Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Summer Reading: The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke and Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters

I loved The Mussel Feast. I know that Vanderbeke has lifted her writing style and form directly from Thomas Bernhard, but she uses Bernhard’s single paragraph, stream of consciousness, flow of ideas, to quite different but equally provocative effect. The family at the centre of Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast is as trapped by dysfunction and violence as Reger in Old Masters is made instransigent by his neurosis and solitude. And while Reger’s caustic opinions are tightly wrapped within the walls of tradition in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the the family that sits at the table, before a large pot of mussels waiting for a father who will never come home is held hostage by an equally unforgiving institution: marriage in the former Eastern Germany. The young protagonist of The Mussel Feast, though less experienced in the world than Reger, the protagonist of Old Masters, offers penetrating insight into the frightening destruction of a family that cannot break the walls of shame and guilt imposed by years of patriarchal oppression. And she does this, befitting a child, as if in passing. She mentions her thoughts of suicide, her mother’s emotional abuse by a husband who cannot escape the trauma of his own childhood. While Reger sits before an old master painting, his thoughts wander around the world, from politics, to religion, to the weather and every aspect of German philosophy. The child in The Mussel Feast by contrast, sits with her young brother and mother around a table at the centre of which is a pot of mussels. From here, she takes us deeper and deeper into the recesses behind the doors of familial loyalty.

The narrative of The Mussel Feast is like a therapy session, as we the reader become witness to the trauma that has been kept inside, by the violent oppressive father for the lifetime of the young female narrator. We wonder how she, her brother, and most of all, her mother could have survived the father’s manipulation and violence, but of course, we know the impossibility of leaving such situations. We know how the daughter survives, she turns inwards, and leaves the family room if only in her thoughts. It is as though the memories of the father’s abuse become louder as the waiting continues, as the mussels tire and become less edible. Or perhaps it is that the young narrator becomes more confident in relating the events that led to her father’s disappearance from their lives. It comes as a great relief that he doesn’t return at the end of the night, but at the same time, the family is helpless and does not know what to do, how to behave now that the glue that held them together has evaporated. Clearly, The Mussel Feast is also an allegorical tale of patriarchal oppression of a more public kind in the former East Germany.

Vanderbeke sent me back to Bernhard’s Old Masters, a book so immersed in the pleasure of thought and reverie as it happens in a great art museum, that I wanted to live inside the Bordone Room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna together with Reger. Like all of Bernhard’s protagonists, Reger is a solitary man, a social recluse, an intellectual with an acerbic wit and a penetrating insight on the reality of the Viennese, of Austria, of European life. Reger commands a court of two — the guard Irrsigler, and the listener Artzbacher who he has summoned to meet him at 11.30am before Tintoretto’s White Bearded Man in the Bordone Room.

Between them Reger and Artzbacher take us from the lavatories in Vienna through the corruption and oppression of the Catholic Church, to the curse of childhood and the inherent untenability of the family as an institution. In usual Bernhard fashion, Reger is the voice of the author and we see, we laugh, we cannot help but agree with his scathing perspective on art, music, history, and on the pretentions and aspirations of humanity. What makes the book so brilliant is different from Vanderbeke’s. While she captures the most devastating events of a lifetime in a single sentence, for example, the desire of a child to jump from a window, Bernhard can dwell on a topic for pages. He has Reger and Artzbacher muse on the mediocrity of the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, or “that ridiculous Nazi philistine in plus-fours” Martin Heidegger, the incompetence and absurdity of the Art Museum guide, the unseemliness of Viennese lavatories. Bernhard connects the topics of conversation effortlessly, the one flowing into the next in the most seamless of ways, like thinking. The book is one long sentence moving in and out of the voices of the three characters. Until, in the end, it is impossible to distinguish between Reger and Artzbacher’s voice.

Nothing happens in either novel. The silence of waiting holds within it the distinction of these two compelling reads: In The Mussel Feast the waiting is excruciating as the mother and brother, together with the protagonist, anticipate the return of the angry father. But silence is also a place to go where the father cannot reach the young narrator. Silence is a protection against the inevitability of being physically, mentally, emotionally violated. In Old Masters the silence of the Bordone Room before Tintoretto’s painting is a privilege, a joy, a place to dive into. It is the space held open for Reger only by the loyal guard, Irsigler. Silence in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is the magical space created by an opinionated but nevertheless wise old man. In Vanderbeke’s novel, silence is the purveyor of something terrifying. And of course, as we look outwards from each novel, it makes sense that the representation of silence might be their distinguishing hallmark: in 1980s Vienna, silence would have been laced with creative energy, whereas a young girl in a novel written at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall would understandably communicate horrendous familial abuse behind the silence of her screams. 

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