The monthly column First Book draws attention to literary debuts which garnered less notice upon release than they deserve. In Ook bomen slapen (Trees sleep too), Annemarie Peeters intertwines the lives of former opera director Corneille and young opera singer Ofelia: two seemingly quite different characters who nonetheless share a longing for recognition and a desire to escape from silence. At the end of the article you can read several translated excerpts from the book.
By Dirk Vandenberghe, translated by Elisabeth Salverda
Annemarie Peeters is both a playwright who studied music (the recorder, Baroque and Renaissance music), and a music critic at De Standaard newspaper. The world of classical music forms the backdrop for her debut novel Ook bomen slapen (Trees sleep too). She is in good company: in early 2018, Persis Bekkering, a writer and reviewer at De Volkskrant, similarly set her own beautiful debut Een heldenleven (A hero’s life) in that scene. Operatic intrigues and rivalries, but also those played out within the orchestras themselves, prove an excellent source of inspiration.
Ook bomen slapen (Trees sleep too) consists of two separate though partly mirroring storylines, which are told alternately. As a result, the stories seem to have much more in common than it appears at first glance.
Annemarie Peeters © Tom Christiaens
A tragic, old-fashioned man
The book, composed of acts like those in an opera, opens with the story of Corneille, an elderly man who in the 1950s had been director of the Royal Theatre of the Mint (Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie; Koninklijke Muntschouwburg) in Brussels; and is now writing letters – that will never be answered – to his son from a small and lonely room in Paris.
In the letters, Corneille gradually unravels his life, reflecting on the mistakes he has made and the opportunities he has missed. They are the letters of a somewhat tragic, old-fashioned man with equally old-fashioned ideas – a world which has almost disappeared. A world he saw dramatically transformed, in his home and his wife, to his great amazement and annoyance, even after all these years.
Corneille’s letters are interspersed with the modern story of Ofelia, a young opera singer in pursuit of applause and success who becomes a spectacular, singing trapeze artist in a Berlin techno club. Full of ambition, Ofelia rushes through life; in the thrall of rough, fast-paced city life, she seeks recognition with abandon. But, to phrase it euphemistically, like Corneille she does not always succeed.
Corneille and Ofelia’s worlds differ a great deal, but similarities emerge slowly and steadily. Both characters are looking for recognition and trying to escape from silence. Both collide with the reality of their situations. Guided by opera, they identify with characters from those dramas, which does not always turn out to be so helpful.
Women in operas typically have few options: either they are driven to their death, or they commit suicide. For Corneille this is a given, but Ofelia has had enough of that nineteenth-century portrayal of women. What can a young opera singer still learn from such roles in the twenty-first century, Ofelia asks herself, almost automatically granting the book a feminist undertone.
And however different they are, however oppositely they may think, the worlds of Corneille and Ofelia are much closer than it seems: the two stories finally overlap in a brilliant way, which makes for a delightful reading experience.
Annemarie Peeters, Ook bomen slapen (Trees sleep too), Vrijdag, Antwerp, 2018, 320 p.
Read some excerpts from Ook bomen slapen (Trees sleep too) below, as translated by Paul Vincent.