When is a Peirene Book not a Peirene Book?

As mentioned in my post on Sea of Ink a few weeks back, I have now read (and reread) all ten Peirene books published so far, and I’m waiting eagerly for number eleven, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, to appear next month.  However, the ladies over at Peirene HQ (particularly, I suspect, the nymph herself) beg to differ.  You see, of the ten so far, I’ve only read four in the Peirene version – the other six have been bought and read in the original language

…which got me thinking.  Is there really a difference between a Peirene book and what Meike Ziervogel (founder of the press) dubs ‘Peirene choices’?  Is the Peirene experience different if you don’t get the book directly from the nymph?  Well, let’s have a little think about that, shall we?

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The first difference, of course, is one which is immediately evident – the cover.  One of Peirene’s strong points is its individual and identifiable branding, and Sacha Davison Lunt’s cover designs are a vital part of this.  The cream background, overlaid with geometric shapes, is instantly recognisable, ensuring that the books stand out, and go together nicely.

The covers create connections not only within the Peirene stable, but also within each series.  Most of you will know that the publisher publishes a different series each year, selecting three books which fit together, and for 2013 (‘Turning Point’) this is reflected in the cover designs, which are slightly different to previous series.  Of course, this is not the case for the original versions, which come from different publishers – and often different countries…

The original books are also stand-alones in terms of content, each one chosen for individual interest, where Peirene’s books are carefully selected in groups of three.  The books are thematically linked, each suiting the banner chosen to represent the selection.  Whether it’s ‘Turning Point’, ‘Small Epic’ or ‘Male Dilemma’, the Peirene books have a lot more in common than the cover that surrounds them.  In this sense, I would have to say that the first series, ‘Female Voice’ is probably the most coherent, a set of three books which really should be read as a trilogy.

Another difference I’ve been weighing up is one of voice.  I’ve read all the French- and German-language books in the original, and at times I’ve felt a difference in the way the language comes across.  They seem to be of a more confessional nature, many of them (for example, Beside the Sea, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, Next World Novella) consisting of monologues, almost soliloquies.  In contrast, some of the books I’ve read in English (e.g. Tomorrow Pamplona, The Brothers, The Murder of Halland) are a little more plot based and outward looking.  But then, Stone in a Landslide would fit nicely in the first group, and Sea of Ink wouldn’t really… hmm.

Perhaps then we can explain the split with differences in style.  There are some unique writing styles among the Peirene authors, with several experimenting with very long, multi-clause sentences (e.g. Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella), in one case with just one, book-long sentence (take a bow F.C. Delius!).  Again, some of those I’ve read in English, such as Tomorrow Pamplona and The Murder of Halland, seem to prefer shorter sentences.  So are we getting somewhere?  Probably not – I’d say that Sea of Ink and Maybe Next Time don’t really have the same style as the other German-language books…

Perhaps I’m approaching this the wrong way though.  You see, another potential variable in this puzzle is Meike herself.  Perhaps the real difference is whether the books are Meike’s personal choices or recommendations from other people, friends or translators.  I mentioned the cohesion of the ‘Female Voice’ series above, and I suspect that those three (including the Catalan book Stone in a Landslide), plus Next World Novella and The Mussel Feast, are much more personal choices than the others.  Are we perhaps being treated to a glimpse of Meike’s own literary preferences?

Before I get too carried away though, it’s very possible that I may (!) be reading a little more into this than there is to be read.  Still, it is fascinating to speculate on just what the differences are between the various Peirene books, even if (as you’ve seen above) it’s much easier to pull together similarities.  Whether it’s a matter of language or simply personal preferences, I can’t help thinking that there is a logic to it somewhere behind the scenes – although that probably says a lot more about me than Peirene…

The main thing is though that while the nymph would undoubtedly prefer readers to pour all their money into her coffers, it’s more important that we get to experience great books, whatever language they’re in.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re enjoying Peirene books or Peirene choices – just as long as you’re enjoying them 🙂

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Anyway, that’s my mixture of musings and wild guesses – how about you?  Have you read any of the Peirene books in the original language?  Have you noticed any similarities between any of the books?  Let me know what your thoughts on the matter are!

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8 thoughts on “When is a Peirene Book not a Peirene Book?

  1. I've read about half the Peirene Press books and have noticed big differences in style. Beside the Sea is one of my favourite books, but some of the others did nothing for me. I'd love to know if Meike really loves all these books, or whether some have been recommended by people with other literary tastes (not that there is anything wrong with that) as Magda (Meike's own book) has much more in common with the Peirene books I loved than the ones I didn't.

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  2. Dear Tony,

    What a wonderful article. Thank you for taking the time to compare all the Peirene books. A wonderful pleasure for a publisher to read.

    You are indeed being treated to a glimpse of my own literary preferences. All of the Peirene books are my choice. Of course, like any reader I listen to recommendations. But I don’t rely on reader reports or sample translations and even if a book has won many prizes it might not fit Peirene’s high literary standards. I don’t ever consider buying the translation rights for a book unless a) I have read the book in its entirety, i.e. either in the original or in a translation that I can read and b) it fits Peirene’s prerequisite that voice, structure and content form a complete whole and each of those three aspects informs the other. The meaning of the text lies in the three components working together.

    It’s interesting that you feel the Female series is the most coherent. Is that because of the content? Again, for me the three books in a series are not simply related by content but also by structure and voice. Peirene 1-3 are female narratives – in a Jungian way, i.e men can write that way too and both men and women recognize the psychological aspects that are depicted in these books, as Delius in Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman proves. In No1-3, inside and outside reality are not distinct and the female protagonists struggle to make sense of the outside world.
    From a structural point of view, the Male Dilemma series is for me the most successful one. I chose this series and those three books deliberately in juxtaposition to the Female Voice series. Peirene No 4-6 are written in a very different way and tone from No 1-3. They are about different psychological challenges. The male protagonists project their feelings, their struggles onto the outside world. One could almost argue that they lack in internal life, or at least are incapable of reaching it, making a connection with it. The authors therefore chose a language and structure that reflects this issue.
    Then the Small Epic series, which I love. Also here the emphasis is not such much on the coherence of the content but on the structure. These three books rub shoulders with genre fiction – a historical novel, a crime thriller, a fictionalized biography. These genre books usually don’t come under 400pp. But the three Peirene authors manage it in less than 200pp. From a narrative, structural and rhythmical point of view the Small Epic series comprises three absolutely perfect, stunning novellas.
    And this year we have the Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments series. We are back to female narrative, female text, female writing. The boundaries between inside and outside reality blur. Who is speaking, who is thinking, who is saying what, who is describing what is no longer that clear. Nevertheless, the protagonists in all three books are more positive than the ones from No1-3. They are forced to interact with outside reality and are more successful to adapt and influence their immediate surroundings.

    Thank you for providing this opportunity for me to comment. Meike

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  3. Meike – Thanks for dropping by 🙂

    I really do think that 1-3 gel as a series, much more so than 4-6 and 7-9. My reading has been completely out of order, but when I finished 'Stone in a Landslide', I really felt its place in the 'Female Voice' series. It may well be that Hotschnig's short stories make the 'Male Dilemma' series seem less cohesive, as the dominant voice is lost, in favour of several narrators – just my view 😉

    Having read 'The Mussel Feast' and the descriptions of 11 & 12 though, I think the class of 2013 might form another very cohesive group 🙂

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  4. Interesting points you raised, as does Meike in her reply. I too have read a mix of Peirene books and the originals, and I do believe there is a discernible Peirene 'feel' to the types of books chosen, although I cannot quite describe it. After all, as readers, we all like to read more than one type of book, so it is great that Meike exposes us to a variety of lesser-known works. For instance, I would never have picked up 'The Murder of Halland' normally (although I love crime fiction but that one is not really crime fiction), nor would I have been able to read it in the original. But I was really touched and intrigued by it.
    However, I have to admit, I liked the first two series best in terms of unity – and I do like Hotschnig's stories.

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  5. Marina – I enjoyed the stories too, but I'm not sure that they fitted as well with the other two in the series as those in the first series did. I have to say that I've had another of Hotschnig's books on my shelves for far too long though – one I intended to get to during last November's German Literature Month (but never did…).

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  6. I fell the series all stand alone I agree the first three seems special but also is that just because they were the first three every year there is one at least I love and one I maybe not so keen on the mark is Meike tight running keep the brand strong they do such great work ,all the best stu

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