While I love reading, I have never had a chance to attend a literary salon-maybe I found the notion of it just too intimidating before, thinking I wouldn’t be able to match the intellectuals attending them, but as I love the books published by a small independent publishing house Peirene, started by a German writer and journalist Meike Zeirevogel four years ago, I thought that I should at least give it a go once and see what happens.
Meike, who is a lovely, blond petite woman, with wonderful wit and quiet reflection in her eyes, not only publishes three interesting novels a year, grouped according to a theme ( each book is contemporary European literature, translated into English, less than 200 pages long ), she also organises literary salons, which bring Peirene readers and authors together. And if like me, you are initially slightly intimidated by the though of attending a literary salon, Meike and her team also organise coffee mornings that always leave you with quite an uplifting feeling and not just because of the powerful tea or coffee brew!
I have started reading Pereine’s books last year, on advice from my lovely and well-read friend Louise, who was Paris based at the time, but as luck would have it, every time the salon took place something got in the way until another salon invitation landed on my doorstep and I thought that I might as well start the new year on a high note and face my fear.
‘The Brothers’, a book we were going to discuss, is by a Finnish author Asko Sahlberg, who has been publishing his books in Finland since 2000, yet his latest novel was the first to be translated into English-thank you for your effort to expand the literary horizons Meike!- by a daughter and mother team of Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.
Louise and I raced each other, edged on by our husbands, as to who will finish reading the book first-we did it on the same day by the way- and we both looked forward, albeit slightly nervously in my case, to the salon, which took place on February 25th at Meike’s house.
For some reason I imagined that this salon will be an intimate gathering of maybe 15-20 people, yet when I rang the bell and the door was opened by a serious looking tall blond boy-Meike’s son, as I later found out, I heard an exciting roar of a conversation and tentatively stepped in. My name was ticked off the guest list and I met Meike and Maddy ( Peirene’s marketing director ), who offered me a glass of wine and gave me a choice-a louder room with laughter and conversation or a quitter room, with less people and more peaceful vibe, so I chickened out and chose the latter, where I had a wonderful conversation with a gentleman, who attended this salon for the second time, with his wife, and a lovely German lady, a friend of Meike’s, who attends every salon-the conversation flowed with ease and soon my friend Lou poked her head in and I was re-united with my comrade in arms for the evening. By that time I have heard that Asko wasn’t coming, as he became ill and couldn’t attend, so I was very curious about what plans Meike had in store for us.
Just after 8pm all the guest were invited to go upstairs and find a seat, I realised that there were many people-over a 100 maybe?-of different ages, men and women and the room had a great vibe of anticipation. Meike made the introduction and then Rosie Goldsmith, a BBC journalist, took over, assisted by the lovely translator of the book Emily Jeremiah and an actor Che Walker, who later did two readings from the book.
Rosie cleverly and easily weaved the conversation, bringing Emily in, who talked to us about the joys and pains of translation-Finnish is a difficult language, but it also has its own melody and rhythm to it, which isn’t so easy to translate into English, then switching to Che, who read very eloquently and almost poetically, with dramatic interjections and gestures. A few people in the room joined in in the discussion and I joyfully realised that some of the smartest, thought provoking comments came from a young lady clearly in her 20s-she was just so wonderful I couldn’t secretly smile. Go forward, youth and beauty!
Emily raised a subject of Kalevala, Finnish epic poetry which compiles Finnish and Korelian ( a beautiful region in Russia, rich in tradition, hunting and crafts ) folklore and mythology, which I read when I was at school, on advice of my mother, who studied it at University. Emily has an no longer secret ambition to try to translate Kalevala by herself when she is ready, as it will be a fundamental, probably life changing undertaking and then we went back to Che, who did another reading.
‘The Brothers’ tells a story of two siblings, Henrik and Erik, who after fighting on different sides during the Swedish/Russian war, come home and the repercussions that it brings, not only just to their household. Until now I have only read Kalevalla and Moomin books, so my idea of modern Finnish literature was pretty much non-existent, yet this book has every right to be called ‘Shakespearean’-the story itself, the way that the novel flows, beautifully, word by word, sentence by sentence and weaves itself into one of the most wonderful literary experience I have had in months-it’s dark, it’s reflective-you will have to either read it yourself or take my word for it! But it also gives you a pretty good idea about the state of Finnish literature-Rosie actually briefly touched on the subject of huge interest in Scandinavian literature, primarily crime novels, in great part due to the incredible success of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander trilogy.
After the discussions came to an end, everyone descended downstairs, back to the kitchen, where we all grabbed a plate, put the food on it and the conversation and wine .) continued flowing. I did secretly wish that the salon was slightly more intimate, so I would have had the chance to chat to more people, but then you can’t have everything at the same time. The fact that it’s not just Meike and Maddy, but her lovely husband and son-after the reading I passed him sitting on the stair step, chewing on something and listening to his father talk to the people attending the event-I found that very endearing, the family feel to a very social and smart event, that had a relaxed and stimulating feel to it!