Saturday, February 02, 2013

Peirene Press

(This was originally published in the Wales Arts Review, but I think the publishing company is doing such interesting work that I wanted to post about it here too.)

For anyone who loves literature, Peirene Press is a publishing company you need to know about. Peirene, run by Meike Zeirvogel, focuses on contemporary European literature in translation, and all of its books are short enough to be read in just a few hours, although they will stay with you for much longer than that.

The first book I read that Peirene had published was Asko Sahlberg’s The Brothers, translated by the daughter -and-mother team of Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah. The first sentence drew me in: “I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.” (p. 7) As a reader, I immediately wanted to know where this was set and who was coming. We quickly learn that the setting is Finland and it is Henrik, the prodigal son of a rural family, who is returning to his mother and brother’s home. Henrik is not welcome or wanted, but this does not bother him. His return sets in motion a series of changes at the farm, and the person who vanquishes at the end of the book is not who we expect, plus there are startling revelations along the way about this somewhat odd, tight-lipped family.

The novella is told from many different points of view, which allows the reader to get insight into the different characters and to get varying perspectives on what is happening. In a way, this is ideal in such a short book, because it helps to get true thoughts and feelings and voices across quite quickly, although I didn’t always feel that the women’s voices were as authentic as the men’s.  The language is sparse here, with no one – whether character or author – saying more than is strictly necessary, creating a solemn formality that suits the book’s plot. There is a distinctly religious undertone to the story, which helps situate it in a cold, Protestant country. As Peirene puts it, “[t]hese books lend themselves to comparison and give insight into trends from the European literary scene.” I think The Brothers definitely invites that.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch, is quite different. A monologue by an unnamed female character, The Mussel Feast seems at first to be a simple enough tale: a mother and her two children prepare mussels to celebrate the man in the family’s promotion. However, over the course of their preparations, and as they wait for their husband/father to return home for this feast, many other stories come to light, and slowly the characters and their supposedly “proper” family are revealed to the reader. The absent person – the husband/father – is the heavy presence, the tyrant who is both unlovable and unable to love.

Vanderbeke’s book is breathless but unrushed, sad and moving and funny all at once. It questions what makes a family, and discusses how we are all different people in different situations. The mother and the children in this novella “switch modes”, “letting their hair down” when their husband/father is away, and trying to go into “wifey mode” or good-child mode when he is home (pp. 18-22), but they do not always succeed. And this forces readers to question their own mode-switching, and their own attempts at being something other than what they truly are. The ending of Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast is just right, leaving a mystery for readers to ponder.

These two examples show the variety of Peirene’s publications in regard to style and subject, and they also reveal what they have in common: an interest in what it means to be human. Although I don’t know Finnish or German, I can say that these two books worked well in English while simultaneously seeming to retain the tone and feel of the source culture.

The way Peirene works is that there is a theme each year and then three short books that fit in that theme – whether it is “the small epic” or “the female voice” or “the turning point” – are published during the course of that year. Peirene only chooses authors who are “award-winners and/or bestsellers in their own country,” which lets English-speakers experience the best that literary worlds in other cultures have to offer. The publisher also follows the current literary trend of allowing subscriptions, which is a lovely idea, and is also quite affordable with prices starting at £25 for a one-year subscription.

Peirene/Pirene is the name of a fountain in Greek mythology where poets would go to get inspired. The press likewise offers inspiration in the form of compact, enjoyable works that make you think. I couldn’t put down either of the books until I had finished them; the stories urged me on while opening new worlds to me. What could be better than that?

Go ahead: drink from the Peirene fountain.

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