I am still struck by my first reading of Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea: a steaming Sunday afternoon in a London backyard, breath barely drawn, eyes, edged with tears, clutching to the stark narrative. Peirene Press’ adage is somewhat thus: “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single-sitting: Literary cinema for those fatigued by film.” (TLS) and Beside the Sea is exemplary. One reads it in one breath, unwavering. It is a tragedy. Indeed it near’ obeys the three unities of Greek tragedy: time, place and plot. It is grim and yet so terribly beautiful that it stands also as a flawless work of art.
On Friday, two months on, I joined the novella’s translator, Adriana Hunter, in going to Shorelines, billed as the world’s first literature festival of the sea. As the novella, with its gloomy imagery that subverts our notion of the seaside, so, blessed though we were with a sudden ray of sun, Southend-on-Sea, or the streets through which we drove, verged on the grim and our only glimpse of the sea, albeit wide and bluesparkling, was heavy with industrial edifice.
The sea had lost all its colour, it wasn’t blue at all, it looked like a torrent of mud. It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered.
Solomon’s Pump House, a space named after an eighteenth century tenant farmer, who had built a well there, sat in Chalkwell Park, is a cultural haven, the home of Metal, association hosting cultural events and literary salons… the crowd was hip and diverse, indeed, despite being beside the sea, it felt a long way from preened North Norfolk!
The festival was introduced by Jude Kelly, artistic director at the Southbank Centre, and curated by the writers Rachel Lichtenstein and Lemm Sissay. Festival inviting punters to dwell upon literature of the sea, and in the same step inviting investigation and interrogation into the role of water in our lives… Rachel Lichtenstein mapped the literary-scape embraced by the festival and, citing The Tempest, Moby Dick, The Odyssey, she highlighted that the sea, considered a wild place, is a typically male terrain. The literature of the sea thus tends towards male writers and male protagonists. Thus, typical notions we might have of the sea were again subverted when she introduced Beside the Sea, written by a woman, translated by a woman, narrated by a mother. A book in which: a mother’s love for her children is more dangerous than the dark world she protects them from.
Thence followed an intimate and anecdotal introduction to the book by Adriana Hunter. We learnt that the original idea was spawned by a few lines glimpsed in the newspaper by the author, Véronique Olmi, telling of a mother who took her two boys to the sea, and there killed them. Adriana discovered Bord de Mer when published in 2001, and, because of its length (uncommon at the time) and its difficult subject matter, she failed to find a publisher. However, so determined was she to bring the book to an English audience that when offered a residency in The Villa Gilet, she persuaded them to let her use the time to translate the story. However, it wasn’t until a rather turgid seminar in “marketing difficult books” during the London Book Fair in 2009 that she came across Meike Ziervogel, who was then setting up Peirene Press, and the two decided to publish Beside the Sea as the publishing house’s first book. Risk which proved highly successful: the book was chosen by Nick Lezard as paperback of the week in the very week of publication.
What drove Adriana to persevere so long? She was not only taken by the story, she explains, but particularly by the narrative voice of the book, I could hear her, see her. The figure is not well-educated, nor does she have a fantastic vocabulary, but she manages to air some profound philosophical ideas. Olmi wrote her literary fiction in an exploration of this mother’s act, not condemning, nor condoning it, but exploring both the emotions surrounding motherhood, and wider human anxieties as to being in the world. Olmi is not justifying, nor explaining the event, Adriana points out, but exploring, and helping us to understand it. This is what she believes the role of literature is:to help us to understand the human condition.
Petite, elfin, with a beautiful mouth stretching to smile on meeting, Lisa Dwan comes from county Athlone in the depths of Ireland. The mouth is not immaterial, nor is her background: Lisa is best known in the UK for her role in Samuel Beckett’s monologue, Not I, in which a disembodied Mouth, lit-up eight-foot above stage-level, performs an angst ridden monologue, a logorrhoea, an internal scream.
Although Bord de Mer was written and published as a novella, Olmi, dramatist and actress, has apparently also construed it as a dramatic monologue. Written in the first person, present-tense the text gives itself fluently to theatre. Lisa first performed Olmi/Hunter’s text, an abridged version of the novella, at the English launch of Beside the Sea, at the French Institute in 2010. Tonight, sat on a chair beneath a spotlight, barely glancing at the sheets of paper in her hands, Lisa’s voice embodies this harrowing female character for a second time.
One cannot overestimate the heartstopping prowess of Lisa’a handling of the monologue, which commences with the mother’s words: We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. Directly launching the spectator into the intimate directness of one woman’s terror before the world and before the responsibility that comes with motherhood. As Lisa performs, the parallel with Not I becomes evident – When they were both asleep it was hard for me. The talking started all of its own in my head, I hate that, thinking is a nasty piece of work. Recalling the buzzing suffered by Mouth: …yes…all the time the buzzing…so called…in the ears… though actually not in the ears at all…in the skull… dull roar in the skull… Lisa wowed for her performance of Not I in under ten minutes at the Southbank centre, and yet it is not so much the speed that wows but the capturing of an expression, of a consciousness, in the mere mumblings of a mouth. Likewise tonight Lisa stuns. Sat on a chair she becomes, through her reading alone – such is the art of theatre – that mother, those two boys, in that brown hotel room. Beckett is cited as saying of Mouth: I knew that woman in Ireland. I knew who she was – not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows. So, we recognise the figure on stage, as much in peripheral figures of society as in our own core.
A brief pause, before the reading flits to the final passages:
I decided to start with the the little’un first.
The mother smothers her two boys with the hotel pillows. Despite the dramatic intensity, heightened by Lisa’s rendition, the narrative is so tight, so engaged with the mother’s seeming detachment during the infanticide, that only with the poignant final paragraph does the act hit home:
I had two dead children. And them? What did they have?
I looked at them and I saw. I saw something I’d never thought of, something I’d never imagined ever: Kevin’s face was turned towards the wall, and Stan’s towards the window. They had their backs to each other. They weren’t together, no, each had gone his separate way. They weren’t joined together in death, they’d lost each other there.
And I screamed.
Applause for Lisa’s apposite performance was muted as the reading hit hard, and the audience left the auditorium stunned. The trial for the panel, made-up of Rachel, Adriana and Lisa, was thus: to put words to something that knocks words out of us, to give sense to an experience so terrible (and let me use the word here in the French sense for something both terrifying and beautiful) and yet not alien to any one of us.
Rachel launched the discussion, questioning what exactly made the book so powerful. It is an act of love. Lisa’s response, despite being hard to grapple, is pertinent; this terrible killing is an act of love. She takes her own fear of the world to its logical conclusion, Adriana elucidated. Indeed, unable to cope in the world, these boys she is supposed to protect will be less able to cope, she thus ends their time in this world. The reader is helpless, we are all so helpless in it, the narrative builds to the inevitable and yet shocking conclusion, obliging us to engage with and comprehend the final act. Both actress and translator have dwelt with and in the text, and they respond to it with empathy, both are quick to concur with Olmi that the book should not be pigeon-holed as a story about mental-illness. It is an expression of humanity, which in this case finds its form in motherhood, and incites a core of sympathy, in the simple innocence of wanting to take her children to the sea invoking in each of us times when we have wanted to do something that has not turned out as planned. Any of us can fall through these cracks, it shows us our own fragility.
The discussion was then opened to the floor. At first tentative, hands started rising, rapidly to question further both translator and actress’s relationships to the work, and the work’s pertinence in the society in which we live. A surprising number of male voices were heard (a community that one might have imagined exiled from the discussion, so founded as the novel is on motherhood) offering commentary on the role of the media, the notion of moral as well as how the book reflected on the situation of children in a similar situation.
Need I say that discussion continued unabated as Adriana and I were obliged to set off back to Norfolk. The literary Salon was indeed a punch-packing inauguration of what looks set to be an extraordinary literary festival, and I was only too sorry not to be able to stay for the whole weekend.
Beside the Sea, Veronique Olmi
Translated by Adriana Hunter
Published by Peirene Press, London 2010.
Shorelines : The World’s First Literature Festival of the Sea, 15-17th July 2011
Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea.