Having very much enjoyed last year’s event on Down the Rabbit Hole, I was looking forward to finding out what would be in Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Summer Reads programme this time around. The first translation-related event was on Wednesday, when Meike Ziervogel, publisher at Peirene Press, and translator Adriana Hunter came to the Millennium Library at the Forum to discuss Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea.
The trouble was, I really didn’t want to read the book. I knew more or less what happened in it and, as the mother of two small boys, it was too close to home. Still, I felt that I couldn’t really go along without so I took the plunge. Wow. It’s a tiny book, but it packs such a punch. The story of a woman who’s fallen through the cracks of society and is not coping with motherhood, it is incredibly well written and carries you along with its immediacy. You can truly empathise with the mother, her anxieties and fears. She is convinced that the world it a dark and hostile place and that she needs to protect her boys from it, but first she wants to give them a trip to the seaside, a perfect weekend, a moment of ideal childhood.
I shouldn’t have read it with fils cadet around as I resented any interruptions to the flow and then, given the nature of the book, immediately felt an awful mother. We all do, from time to time, some more than others, and this is part of what makes this such an uncomfortable, yet gripping read. It could be me. It could be my boys.
Adriana Hunter described the way she’d come across Olmi’s book, Bord de Mer in its French title, on a book-scouting trip to Paris. The only one of 50 or 60 that stuck in her mind, she could hear the woman’s voice in her head as she read, could hear her in English, and this is what convinced her that this book needed to be translated. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find any English-language publishers who shared this conviction. Publishers were frightened by the material, but also by the length. Who reads novellas? What would we do with it? How could we market it? But then along came Meike Ziervogel who was in the process of setting up a publishing house working exclusively with translated novellas and the rest, as they say, is history.
Meike then explained what had attracted her to the book. For her it was the normality of the woman in so many ways. She is a human being, not a monster. Just one who struggles to accept her children’s reality as separate from her own. For Meike to take on a book, it is not enough that it “ought” to be translated. It has to excite her and to be about something bigger. Reading it has to be a creative act. Meanwhile her love for the short form is because it has to work harder. Form, structure and content have to go hand in hand. There is no room for anything superfluous and every word has to count.
I loved the description used by one reader at the event. She said that Beside the Sea was like a drawing sketched with very few lines and leaving us to fill in the blanks for ourselves, to build up the rest of the picture from what isn’t there.
When it came to readers’ questions, it was clear that everyone who had read the book felt passionately about it. Everyone had an opinion about it, about the mother, about why she’d done what she did. Everyone had been affected by it in some way. This is clearly a universal reaction. Meike said that when they have pop-up book stalls, people sometimes come and literally throw Beside the Sea back at them. “How can you publish this stuff?” people ask. The themes are too strong. The dark side of maternal love is not something we want to talk about, or think about. Mental health issues are maybe still too taboo.
I can see why people love the book. And I can see why they hate it. I do too.
- Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Translated by Adriana Hunter) (vulpeslibris.wordpress.com)
- ‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi (kimbofo.typepad.com)
- Book Review: Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (writerscentrenorwich.org.uk)