For those who don't know, Peirene Press is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which have not been translated into English prior to now. Peirene novellas are organised into groups of three because of thematic and other similarities, the idea being that they inform and comment on each other.
L: Hi Sam, how are you? Let's start by reiterating our favourites and why that is...
S: So, although I enjoyed all three, my favourite was Beyond the Sea. I think books touch us the most when there is something we can relate to and I've met many mothers a bit like the mother from the story, who are well meaning but finding it hard to cope with life. I often deal as a teacher with the children of parents like this - children who never have the correct school uniform, turn up late for school, don't read with their parents etc. so I found it really powerful to read from the mother's point of view. I think I can guess your favourite, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman? And I'm guessing your reasons are similar to mine?
L: Yep, you're right, and yes, my reasons are very similar - empathy and personal experience! I won't go into it again as I talked at length about it in my actual review post, but, like the protagonist, I have been somewhat abandoned in a foreign country, knowing very few people and not speaking the language, whilst my husband has been off at war, and so every word of Margarethe's story rang a small, sad, nostalgic bell within my mind, and I understand the way in which she is fooling herself, and why. I also really enjoyed all three, and although I preferred Beside the Sea to Stone in a Landslide upon immediate reading, it's actually Stone in a Landslide that's stayed with me and that I remember most fondly, so I suppose that would be my second favourite!
It's interesting though, although perhaps not wholly surprising, to note that that our favourites were the ones that tallied most with our own personal experience; do you think that would be so much the case if these were male voices/characters, rather than female?
S: I'm hoping I will have the same connection with the male characters in the next series of books. Many of the female voices focused on motherhood, which I have no experience of, but I could still relate to the characters. I don't know if I will find the male voices as powerful as the female ones, but I'm hoping to see something of the universal human experience in them.
L: Mmm, I agree. Looking at it objectively, if the writing is of the highest quality, the universal human experience element you talk of should allow us to bond as closely with the male voices as the female, but I think we'd both acknowledge that this is not always the case when reading cross-gender, and also that the actual content and narrative of the novellas will also play a big part in that. Good writing and characterisation that central to making a reader bond to a character though, and I don't doubt we'll have that!
Looking at these three books as a group, how representative do you think these stories are of women (!) and of stories written by and about women as a whole?
S: I don't think any series of three books could represent women! Also, the three women were all in extreme circumstances (mental health difficulties and war), which makes them not representative of women in thankfully more ordinary situations. But there were a lot of themes that will resonate with women and humanity as a whole - love, loss, tragedy etc. I think it would have been nice to have one female voice that wasn't about being a mother (Conxa's story was the closest to this), as often women are reduced to mothers and there is so much more to us than that. Would you agree?
L: Definitely. Women get put into so many simplified roles, be it the shopaholic airhead, the put-upon mothers, the icy, career-driven, ball-breaking older woman who will eventually admit that they regret 'not giving love a chance!' or, finally, grandmothers who are either bitter and reproachful, or rosy-cheeked cake-making martyrs who are slightly forgotten at the hub of the home and ask nothing for themselves. Men don't get characterised like this, I don't think. But, saying that, these are not simple, stereotypical women - far from it - and their presentation in these novellas is both impeccable and sympathetic,and I suppose that's better criteria for selecting a novella for publication than thinking 'I must have a female voice in her twenties, I must have one in her forties, and I must have one that's single.'
However, it is family that defines all three of these women, and it is largely the absence of husbands and fathers that cause them their troubles...but then the majority of women do marry and have children and I suppose for many their most vivid experience comes from instants or upsets in romantic or familial love...maybe we could request that an upcoming trio be an addendum to this, following independent, non-maternal female characters? I personally am a bit disheartened, on reflection, that all three stories talk about women in relation to their husbands and children; I bet that the next three protagonists are not presented as strongly in relation to their children and wives.
Anyway, to happier topics: did you have a favourite, or a least favourite, scene or passage from the three?
S: A scene that really affected me was the scene in Beyond the Sea where the mother arrives at the seaside resort with high expectations only to be greeted with a rainy, dark, grotty town and a grimy hotel. We've all experienced that let down feeling when something isn't what you expected. What was your favourite scene?
L: Although I found it deeply upsetting, I would have to pick the closing scenes of Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, as I was quite overwhelmed by the power of the Bach music crescendo juxtaposed so skilfully against the emotional climax of the book. Sad times! I also adored all the descriptions of Conxa in the fields, and also the scene in which she first dances with Jaume. I found these scenes so very vivid.
Considering that these novellas are linked as a thematic trio, did you see any marked similarities between them, or any issues on which they all had something to say? Any differences, also? Why do think that is?
S: One theme I identified was women under pressure, and the resilience we can show under difficult circumstances. The narrators of all three books also had a distinct, clear voice, something that you don't see in all novels. I'm hoping the male voices in the next series will be just as developed and powerful. Did you spot any common issues?
L: The main one for me was the overwhelming impact that men, or the absence of them, had on these women's lives, and how often they felt and were powerless to change their circumstances, bound by relationships or to a particular place in a way that the men didn't seem to be. The father runs off so the mother can't in Beside the Sea, Jaume travels, learns and fights whilst Conxa must live at home with one family member or another, and Margarethe must wait for the inevitable event of her baby's birth, and she must cope with that, no matter the truths that on some level she already knows. Resilience too, I absolutely agree, in such awful situations. Not to get too lit studies for a second, but the trio really put me in mind of Virginia Woolf's famous quote
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an unimportant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-roombecause another common theme is that these women are often circling wildly within their own heads, drowning often in feeling, but their perils are reactive, not active. Two of the three are literally in the midst of war, but theirs is the social history, not an account of the battlefield. Not that these books have not been marvellously well-reviewed of course, lol.
As a final thought, which of these three would you recommend to your mother/a parent? Your sister (congrats on your nephew!)? A colleague? Someone you're not close to? And why?
S: As my sister has only been a mother for a week, I wouldn't want to scare her with Beyond the Sea! I think my Mum would enjoy Stone in a Landslide as it's more of a retrospective on a whole life and that would appeal to her. To be honest, all three are well written so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to others.
L: Good call about your sister! I think Stone in a Landslide for my mother too, as it's the most classical structure and narrative; Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman to a colleague or a close friend as I'll look so clever, considering the radical one-sentence structure, and also many of my friends have similar experiences as me to draw on, and I think Beside the Sea for someone I'm not close to as it's such a strong story, with such a horrifying resolution, that it might give us something to talk about.
Come back next Thursday for our thoughts on the first of the next trio, 'Male Dilemma', which is Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki.
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine) ¦ (Sam's)