I preferred us when my father was away

Dear Birgit,

The Mussel Feast, tr. Jamie Bulloch (2013. Original: Das Muschelessen, 1990) is a novella about the collapse of a man’s rule over his family during the course of an evening. It feels very much like you were weaving words around a blank space: as the story progresses, we get as much entangled in it as your characters are; like them, we cannot see the web around us, but we know it is there.

As the novella opens, a nameless mother, her son, and her daughter are at the dinner table, waiting for the father to return from a business trip. Before them, there is a huge bowl of mussels – the husband’s favourite dish. The story is set over a single evening and narrated by the eighteen-year-old daughter. As the time passes and the father fails to arrive, she gradually uncovers all the dysfunctional elements behind the family’s veneer of normality. She keeps going back to the same thought patterns, so as to expand them, to form – from scattered pieces of information and many blank spaces – a full-blown picture of her father.

The noise coming from the mussels, when they were being boiled, feels almost as an omen of what is going to happen: the creepy sound of the mussels’ shells opening in the pot, as they are being cooked alive, anticipates the disturbing opening-up of the family’s secrets. The story’s heart is, in fact, a blank space: it centres on the father. a character who is kept absent from the scene. As the narration evolves, we are made complicit in his gradual unmasking: he moves from the initial image of a domineering man to the full-blown portrait of a tyrannical figure.

Coming from an impoverished family, the father is obsessed with advancing his career and giving others the impression that he and his family are better than they really are. Furthermore, he exerts his power over the household through the rigid imposition of nonsensical rules. He breaks up any attempt of expression of individuality by the family members, and regulates the terms of their interaction with each other.

Abuse is the link that bonds them together: the father attacks each of them verbally, psychologically, and physically; not only that, but even the simple things he does – stuffing the cupboard with stamp collections, constantly scrutinizing the kids, or non-stop listening to Verdi operas on Sundays – work as a form of constraint over his wife and children, a kind of imposition of what he thinks a ‘proper family’ should look like.

Everyone at home lives with the constant fear of being punished for nothing: “we thought he knew everything and could see and hear everything”. They are kept constantly in the dread of spoiling the father’s mood. Even worse, there is no space for music, art, nor any genuine form of culture here: the father’s illogical and abusive behaviour stands for objectivity and reason in his mind – it is the sole form of ‘logic’ acceptable in the household, a logic only the father can create and understand, dismissing all the rest as useless.

By what we get from the gradual unravelling of the family dynamics, the story can also be read as an allegory for totalitarianism: the father’s prohibition of any opposition to his will; his restriction of any form of genuine individual expression and of any kind of meaningful interpersonal connection; his way of exerting control, restricting speech, and imposing surveillance and violent punishments; and, finally, his way of suppressing creativity and choice, and of instilling fear and paranoia in the family – in all these aspects, the father’s grip over his family mirrors the control exerted by a totalitarian State over its citizens.

The writing style matches the story perfectly: in stream of consciousness, the daughter goes back and forth between past and present, setting a claustrophobic atmosphere and building momentum for the final catharsis. As much as the characters, we feel that something decisive is going to happen, but we do not know exactly what; very much like the characters, we are anticipating – and dreading – the arrival of the father.

In a sense, while waiting for him, the daughter keeps returning to the same patterns of thought and behaviour – and, by doing that over and over, without the interruption provided by the father’s presence, she allows for the disruption of those same patterns. The more the father takes to arrive and to re-establish order, the more the daughter finds and expands her voice, deepening her portrait of him – almost like in a kind of patricide.

The unmasking of the tyrant mirrors the girl’s own path to self-assertion and, ultimately, the family’s liberation: temporarily free from the need to pretend and disguise, the three characters are ready to bond with each other over their mutual fear of and opposition to the father. They are united in their hope that he will never return, and that another order will be stablished at home.

The image of the mussels boiling in a pot brings to mind the idea of something simmering, on the verge of spouting. The original title, ‘Das Muschelessen’, means ‘a meal of musssels’, and also suggests the very act of ‘eating mussels’. Considering that the characters never get to actually eat the dish – it lays cooling down on the table, as they wait for the father -, we cannot help but have the uncanny feeling that the mussels, which are now going stale, might also be a metaphor for something else: together, wife and children are finally free to make a feast of their wounds.

Yours truly,

J.


Alex Colville, ‘Family and rainstorm’,1955


‘Everything in our lives revolved around us having to behave as if we were a proper family, as my father pictured a family to be because he hadn’t had one himself and so didn’t know what a proper family was, although he’d developed the most detailed notions of what one was like…they may have been incredibly precise, but were impossible to fathom as none of us understood the logic behind them.’ – Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast

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 sometimes speak 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 or coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet. We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion although in a very different way from what we had in mind. – Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast

I preferred us when my father was away on business. You see we all had to switch for my father, to become a proper family, as he called it, because he hadn’t had a family, but he had developed the most detailed notions of what a proper family should be like, and he could be extremely sensitive if you undermined these notions. – Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast

“Although I found the mussels creepy, I went over, as I didn’t want to be cowardly; and they looked revolting, lying there, some opening slowly, fairly slowly, and then the entire heap of them started to move with this rattling sound. Unbelievable, I said, how revolting these creatures are, gasping as instead of seawater they get air, which they can’t breathe, and they’re also being scalded in the boiling water, and then they all open, which means they’re dead.” – Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast

“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.” – Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast

“(…) meine Mutter hat pssst gemacht weil sie Angst hatte, er könnte uns hören, dabei war er doch gar nicht da, aber so ist das bei uns gewesen, jeder hat gedacht, er weiß alles und hört alles und sieht alles, obwohl wir gewußt haben, daß das ja gar nicht geht, und wirklich hat er ziemlich viel herausgekriegt, weil jeder jeden verpetzt hat…” – Birgit Vanderbeke, Das Muschelessen

“In richtigen Familien hat man Verbote nicht nötig, hat mein Vater gesagt, und sie sind wirklich überflüssig gewesen, weil wir uns immer verstanden haben, und wenn ich manchmal trotzig gewesen bin und gesagt habe, keineswegs, hat es von vorn angefangen, und es ist immer so lange gegangen, bis ich auf seine Frage, haben wir uns verstanden, mich beeilt habe zu sagen, das haben wir (…)” – Birgit Vanderbeke, Das Muschelessen


About the book

  • Peirene Press, 2013, tr. Jamie Bulloch, 110 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1990
  • Original title: Das Muschelessen
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
  • I read this book for German Lit Month & Novellas in November
  • “I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start.” Birgit Vanderbeke
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2 Comments

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  2. Hi Juliana, thanks for this beautiful response to a book I read and enjoyed a few years ago. I also read it as an allegory for totalitarianism, and I loved the image of the mussels bubbling ominously and never being eaten. I notice from your About page that you live in Germany, but it sounds as if you read the English translation—is that right? I’m always interested by translations and whether there are big differences between the translation and the original.

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