Sunday, 16 June 2013

Peirene Press Supper Club

Having spent two days in Manchester at the John Rylands Library reading up on Norman Nicholson, I had to go to the British Library for some material they didn't have.  And, by lovely serendipity, it also happened to coincide with one of the Peirene Supper Club events.
 
I'm a great fan of Peirene press's european literature in translation and have had some very interesting, sometimes challenging reads - a great antidote to what's available in mainstream these days.  I loved  the Scandinavian The Murder of Halland, the Catalan classic Stone in a Landslide, Friedrich Delius's Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, translated from the German, and the tragic French novel Beside the Sea - but my favourite was definitely The Brothers by Finnish author Asko Sahlbeg.


 This time the Peirene Supper Club was hosting another Finnish author, Kristina Carlson, and her translators - the same team who translated The Brothers - Emily Jeremiah and her mother Fleur. Fleur is Finnish and translates the text word for word, which is then re-written by her daughter Emily who has an MA in creative writing and also translates German literature.  Only Emily and Kristina were there at the event, plus Meike Ziervogel  - who created Peirene and whose energy drives it (and is also herself a novelist).  There were only 12 of us altogether, with delicious food and wine provided by the Hospital Club in Covent Garden.  There were a wide range of nationalities and occupations round the table, but we all had one thing in common - a passion for books.

The Hospital Club
 Kristina talked about her novel - Mr Darwin's Gardener - and how this was the novel she'd been wanting to write since she was 16.  The book is almost impossible to classify, but it's been described as a 'Post-modernist' novel  about love and grief and human relationships within the claustrophobic boundaries of a 19th century village where traditional beliefs and Darwinism have to co-exist. She writes slowly, and admits, more honestly than most authors, that it is difficult to write well.  'For me, writing well involves clarity, precision, brightness, finding just the right mood and rhythm'.  Novels like this, where language, voice and rhythm are so important, are fiendishly difficult to translate into other languages.  Krinstina's translator Emily talked about the difficulty of translating 'the soul of the novel', and how what works in one language doesn't in another.

Mr Darwin's Gardener is written in several voices, representing the 'mass consciousness' of the village - literary polyphany.  It is written in the kind of poetic prose you'd expect from a novelist who is also a very fine poet.  A free copy was on everyone's dinner plate, though some had already read it.  I've just devoured it on the train back to the north and it's a beautiful read.  Immediately I want to go back and re-read big chunks of it - this is a book to keep and read - like a collection of poems.

Books like this satisfy some deep need for literature that isn't just about plot - words that sing - lines that carry the imagination.  Kristina Carlson is the first author I've heard talk about leaving space for the reader in the book.  She doesn't write historical fiction - she writes fiction that is timeless because human beings feel the same as they did a hundred years ago. Our basic needs and conflicts haven't changed.  I'll be putting up a review of Mr Darwin's Gardener once I've read it again.  In the meantime - can I recommend the Peirene Supper Club?  Where else do you get the chance to meet author, translator and editor and have the opportunity to ask them all the questions you're bursting to ask over several glasses of wine and a wonderful meal?

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