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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Mussel Feast

Birgit Vanderbeke

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To purchase The Mussel Feast

Title: The Mussel Feast
Author: Birgit Vanderbeke
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 110 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Mussel Feast - US
The Mussel Feast - UK
The Mussel Feast - Canada
The Mussel Feast - India
Le dîner de moules - France
Das Muschelessen - Deutschland
La cena delle cozze - Italia
Mejillones para cenar - España

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly effective and intense

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 12/2/2013 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 27/3/2013 C.J.Schuler
Independent on Sunday . 10/2/2013 Lucy Popescu
TLS . 17/5/2013 Jane Yager
Die Zeit F 9/11/1990 Rolf Michaelis

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is one of those books that doesn't tell us what to think, but sets us off thinking, which really is the way to do it." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "The Mussel Feast is both a coming-of-age novel set in Germany, and a coming-of-age novel for Germany. The father has brought with him the authoritarian paternalism of the state he fled, turning his family into a mini-surveillance society. Sinister, funny and heartening, this taut novella reflects, within the microcosm of the family, the dissolution of the East German state, with an insight, economy and controlled fury that have made it a modern German classic." - C.J.Schuler, The Independent

  • "Given the current obsession with traditional family values, Jamie Bulloch's flawless translation is timely. The Mussel Feast will make uncomfortable reading for those who aspire to the ideal of the perfect nuclear family." - Lucy Popescu, Independent on Sunday

  • "The book charts the collapse of the father's rule over his family during a single evening, as his wife, son and daughter sit at the dinner table tensely awaiting his arrival. (...) Das Muschelessen was her first book, and its depiction of the taut moment before a tyrant's fall fitted the 1990 zeitgeist perfectly. (...) Vanderbeke has transposed this revolution to the family dining room, and The Mussel Feast is arguably most damning as an indictment of the post-war West German family." - Jane Yager, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Hier verdicken sich immer wieder nachgestopfte Wörter zu einem Sprach Eintopf. Das 110 Seiten Werk eines Erzähl Debüts entsinkt den Händen, als hätte man einen 1000 Seiten Roman durchgeackert. (...) Brav dreht die Autorin die Klischee Mühle vom bösen, schwarzen Mann und Vater, von der tapfer strahlenden Mutter und den lieben Kindern, die aufsässig nur werden, weil sie sich der Übermacht des Patriarchen erwehren müssen. Bei so schematischen Vorgaben sind alle Ereignisse vorherzusehen: Die Erzählung verödet. (...) Nach psychologischer oder erzählerisch realistischer Glaubwürdigkeit zu fahnden verbietet sich indes bei einem Text, der sich als -- bemühte -- Stilübung versteht und darbietet." - Rolf Michaelis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[This review is based on the original German version, not Jamie Bulloch's English translation.]

       The Mussel Feast is narrated by a young woman -- past the age of majority but apparently still living at home -- who describes how she and her younger brother annd their mother wait for the pater familias to come home for dinner -- a heap of moules-frites (mussels (four kilos worth) and french fries) mom has prepared. Dad is returning from a business trip, and the expectation is that he will come back with very good news, that he'll be getting a promotion, the culmination of his career. It's apparent from the first, however, that the familial level of excitement is not high. Mom isn't particularly enthusiastic about mussels, for one thing, but she takes it on herself to scrub and cook the damn things. But there's a lot more to it, too. Dad is clearly kind of a tyrant, and his family harbors no great love for the domineering, absent man. As the wait continues -- and they wait for quite a while -- the girl fills in some of the blanks about the family, and her father in particular. The picture keeps getting darker and darker, and while there's little joy at the dinner table there also seems some palpable relief that he hasn't come yet to take his place. Indeed, it seems they wouldn't really mind if he never came back .....
       From the first, we know things didn't go entirely as planned: in the novel's opening lines the narrator speaks of the "abortive feast" (in German: "ausgefallene Muschelessen", whereby 'ausgefallen' also means 'unusual'); more importantly, she also reveals that: "what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet". (In the German what happened is said to be: "von solcher Ungeheuerlichkeit", meaning and more suggestive of something darker and more sinister, 'monstrosity' or 'outrageousness' rather than mere 'monumentality'.) So its clear this isn't going to be some happy family get-together at the dining room table (and that no one is going to enjoy the damn mussels).
       The story is presented in strings of run-on sentences, with extremely few paragraph breaks; the English translation breaks this down -- the first sentence become three in English, the second four, etc. The obvious comparison for this droning, repetitive style and slowly-peeling-back-the-ugly-intimate-layers is Thomas Bernhard, and Vanderbeke manages quite well in creating the same sort of tension Bernhard does. She also has as her subject a group of characters and a family dynamic as messed-up as in many of Bernhard's works.
       It becomes clear that dad has some very specific ideas and ideals about family and family life -- and that he is very much in charge of all of it. His family has been a series of disappointments to him -- the daughter was so hairy at birth that he's never gotten over his disgust, the son is too soft and unathletic. Whatever they do, they can't please him, because they can't do it just right or don't meet his (insane) expectations. Smart and handsome, the father treats his family like a burden -- though he proves himself to be a full-of-himself fool, too, repeatedly losing the family's savings by investing in stocks of Japanese companies (that soon thereafter go bankrupt), for example.
       The more brutish side of the father comes to light slowly, too, and the household is revealed as one of both horrible psychological and physical bullying. The father is an imposing father-figure, but the human cost on those who suffer under him is devastating.
       The wait, with the mussels getting colder, and the way things work out proves to be cathartic. It's no surprise: after all, the narrator already revealed right at the start that: "what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet" -- but The Mussel Feast reveals nothing of that wake, leading up only to the point of release.
       There's considerable strength to the narrative, and the picture of the father that slowly emerges is appealingly horrible. Unfortunately, the other characters -- including the narrator -- are less well-drawn and remain somewhat shadowy figures, which saps some of the overall effect.
       In the German The Mussel Feast is presented as an 'Erzählung' -- simply a story, rather tnan a novel or novella -- and it feels like a text that is more an exercise in telling than a full-fledged novel. The basic story is, indeed, very simple, and though fleshed-out, with so much of the family history filled in, it is more character-study and turning-point than anything else -- a drawn-out short story (though not painfully or artificially so).
       It is also hard not read a bit of state/German allegory into this work, written as East Germany collapsed, by an author born in the East who moved with her family to the West when she was a child -- just like the family in the story ..... Fortunately, Vanderbeke is not too obvious in her patriarchal state critique, preferring the more straightforward purely patriarchal critique, and taking whatever else comes with it .....
       In any case, all in all, The Mussel Feast is quite effective.

       [Note: This review is based on the German original; I have not seen the translation (beyond this brief reading sample) but it is a challenging text to render into English, beginning with what to do with the run-on sentences. Indeed, the title already proves to be quite a challenge too. 'Muschelessen' is not quite a 'mussel feast' -- more a 'meal of musssels', the use of 'essen' also suggesting the activity (eating); while it is a special meal, 'feast' perhaps implies and suggests too much. There's obviously also some heavy-handed symbolism with the suggestive mussels front and center, and this too is accentuated in the German: 'Muschi' is one of the delightful (and by far the softest) German words for the relevant part of the female anatomy (even the nearest English equivalent, 'pussy', is much sharper- and harsher-sounding), and it's unfortunate that while the German title inevitably reminds of that, the necessary English one instead echoes something entirely different, flexing muscles instead.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 May 2014

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The Mussel Feast: Reviews: Birgit Vanderbeke: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       German author Birgit Vanderbeke was born in 1956.

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