You have to admire the bravery of anyone setting out as an independent publisher these days, or so we are told from within. The book zeitgeist is supposedly not sparkling, more awash with doom and gloom, so I was delighted to be contacted by Meike Ziervogel recently.
Now I think I actually know how to pronounce Meike because I once visited a new mum called Meike and she told me it rhymed with forMICA as in kitchen worktops, so I hope that's right and I'm not having an Imogen moment, sadly pronounced Emogun by me for years after reading What Katy Did when I was about seven.
Meike's very cheery email was full of optimism with news that she was at the helm of a newish little publishing house intent on publishing contemporary fiction in translation and asking whether I would be interested in reading the first title from Peirene Press.
Peirene a Greek nymph who turned into a water spring providing a source of liquid and poetic inspiration to the poets of Corinth. Meike suggests that metamorphosis likewise represents the art of translation, and its efforts to turn a foreign book into an enjoyable read. Translation a skill, as we have oft appreciated here, involving that careful attention to detail and necessitating, as Meike elaborates in her publicity material, an understanding of the voice and the rhythm of the original.
I'm always up for more literature in translation and having now read the first title from Peirene Press I'm very pleased I said yes.
It's a funny thing, don't you think that 30 mile literary gap across the Channel might as well be the Grand Canyon.?
Do contemporary French best-sellers travel well?
I'm not sure, perhaps it puts me under too much pressure to be told that the entire French nation have loved a book.
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi was first published in France in 2001 and translated into all the major European languages ...and the entire French nation loved it and I thought 'oh dear'.
This is Bord de Mer's first foray into English and firstly I do have to issue a health warning.
Journal du Dimanche said
'This story tears your heart apart'
and they are not far wrong.
A single mother has left home in a hurry with her two young sons, Stan and Kevin, on a trip to the seaside. It's quite clear from the off that her thought processes are jumbled and confused and I was immediately reminded of two books, When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale for its portrayal of children in the care of a mother with mental illness and Prince Rupert's Teardrop by Lisa Glass. This latter for its unusual and discomfiting portrayal of mental illness. If you found anything in either of those that impressed you, then you might find more here.
Narrated by the unnamed mother, Beside the Sea becomes a strange mix of unreliable narrative and veiled hints at what may have gone before, and which I won't reveal because they are subtle and were interesting to pick up on as I read. The book is riven with acute physical discomfort, it's cold, it rains, it's muddy, everyone gets drenched, the hotel is dreadful and all this 'wrongness' somehow compounds and distills the impression of the mental anguish, as does the whole notion of the children tagging along, clearly mindful of their mother's problems.
The sun has no plans to shine on this beleaguered little family so start bracing yourself.
With their mother misreading the signs around her and misinterpreting the gestures, the children's confusion is not hard to imagine. Watching Stan and Kevin through this fractured lens and the bizarrely refracted light of the mother's tangled thought processes and I could only begin to imagine what they were thinking and feeling
At just over a hundred pages Beside the Sea is perfect for one long sitting but be prepared for one of the saddest endings to a book you might read this year or even this lifetime.
I'm not sure I've ever read anything quite like it and as I turned the final page I was possibly a bit pale around the gills and dumbstruck at the place where Veronique Olmi had taken me and left me...it's one of those last sentence books... but I was also suffused by that warm glow of entente cordiale vive la France oneness because I think I got a sense of why this book has been so popular.
I have to applaud Adriana Hunter's translation of the mother's narrative voice which I feel sure has been captured and preserved in perfect pitch; it's remarkable and I feel sure very close to the original French because it works, maintains the vernacular, nothing incongruous or out of keeping with the characters on the page. I'd love to know your thoughts on this if you decide to read it and I see Adriana Hunter also responsible for another book I have sitting here, Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie, author of the wonderful Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
Peirene Press have more books planned for later in the year, they have a lovely website and a very self-effacing and funny blog about giving birth to this, their first book, plus news of the literary salons they run, and I'm saying all this as if Meike were my best friend when in fact we wouldn't know it if we trod on each other. However I just think Peirene Press have been very honest, seem to have gone into this with no illusions or delusions and have held fast to the most important point, publish a good book.
I really wish them much success because they couldn't have tried any harder to shine a glimmer of light into this dismal world that we are told is publishing a la 2010.
I have an early proof copy of a forthcoming title, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius of whom I know nothing, but the synopsis has me intrigued as does the format.
'Rome one January afternoon in 1943. A young German woman is on her way to listen to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church. Innocent and naive, the war is for her little more than a daydream, until she realizes that her husband might never return...a mesmerizing psychological portrait of the human need to safeguard innocence and integrity at any cost - even at the risk of excluding reality.'
That format, 'a single 105-page long sentence with a beautifully clear rhythm.'
Zut alors, je suis tres excited except this one's translated from the German but anyway, scroll down for gifts.