact, but in Barbel’s prose you can sense her bewilderment as she has to deal with all that life throws at her. She comes from a simple background that is so poor that life is all about working the land punctuated with shots of happiness; her husband Jaume, her children, their marriages and finally old age. As her life moves from the country to the city, we see her slowly lose her sense of self.

This is a bittersweet tale, showing life as it is from the point of view of an uneducated and simple woman who has grown up adapting to her life. But it is not a tragic tale. Conxa laments the changes that sweep her life, but as much as the story is about the generational differences that are more apparent in the 20th century, it is also the tale of a country emerging into modernity through war. And throughout these changes, Conxa remains upright and resilient.

Stone in a Landslide is beautiful, simple and stark. Yet it is filled with warmth, the smell of grass on the mountains and the sunshine of a late afternoon. This is a book to read slowly, savouring the language and letting Conxa’s experience wash through you.

I would like to thank Meike from Peirene Press who kindly sent me a copy to read.

*Stone in Landslide will be published on 10th June 2010 but you can pre-order a copy on Amazon.

I thought I was pretty good with not buying books this month, but hey, who am I trying to kid?

I was lucky enough to get sent the following:

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal – the lovely Meike from Peirene Press sent this for me to try. I’ve never read any Catalan fiction and Stone in Landslide has been in print for 50 years, but this is the first time it’s been translated into English.

A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters – the newest addition to Peters’ Amelia Peabody series. I fell in love with the series set in the early 20th century that combine mystery, history and Egyptology with some incredibly wonderful and funny characters when I picked up the first volume Crocodile on the Sandbank at Chicago’s famous Seminary Co-op Bookstore (astrophysicist and my hero Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s favourite bookshop) years ago. She’s one of my favourite writers and I always return to her when I’m in need of some bookish comfort. And Amelia’s son Ramses is to die for.

And I picked these up at my local charity shop for a pound each:

Modern Tongue: The English Language by Bill Bryson – I really enjoyed Notes from a Small Island which was hilarious but have never read anything else by Bryson (except for snippets of A Short History of Nearly Everything which I dip into occasionally.)

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan – How could I not pick this up? The title alone hooked me.

Solo by Rana Dasgupta – Dasgupta was present at the GLF 2010 earlier this year, but I hadn’t read any of his books although Tokyo Cancelled has been on my radar. Solo won the Commonwealth Writers Prize this year.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King – I’ve heard so many good things about King’s The Dark Tower sequence of which this is the first book. I found this book just after reading a great review about the series. It’s funny how these things happen.