[This page by Barbara Lester]
Birgit Vanderbeke was born in 1956 in Dahme/Brandenburg, at that time part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Within five years her parents moved the family to West Germany, so that her formative years, including her time at Frankfurt University, were spent in the West. The reality of the divided Germany and the very different ideologies which prevailed in the two states covertly surface in her works. She did move to Berlin but upon marriage and motherhood she and her husband decided to relocate to southern France since she was unwilling to bring up their child in Germany.
Her debut novel which in 1990 firmly put her on the literary map was Das Muschelessen (the English translation by Jamie Bulloch was published in 2013 under the title The Mussel Feast). The book instantly became a sensational success, with its theme of family life, the psychological warfare within it, and its underlying suggestion of the stirrings of political rebellion, peacefully staged but ultimately deadly. It was Vanderbeke’s take on the events of 1989, the end of communism in Eastern Europe through the demolition of hated repressive regimes. The theme is reflected in Das Muschelessen by the dethronement of a hitherto autocratic father, although superficially the book only portrays the tangled relationships within one troubled post-war German family.
Birgit Vanderbeke is seen as one of the most important contemporary German writers. Her books are received with equal enthusiasm by both critics and readers. In 1990 Das Muschelessen was awarded the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann prize, followed by several other literary prizes, including the Swiss Solothurn prize, given in recognition of her entire oeuvre up to that time.
Vanderbeke’s writing style is somewhat idiosyncratic, though accessible and amusing, employing a good deal of irony, but it also uses the device of poignant repetition. Seemingly accidentally, the history of post-war Germany is chronicled in her narrative. Inner monologue and stream-of-consciousness passages skilfully convey the plot, at the same time creating an uneasy, even menacing atmosphere around the characters. Her style with its breathless, relentless and convoluted long sentences – there is sometimes no full stop to be found for entire pages – becomes compelling. The reader is inexorably drawn into the web of Vanderbeke’s narration and finds her work, and in particular Das Muschelessen, unputdownable. Asked in an interview about her exceedingly long sentences, given that her books lack volume, Vanderbeke answered: ‘It’s allowed, we need to give literature its own profile in the face of all the competition from television and advertising. If I can keep someone away from their TV set for an evening, then I was good, I’ll have succeeded.’
Das Muschelessen; The Mussel Feast (1990)
On the evening of the story’s events, the first-person-narrator, her mother and younger brother have been preparing a celebratory meal, the mussel feast of the title, and are awaiting the imminent return of the father after an official trip which had been designed to confer on him, finally, top level status within his scientific organisation. In this orderly and rigidly controlled household, life’s pattern revolves around the dictatorial father, who is greatly, albeit grudgingly, respected, even feared, rather than loved.
The clock in this household, in which, of course, punctuality is worshipped, goes on ticking, Father (no-one in this family is given an actual personal name by the author) does not appear, and gradually the mood changes from expectation to unease, to disquiet, then frustration, and in due course to tacitly acknowledged hope that Father may never again appear in their midst. Despite the feeling of relief thus engendered, the void is nevertheless filled with his almost tangible presence. The tension becomes quite unbearable, until the members of this family, hitherto in awe of the autocratic, unforgiving and seemingly unloving father, begin to experience a degree of liberation. They indulge in a critical, no-holds-barred ‘exposure’ of this often resented authority figure. The verdict reached at the end of the evening, Father’s absence still unexplained, is that he, who is now being linked with the hapless mussels waiting to be cooked alive in their slowly opening shells, should be ejected from their midst, ultimately to be thrown out with the uneaten, by now dead mussels, these creatures having in any case only ever been a delicacy for Father and merely tolerated by the others to humour him.
The tone in which the terrible familial stocktaking, the merciless dissection of the perceived tyrant, the slow progress towards the realisation that lightning does not actually strike those who ‘blaspheme’ by so openly denigrating the feared patriarch, is utterly subjective, unfair, too, as one might expect from a child’s perspective, even if it is now employed retrospectively by an almost adult daughter. The reader at times tires of the exaggeration and frequent repetition, the mantra-like phrases being used again and again, but the thrust of the verbal torrent of the monologue leads one to the centre of an all-powerful man whose hollow core is finally revealed. The terrible constraints imposed by this father on his family, and by extension by the ‘Zeitgeist’ on the nation’s citizens, are held up as downright demonic. This aura is generated by signs and symbols, a darkly construed nexus of all the characteristics of oppression. The ritual of family life is based here on the ‘as if’ principle, on Father’s deep-seated need to live within a ‘proper family’ as he perceives it, not actually having been privileged himself to experience it in his own childhood and youth. The fake idyll of this troubled family’s life together is shaken and inexorably destroyed in the course of this fateful evening.
This ogre, a self-appointed know-all, has considered it his sacred duty to educate and improve his family by swamping them with an abundance of facts, historical and societal, partly in order to impress by his superior knowledge and partly in order to help them to adapt to life in West Germany with its different rules compared to the eastern part of the, at the time, divided nation. Conformity, be it at home or in the country generally, has been the idol worshiped by this deluded paterfamilias. This erstwhile feared figure, kow-towed to so assiduously for so long, is ultimately made to share the fate not only of the mussels but of many a dictator pulled unceremoniously from his plinth.
The reader is not told at the end of the story what has prevented Father from returning home as expected, in line with the firm decision of the rest of the family to consign him, despite the eventually heard, but unanswered, prolonged telephone ringing tones, to oblivion, like the dustbin the discarded mussels end up in. It is the end of an era, both for this formerly unhappy family and by extension for a hated and inhuman system in the meaningful year 1989, a point emphasized by Birgit Vanderbeke herself.
Vanderbeke’s works include:
Das Muschelessen (1990) [The Mussel Feast]
Fehlende Teile (1992) [Missing Parts]
Gut genug (1993) [Good Enough]
Ich will meinen Mord (1995) [I Want My Murder]
Friedliche Zeiten (1996) [Peaceful Times]
Alberta empfängt einen Liebhaber (1997) [Alberta Welcomes a Lover]
Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst (1999) [I See Something You Don’t]
Abgehängt (2001) [Hung Up]
Geld oder Leben (2003) [Money or Life]
Das lässt sich ändern (2011) [That Can Be Changed]
Die Frau mit dem Hund (2012) [The Woman With the Dog]
Der Sommer der Wildschweine (2013) [The Wild Boar Summer]
Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (2016) [I’m glad I was born]
Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast, trans. by Jamie Bulloch (London: Pereine, 2013)
Birgit Vanderbeke, You Would Have Missed Me, trans. by Jamie Bulloch (London: Pereine, 2019)
Emily Jeremiah, Nomadic Ethics in Contemporary Women’s Writing in German: Strange Subjects (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012), Chapter 2: ‘Seeing Strangely: Birgit Vanderbeke’s Ways of Knowing’
Nicholas Lezard review of The Mussel Feast
Emily Jeremiah (Royal Holloway, University of London) on Birgit Vanderbeke