Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig


Prior to the Peirene Salon, sitting a moment in a London café on a busy city street, the book between my hands, reading... drawn away from the London sunshine to other streets other times, to somewhere altogether less comfortable and more absorbing… and as the story finishes: again, a London street, but the light is somewhat different, the mood tweaked, my coffee, cold before me, untouched.


I couldn’t attempt to do justice in words to the oeuvre that is acclaimed Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig and his collection of stories, Maybe This Time, recently published by Peirene Press.  Hotschnig’s is a rare art in this age, his tightly structured compositions born of a hefty intellect and a thorough precision more comparable to the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka than contemporary writers.  And, not unlike those other greats, Hotschnig’s stories have an arresting and ludic quality that draws the reader in deep, challenging their perspective of reality and identity.  It would thus be erroneous to paint Hotschnig as an inaccessible literary creature, for much as in person he is thick with charm and humour, so his tales have a playfulness, a mischievousness and an allure that fast has the reader captivated.

Reading the stories I came across a voice so rich with echo, thick with it – a voice shudderingly familiar and shudderingly unplaceable.  I have already mentioned Borges, and Kafka, the latter to whom critics are quick to compare Hotschnig… But, this is merely anodyne, as Hotschnig says – drawing a parallel with the paintings of an artist he’d come across that afternoon at the Tate, I saw Ernst there, Manet, Picasso, Chagall too – each of us writes, and reads, with our own literary history, a literary unconsciousness.  He implies what Borges has said before:  every writer creates his own precursors.
Furthermore, a collective history, a collective memory and a collective unconsciousness become apparent, so that Hotschnig is not simply writing in the wake of literary voices, but also in the wake of Auschwitz, of Sigmund Freud, of Austrian and Catholic histories.  There is no innocence then, we are each of us speaking, reading, writing with what has gone before.

Nor could I hope to reproduce Hotschnig’s words.  At the Peirene Salon this weekend, he spoke with an extraordinary calm and keenness for precision, as to his literary intention, his motives and how he crafts his stories.  Precision, as if battling with a fear that the listener might misunderstand, misinterpret, an integral wish to be understood – oh impossible feat!  His work is suited then to a translator, the very excellent Tess Lewis, who works with same precision and thoughtfulness.  Lewis has worked in a very close relationship with Hotschnig for twenty years, as able to translate his Austrian as she was to express his thoughts.  On speaking, Hotschnig held quite the same power as narrator of his stories, absorbing, at once silencing and animating the listener.

In Maybe This Time, tales are crafted with structures redolent of the artwork of M. C. Escher, and the reader finds himself in worlds of shifting perspectives, timeless anyplaces that whilst seemingly eccentric and other, are also deeply familiar.  This is probably one of the most disturbing factors of these stories, their recognisable quality;  Hotschnig creates an atmosphere of das unheimliche, the uncanny, that which is both strange and familiar.

The woman stopped me on my way to her neighbours.  They were friends of mine who had invited me to visit.  She waved me over to the house next door to theirs.  From a distance, she had probably mistaken me for someone she knew.

The third story, Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut is most explicit of the experience of reading Alois Hotschnig.  One takes a step through a door; it swings fast shut behind us.  The sense of the inevitable is such, in this as all of the stories, that one cannot but watch as both reader and protagonist are swiftly guided from the seemingly everyday into quite another situation.

I had no idea how I would ever escape.

This is Karl, she said, and gently stroked the doll’s hair.  Without thinking, I brushed the hair off my forehead in a matching gesture.  Look at his face, she said.

The doll had my name.  And now, as the woman drew my attention to the doll’s face, I noticed how much it resembled me. 

Thus the protagonist is lured into a game of mirrors with the doll, and reader with protagonist, creating a quarrel of identification and dis-identification.  Much as Hotschnig’s protagonists learn to look on their own self, part enthralled, part repulsed, so does the reader.

I stayed away for a while, forcing myself to keep my distance, yet I longed to go there all the more.  I gave in, stopped resisting.  I pretended nothing had changed, and she pretended nothing had changed, and we sat across from each other, as we had done before.  She stroked Karl’s head and looked me in the eye and placed the child’s finger in her mouth, kissing it tenderly for a long time and sucking on it.  She slavered over the little hand, and pulled it back out of her mouth where the fingers had begun to dissolve.

A not unrealistic scenario, stopping into an old woman’s house, has brought reader and protagonist to an unexpected place, an uncomfortable, disturbing place.  In each of Hotschnig’s stories there is a change, the commonplace becomes the uncommon, the uncanny.  It is but subtle, we are lured, much like Hansel and Gretel, and then it is too late, we cannot resist.  A door has opened and swung shut.  I have to admit, having finished this story, I found it hard to reopen the book.  But like protagonist, as soon as I left her house I was drawn back there.  So, I picked up the book again.

This then is where his art lies, not in the intellectual prowess that structures the stories, for, so mathematically precise, the reader can be oblivious to this. It is instead the trancelike rhythm, the magnetism conjured by an obsessive psyche that draws the reader into same obsession.  Alois Hotschnig’s stories are not easy, nor are they so headily intellectual that reading becomes a trial.  They are stark, beautiful, certainly uncanny.  With this collection of short stories, Alois Hotschnig shows himself to be undoubtedly one of the contemporary literary greats.

Published by Peirene Press, London 2011.
ISBN: 978-0-9562840-5-1

(oh, and it’s available in The Holt Bookshop!)


Peirene Salon - An evening with Alois Hotschnig and Henrietta Foster

A joy to up to London and attend this Peirene Salon on Saturday eve'.  Medlied wine and food, charm and literary chat, Alois Hotschnig in conversation with BBC's Henrietta Foster and his translator Tess Lewis.  

Read Peirene's view on... the morning after here.

Not for their charm alone; Peirene is quite one of the most exciting publishers I know of, in a world where literary perspicacity is rare, Peirene is exemplary... I urge you to foray for yourself amongst their publications, some of which I have reviewed here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Simple French Cooking for English Homes by Xavier Marcel Boulestin


On ne mange bien que chez-soi

In the traditions of Elizabeth David and Julia Child, with Simple French Cooking for English Homes, Marcel Boulestin brings the best of French cooking to the English table.  In his terms, this is not the food eaten in chichi Hotels or pretentious French restaurants, this is the food of wayside inns and the family home.  As my own lean is likewise, towards the provincial and the homely, I cannot but champion a book that demystifies a cassoulet or a pot of rilletes and spends a lengthy paragraph on the art of an oeuf poché.

Marcel Boulestin does not skimp on the preface, peppered with idiosyncratic literary quotations, which demonstrate his own background as a journalist and translator.  He appears to believe that food should be common parlance of the cultured, not shut behind scullery doors.  Indeed, the preface is followed by a collection of Remarks, one of which, endorsing food’s place in conversation, I particularly liked:

Do not be afraid to talk about food.  Food which is worth eating is worth discussing. And there is the occult power of words which somehow will develop its qualities.

A brief glossary, further quotes, including brilliant Brillat-Savarin on hospitality, and then we are thrown into the recipes.  It is always a pleasure to decipher the French terminology, much like one might rifle through the pages of a Menu, sat at a brasserie in France.  The translations given might even serve to illuminate what that incomprehensible plat du jour indeed was!  A chapter on Soups, including a Pot au Feu, is followed by one on Sauces - a favoured French skill - and then Eggs; Fish; Meat; Pastries and Sweets; and a delightful final chapter Sundries in which Marcel Boulestin amasses the remainder of what he considers vital French food:  Gherkins are here placed alongside Pineapple Wine and the extraordinary, and quite delicious-sounding Crème de Camembert, in which the cheese is steeped in White wine, left over night, beat with butter, reshaped and topped with breadcrumbs. 

Unlike cookbooks of today, rich with lifestyle, colloquialisms and sumptuous photography, those of yesteryear such as this Simple French Cooking…, published in 1923, were manuals in the strictest sense of the term.  Marcel Boulestin does not take any knowledge, or common-sense it seems, for granted.  To the point that the poached egg recipe is followed by one for Oeufs Pochés Béarnaise – Poach your eggs and put them on a stiff béarnaise sauce, for Oeufs Pochés Sauce Tomate – Poach your eggs and cover them with tomato sauce.  And, indeed, for Oeufs Pochés au Maïs – Poach your eggs and put them on a dish of sweetcorn.  But, perhaps this is where the charm of this cookbook lies.  Rife with idiosyncratic whim, it serves also as an efficient culinary reference… particularly astute at capturing those French meals of days yonder.  Although not as rich in anecdote as the books of Elizabeth David, the writing is lucid, the tone eloquent and Marcel Boulestin succinctly renders French food accessible to the English cook.  

The main chapters are followed by A Week’s Menu, subtitled Showing how to use up everything.  Monday, for example, demands: 
Luncheon – Soft roes omelette, Grilled cutlets, French beans, Potatoes boulangère, Cheese and fruit.
Dinner – Vegetable soup; Cold roast pork périgourdine; Fried potatoes; Salad of peppers and cauliflowers; Compote of apples.
Then follows an explanation of how each meal leads to the next.  I was quite drawn into the subsequent Menu for a Late Supper (After and Informal Party) in which Marcel Boulestin delights with his statement:

Nothing better, say at 3 o’clock in the morning, than a boiling hot soupe au choux and cold meat […] one of those little white or pink wines from Anjou or Touraine […] strong black coffee…
This is more suitable, though, he determines, for Chelsea than for Bayswater – unless the inhabitants of this “highly desirable district” happen to feel, for once, “delightfully bohemian”.

Nor does Marcel Boulestin fail to include a note on wine and a lengthy index.  Indeed, the book seems to successfully compile the sum of French living in the English home.  And, once again, Quadrille Press has rendered what was ancient novel, the quixotic quirky.  The book is hardbound in yellow, with gold-edged pages, looks great on the shelf and would also be a charming gift, particularly for the Francophile cook.  Whether I shall use it to refer to, I don’t know.  A manual it may be, but it really wins over for its dated charm, for the nostalgia it awakens and for the echo of France it invokes.

By X. Marcel Boulestin
Introduction by Jill Norman

First Published in 1923
Published by Quadrille Publishing, Classic Voices in Food, 2011
ISBN – 978-1-84400-981-7

My thanks to Quadrille for the review copy of this book.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy


She was not a poet. She was a poem. 

It is a simple coincidence that I read Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home in the same week that I commenced Ali Smith’s The Accidental.  Toothache condemned me to blankets, books and the bedroom, and as my And Other Stories subscription dropped on the doorstep, so did Penguin publish a timely new edition of Smith’s novel, to coincide with the recent publication of her latest:  There but for the.  I cannot imagine the timing was intentional, it was merely, without wishing to sound trite, accidental.

Accidental, and yet incidental, for the reading of each novel served to illuminate and open up the reading of the other.  Not only can one draw parallels between the storylines: the appearance/apparition of an apparently vagrant girl, whose entrance into a household renders the (dis)functioning of a family transparent.

The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through.  A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway.  She couldn’t be sure of this, but it seemed to her that Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife had helped him. 

But, more interestingly, Smith’s and Levy’s narrative voices and textual innovations echo one another, not in imitation, almost in call-and-response, as musical phrases singing-out, challenging and commenting.  Every writer creates his own precursors, wrote Borges.  So, the voices of Ali Smith and Deborah Levy conjure and create one another, both writers exploring and crafting some of the most experimental contemporary English-language fiction, both exploding the often staid notions around literature and its role in the world.

I shall leave the concurrence with Ali Smith there; here wishing to concentrate on Levy’s Swimming Home, one of And Other Stories 2011 titles.  This small press aims to open a space and a place in the literary world for that literature that slips slightly outside of the mainstream.  Based on subscriptions and run by a handful of literary translators it is carving a passage into contemporary literary parlance independent of bestseller lists and bookseller magazines.   In a world where literature is so governed by those, by money and the mass-market, it is a delight to come across a publishers dedicated to other literature, other stories.   Let’s hope And Other Stories heralds the possibility of more such small presses, vital for the diversification and vivacity of contemporary literature.

There is no way you can send a fierce, exotic and brutally truthful hot head novel out into the British rain in a recession and expect a deal to be on the table with the scones, tea and Daily Mail. Editors are struggling with a toxic, cynical market of celebrity best sellers and even the braver ones are nervous. Contemporary readers are much more sophisticated than the whole mainstream publishing scene right now. There is a big counter-culture in the UK but it's in the visual arts, music and performance, not in literature. There is a huge untapped market for experimental literary fiction.

What And Other Stories stands for in the publishing world, Levy stands for in the literary world.  Brave, inventive, original, her written tongue is raw and unrehearsed.  Her writing, refusing conventional plot and character development, has the marks of the nouveau-roman, seen in the shattered characters, the deconstructed spaces and the flawlines rendered evident.  In these flaws and edges, in the seams, lies something inherently human, rippling with nerves, tender and hard-hitting.  Levy’s writing teeters on the brink of life, dreamy, dark, unnerving, it is literature à vif.


Thus: Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s new novel. 

As each of us might quest, crave a meeting with that other, interlocutor, mirror…  As in poetry, art and literature, one might, in a voice, a gathering of words, an image, come upon one’s self and one’s own experience…  As a written voice can nudge up to us, so close… As through reading one can meet, commune with that other…  So Kitty Finch arrives at the house where poet Joe Jacobs is holidaying with his family and some friends.  Kitty’s arrival, at first disguised as an error of double-booking, is in fact a contrived meeting with the poet. 

So you’ve read all my books and now you’ve followed me to France.

The title of the novel is the title of the poem Kitty, botanist of green-painted-nails offers, in conversation, with poet Joe Jacobs.  We never read the poem, backbone of the novel, but understand from the poet that:

Her words were all over the place, swimming round the edges of the rectangle of paper, sometimes disappearing altogether, but coming back to the centre of the lined page with its sad and final message.

Indeed, same words could be used to describe the touch with which the book itself is crafted.

The poet’s daughter, Nina, sneaks a read of the poem herself and concludes:  Kitty is going to drown herself in our pool.  The first image of Kitty Finch in the pool, floating, swimming naked underwater, her long hair floating like seaweed at the sides of her body, thus becomes a premonition of what will likely be the final image, swimming home.  And yet what is written in the poem is unwritten and the final passages defy both the readers' and the characters' expectations.  As Nina looks closer at the body in the pool:

All the noise that was her father, all the words and spluttering utterances inside him, had disappeared into the water.

As Kitty Finch’s arrival amongst this group of characters reveals their inner-workings to themselves, and breaks through the eminently human falsehoods woven into life, thus Levy’s narrative voice affects literature.  The marginal figure of Kitty Finch, impossible to ignore, echoes Levy's style of writing which renders transparent, challenges complacency and refuses comfort.  Replete with repeating images and ideas echoing, mirroring one another, with those coincidences, those accidents that make up the thread of life, entwined with humour and poignancy, Levy writes the frail complexity of human-nature with visionary insight and literary innovation.

I know what you’re thinking.  Because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.  But you tried and you did not get home safely.  You did not get home at all.  That is why I am here Jozef.  I have come to France to save you from your thoughts.


Published by And Other Stories, 2011 (NYP)

ISBN: 978-1-908276-02-5

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The art, or otherwise, of food writing.

A steaming Summer’s eve’, once again running late, I joined a friend, wine-buff, entrepreneur and surreptitious reader of food-literature in his London backyard over a chilli-mackerel-couscous, and there was asparagus too and feta and a bottle of something French and White…  As conversation veered and the light waned he scurried away, returning, dragging from pouches and pockets, from hidden nooks, beloved bindings of food-writing.  Like a collector who comes upon some other, not rival, morelike apprentice, with whom they can gush unguarded as to their too-oft’-solitary passion, I was passed first, ‘midst murmurings, Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, then Alexandre Dumas’ Encyclopedia of Food and Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries

Watching this friend, erudite and articulate, bringing food-writing into his conversation as he might 15th Century Italian literature, awoke a long-nurtured query: Do food and thought illuminate or interfere with one another?

I am since compelled to think upon the art (or otherwise) of Food Writing.  For therein lies the dilemma: is such writing worthy of consideration as an art, or, dealing with the pleasures, the mere sustenance of the body, as opposed to the perturbations of the mind, is it rather one of the cruder written forms, certainly not to be mistaken for an art?

It is said that Jorge Luis Borges offered only a bowl of rice at his dinner parties, for fear that the food might otherwise interfere with the conversation; his guests were there to converse about matters of the mind, and not the baser ones of the bowl.  Indeed, only recently, in the Guardian Review the writer Vendela Vida is quoted as saying: “Being married to another writer is easy.  You share a love of books and an understanding that you don’t want to linger over dinner.”  However, in another vein, one cannot forget the oft’-quoted fact that a Madeleine sufficed to spawn the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.  In this case the Madeleine is synonymous with illumination.  And yet, as the foodwriter A.J. Liebling reminds us below, Prousts’ inspiration was not an elaborate banquet of gushing iridescent scents nor was it the most hearty of feasts, it was a measly biscuit.

The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly rooted in folklore as Newton's apple or Watt's stem kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book....In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a pack of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous are, a pair of lobsters and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.

In one case food is spurned for the sake of the higher arts, in another a mere biscuit spawns one of the last century’s most scholarly opus. 

Despite Brillat-Savarin’s book being subtitled Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, food, gastronomy even, is commonly considered to belong on more Imminent plains.   Indeed, food, related to the body, to ingestion, digestion and excretion is almost immeasurably base; to be condemned by the human-being striving for the skies, the cerebral, the ethereal.  It would appear that even the most gastronomic of feasts, a banquet, a table lain with the heavy, the buttery, the rich and the meatladen, despite provoking rapture, gustative euphoria even, amongst the banqueters, causes the blood to settle to the stomach in digestion and matters of the mind to be left aside.  Oh!  But I sense same epicureans, same bacchanalians, those of wide-girths and oak-pannelled libraries, those who break the fast with Oysters and Champagne, who take tea of Cod-Cheek and Cucumber Sandwiches at four in the afternoon, I sense them scowling at any suggestion that food and literary erudition are not of one and the same ilk.  For both are indeed contained in some bracket of high-living, of the cultural pleasures of life.  Yes, doubtless, one can enjoy good books and enjoy good food.  Perhaps then I should better define the query.  Can one enjoy good food, linger over dinner, and write good books?  More to the point, can one enjoy good food and write learnedly about it?

I have already mentioned the nineteenth-century French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, who is little known for his food writing which culminates in Le grand dictionannire de la cuisine, where with a certain arrogance and a literary turn-of-phrase Dumas explores an A-Z of foods and culinary forms including quite the most extortionate of feasts such that called to be lengthily read out over dinner that evening in a London backyard.  A writer I haven’t yet mentioned, who writes exceptionally about food but also drives us to thought is Elizabeth David, whose literary meanderings between the tastes and food havens of the continent have stood the test of time and are remembered as much for their prosaic prowess as for their culinary erudition.   

There are others, but they are rare quite as, I have come to notice, mealtimes are rarities in novels:

A favoured contemporary criticism of novels is that writers create unreal worlds in which no mobile phone rings, no email buzzes up on a screen, protagonists rarely tweet, nor do they spend hours deluding themselves as to their worth on Facebook.  Indeed, the world of literature rarely endorses the menial, the day-to-day, and, often as not, a meal is ne’er eaten.  Perhaps for this reason alone I cannot forget being enthralled by Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea, protagonist who notes down the meals of which he partakes in his diary - substantial mutterings as to the qualities of his tinned anchovies or otherwise.  Nor that third chapter of Ulysees, in which Leopold Bloom appears:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.  He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes.  Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

In investigating that most ritualistic of dishes, the Ortolan Bunting, I happened upon the tale Le Duc de l’Omelette by Edgar Allen-Poe.  An extraordinary tale, in which Duke Omelette’s vanity is wounded when the dish is not prepared as should be.

As an aside, and so that the same does not occur for you, I shall elaborate here on the etiquette of eating an Ortolan Bunting:

The Ortolan Bunting, Emberiza Hortulana, is fattened to four times its own size, then drowned in burning Armagnac for eight minutes. To eat the tiny bird, one covers one’s head with a linen shroud, to keep in the aroma and to hide the appalling act from God.  The head dangling from between the lips, one gorges on the whole bird, lungs, heart and bones.

Despite the extant foody members of the literati, or vice-versa, food-writing, as per the likely ordering of a bookshop, is low down the literary hierarchy.  In parentheses, I cannot fail to notice that whilst “bookish” suggest highbrow and even charmingly raffish, the term “foody” has a vaguely illiterate nuance about it. While Travel-Writing, which gained in reputation with the erudite travelogues of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the haunting writings of W. G. Sebald walking the length of the Norfolk coast in The Rings of Saturn and Rebecca West’s magnum opus Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, charting the contemporary history of the Balkans, is recognised to having some literary substance.  Food writing is denigrated to the “Cookery” section.  The odd book with an auto-biographical lend, such as Nigel Slater’s Toast might make it across to the Biography section.  But, in the majority of cases it is considered a lesser-form it is the chick-lit or worse of the Bookshop.

All this to simply interpolate whether in fact food-writing, now being revived and employed by the very best, could perhaps offer a framework, a sort-of straight-jacket in which the most elaborate literary fictions, the most marvellous concoctions of words could come to life.   I understand food to be one of our most vital acts of communion, a meeting of the outer world with the inner.  Quotidian it may be, mundane even, and the fact that we cannot do without seemingly renders it of the least profound of acts, but the very same reasoning recognises food as a subject that both reflects our interior psychological states and, more generally, contemporary society and politics.  As yet burgeoning, the art of food-writing is a literary art striving to find its form…

And of course, if good dinner-party conversation does not arise, a hindrance Borges is not so mindful of, good food offers a handy cue.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen


Scrawled in biro on the title page of my copy of Tomorrow Pamplona: “Olivia, Fight or Flight, that’s the question.  Jan”   At once a play on the oft-quoted Hamlet soliloquy: To be or not to be… , an echo of the animal-human response to fear and a lead into this startling novel, which, whilst never purporting to answer the question holds it ever shuddering, tight against the thread of the tale.

A boxer is running through the city

But he’s running faster than usual.   His breathing is out of control.  His eyes are wide. 

The story commences in apparent flight.  The sentences short as the boxer’s steps, the reader is immediately there, galloping on the streets beside him, the reader too, breathless, enveloped in the hazy echo of sounds, trying to gather information, to draw sense, but running, as if away from those same sounds, that same sense.   Danny Clare, a boxer, is running.  Danny Clare is standing out in the rain at a petrol station and is picked up by Robert, a man who takes two days away from his family every year to run with the bulls in Pamplona. 

For a man who doesn’t have a specific place in mind, Pamplona is a great destination.  Maybe the best destination of all. 

Follows the voyage of two-men-just-met to and from the running of the bulls in Pamplona.  And, parallel to this, the unwinding of the events in Danny’s life that lead to the first scene, so that the end of the trip concurs with the beginning of the story, to the boxer running through the city.  To the same question.

I cannot claim to have a word of Dutch, so I can only accept that Laura Watkinson’s flawless writing fluidly concurs with the original.  For, the force of the story lies in that it is a simple tale told with simple words, a vocabulary purged of the unnecessary, of the flowery, stripped to the bare threads of action.  Jan van Mersbergen is an artist of the understated, of the essential, and yet crucial moments are punched out with the power and dexterity of a talented boxer, and hit right to the core. 

The trip is punctuated by images, shots seen from the window, stark and filmic, like the shards of memory that gnaw at Danny.  His unwillingness to converse and his almost begrudging acceptance of dry clothes, food and drink from Robert seem set to impede any form of relationship between the two men.   But, bereft of overt emotion, bereft of excitable bonding, an intimacy fast develops captured in the mere sharing of a bottle of water, the borrowing of a t-shirt.  We are thus drawn to the characters, not through their conversation, their appearances or other superficial attributes, but through a subtler mechanism: through the intimate immediacy of the text, written in the present tense, that shoves the reader up close with these two unknowns, joining them in their voyage.

As this unexpected relationship forms and finds its own expression, so does the inevitability of return.  The trip is a dizzy spin outside of life that offers perspective and an instant to dwell upon the most profound human questions, of love and exile.  This is another artform that Jan van Mersbergen masters: writing life with the lightest of touches,  refusing to furl it in psychology.  As Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press writes:  It is the idea of showing, not telling that I love in literature.  Jan himself trumpets the strong simple story, as opposed to the political novel rife with opinions.  In this sense the story could be described as a contemporary fable, and yet the tone isn’t preaching, there is no strict moral.  It is in fact very hip, rather edgy and slightly sexy.  A road movie in book form reads the blurb on the dustjacket and it is exactly that.  An exquisite one.

The art of the novella, much like that of the Greek tragedy, an art excelled at by Peirene authors, is that of singular voices that absorb us utterly for a long moment.  A moment that is changing, transformative.  It is perhaps inappropriate to quote Yeats to this regard, perhaps not.  Has not literature, has not very good literature the capacity to change us utterly?  So that when we close the book, when we return to our day-to-day lives, much as the protagonists return from Pamplona to theirs, we are changed: something in our mindset, our bodystructure has altered; the way we see the world outside and within us has been tweaked. 

So Tomorrow Pamplona undoes us, and for a moment puts us in touch with the vital so terribly present in the everyday.


Translated by Laura Watkinson
Peirene Press, London, 2011.

ISBN 9780956284044

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Shorelines - Salon: Beside the Sea

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 upon 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 surely 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, a charming gardens with a Hall/Museum, offers 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 males protagonists.  Once again subverting typical notions we might have of the sea, 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 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, a sort-of 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 imitate 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 and surprises, as 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.  As 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 ever 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 new understanding of the 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 own 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.
ISBN: 978-0-9562840-2-0

Shorelines : The World's First Literature Festival of the Sea, 15-17th July 2011
Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden


James Ramsden’s Small Adventures in Cooking is exactly that.  It is a mini-voyage of culinary exploration, via Corner Shops and Cheap Cuts, Emulsions and Macerations.  Small they may be, but our adventurer is intrepid, unflawed by the likes of Ox cheek or Duck Rilletes, unflailing faced with the Korean fermented cabbage dish, Kimchi, or soused Mackerel.  Convivial and colourful from the outset, the reader is swiftly drawn in, to venture alongside Ramsden in this culinary foray.

Separated into eight unorthodox sections, Ramsden writes food as he thinks it: from Va Va Voyages, capturing the exotic and quick to cook, to Corner Shop Capers, a eulogy to the quirky ingredients available in city corner-shops, including Soviet Salmon Soup and a Pitta Pizza topped with the unlikely Tinned Fried Onions(!).   Morning Missions is dedicated to breakfasting, suggesting Home-Made Baked Beans, Huevos Rancheros and Chilli Hot Chocolate as additions to the breakfast table.  Being a devotee to the art of breaking the fast myself, this quite won me over.  Exploring the Cheap Cuts;  Formal Forays and Feeding the Flocks  are self-explanatory. The latter I found vaguely disappointing, although the food is fun – kebabs, fondues – it has the feel of pub platters.  That said, the Goat Curry had me swooning, as Ramsden writes:  “Curry is  a great party-dish”, to be stacked on rice and served with a multitude of chutneys, raitas and home-made breads.  And, I cannot but triumph a cookery book that includes a chapter on Preserves for the Pantry, particularly one that suggests how to use them, saving each of us from that tendency of filling the pantry, only to find same preserves festering on the top shelves years later.  Finally, in Surfing the Stumbling Blocks he tackles those notions that tend to terrorise the novice cook: from Shortcrust Pastry to Hollandaise, he smartly renders the seemingly impossible, possible.

The introduction sets the tone for the book: “Surely the kitchen should be a place of comfort and reassurance, not terror and torment”.  A voice at once personable and exuberant accompanies the reader;  hip without being daunting, it offers guidance without preaching.  The recipes are succinct but comprehensive, couched in tips and tales, ever reminding the reader that cooking is a joyous experiment, recipes are: “a guide, not a gospel”.  Intrinsic to this is the very malleability of the recipes, all to be “tweaked”, “tarted”, the leftovers used “tomorrow”, spawning same flexibility in the novice-cook.  This is surely one of the hardest kitchen arts for the unexperienced, unadventurous soul, so Ramsden reminds us:  “Trust your instincts”, “Have an amenable agenda” and “Make your itinerary flexible”.

One of the most pertinent mantras of the book: “Keep your ear to the ground” encourages the reader to “Be Chatty” recalling the fact that cooking is a communal act, which commences with the sourcing of the produce and culminates in that most profound and joyous of communions, the sharing of food.  Talk to the shopkeepers, he writes, “as well as making for great entertainment, such discussions are inspiring reminders that there are very few absolutes in cooking”.  In this tone, Ramsden recalls an encounter with a “bonkers Polish man” who introduced him to an apparently tasty Tinned Sorrel Soup with a Boiled Egg.  He takes this interaction one step further by inviting responses to his recipes via Twitter and Email, insinuating that cookery is an art to be explored and above all to be shared

Much as one might pretend otherwise, a cookery book is no longer simply a manual, it has a secondary function: it must induce pleasurable browsing, preferably with a glass of wine in the hand whilst dreaming-up next week’s banquets.  This is a beautiful book, quite the sort to curl up on the sofa with.  And, a stencilled card and gaudy orange binding, sumptuous photos and near-scrawling notes on carnet-like pages, it proves a hip addition to the kitchen shelf!

Aimed at an audience of twenty or thirty-somethings, the book is far from highbrow, it does not indulge in the literary meanderings of an Elizabeth David, nor for that matter is it a scientific tome.  So intent is the writer on keeping the kitchen a light-hearted place, a gentle colloquialism verges on (and happily fails to fall into) the Jamie Oliver tendency of catchphrasing: expressions such as “you get the idea” might put some off, and the book would perhaps be unsuited to the culinary snob. 

I say this, and yet, written with such flair, so abounding in joy, and such an utter pleasure to read, I wouldn’t hesitate to pass it on to any of my entourage.

A cook-book that combines a boy-next-door charm and lack of pretension, with an erudite wealth of culinary knowledge, an evident depth of research and recipes destined to please multiple pallets on myriad occasions, with his Small Adventures in Cooking, James Ramsden heralds an exciting new generation of cookery writing.

Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden

New Voices in Food, Quadrille Publishing, London 2011, 191 pages. 
ISBN: 9781844009572

Monday, May 23, 2011

Buildings are where we store our memories, writes Ben Macintyre. (Never Forget Srebrenica. A response.)

Buildings are where we store our memories
writes Ben Macintyre, The Times, Thursday January 14th 2010.

[With the capture of Ratko Mladic, these thoughts are again pertinent.]

Walking the length of the Miljatska river, through Sarajevo, one comes to understand this statement most profoundly: the streams of bullet holes still decorating the facades of the buildings echo the writing on the still red-graffitied pavements: Never Forget [Srebrenica]. One learns to read these war torn cities using one’s eyes like the fingertips of the blind trailing over Braille print. Until these buildings are fallen or restored there will be no forgetting. Memories are indeed stored in these buildings, the past inscribed across them like blatant hieroglyphics. On some buildings in Sarajevo the bullet holes have been sealed with white putty paste, this painting over seems an absurd dissimulation, and serves only to exacerbate memory. The white patches over the bullet holes act like gaudy plasters over ever weeping wounds; this is a sad attempt at forgetting and a sad attempt at rendering the homes within less fragile.

Mostar is otherwise and the effort that has been made to rebuild the city, and particularly the eponymous bridge, conceals the wounds suffered. Stari Most, the Old Bridge, dating to the sixteenth century and destroyed during the war in 1993, was finally rebuilt in 2004, in its original form according to its original design, and using the same stone. But the new bridge allows one to forget, it allows tourism to trip up from Croatia to trip along the cobbles, to photograph the boys diving from the 78ft high bridge into the icy blue Neretva river below, as if nothing. Only on pushing out beyond these tourist tracks of cobbled streets and white walls does the disguise fall and is the past recalled, in fallen, shot-up buildings, the hoards of bullet wounds, the homes of history.

Strange tourism that to the buildings of Auschwitz, to the trenches, to the war-ravaged corners of Sarajevo? Tourists like voyeurs stealing glimpses of another’s tragedy? And yet this tourism can likewise be considered a pilgrimage and an act of remembering. Indeed, Macintyre considers this pilgrimage, to place, the most evocative:

“Buildings can summon memory and evoke history in a way that even books, paintings and poetry cannot. Nature constantly gnaws at them. Like us, buildings are in a state of constant, ineluctable decay; unlike us, human action can preserve them indefinitely. They are a form of immortality.”

Auschwitz was not built to stand, as Macintyre highlights, however its tumbling presence stands as a memorial to the events of the Holocaust. Were it to fall, so would the memory risk tumbling to dust, or to the fallacies of fable. The standing building does immortalise the event, it brings it out of time to give it a living relevance today as yesterday, and tomorrow. One might argue that there is a need to forgive and forget, wipe clean the slate, to put the past behind us. Indeed, in the comments posted online, the overlying attitude is that Auschwitz should be razed to the ground, or “finally we shall all end up living in one vast museum, a monument to the dead on a national scale”, writes one. But as Roger Boyes quotes in his article: ‘Auschwitz asks Britain for help to preserve decaying death camp’, The Times 13th January, “this is not about guilt, but about the future”. In Sarajevo it is necessary to rebuild and restore that the citizens might live in houses that are at least apparently infallible. In the case of Auschwitz it is a moral duty to acknowledge the Holocaust, and a human right to commemorate the dead.


Other to the branded buildings themselves, to the ruined streets of Sarajevo, is the memorial, the structure built in memorandum. Another centre of pilgrimage and remembering. The cemetery stands as a memorial in it simplest form. Of the shape of the city of Sarajevo spaces have been carved to house the dead, they stand like cities within the city. Rather than placing the cemeteries on the outskirts of the city thus segregating the living and the dead, as they were eventually forced to do due to shortage of space, the fact that they were placed within the city has created an everyday practice of remembrance. These memorials are, for the most part, endless standing pillars, white, with cloned inscriptions.

In a similar line, I cannot forget Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial, which, inaugurated in 2000, stands in judenplatz, Vienna. It is a cube library in relief form, a squat square block sat upon the colonial paving stones in a square filled with cafes, as if fallen there. Also known as Nameless Library, this structure has no door handles and its books cannot be read.

This “inverted library” recalls a notion of the French writer Patrick Modiano, that a disappeared person leaves their presence in relief-form. In his haunting novels a disappeared Jewish figure is sought by the narrator, who retraces their life and disappearance, thus offering existence/apparition and memory to this disappeared figure. The character leaves a mark of their presence, as a negative, in the buildings in which they lived, a concave human shaped absence. Modiano’s buildings, like Rachel Whiteread’s store the memory and recall the absence with a negative shaped form. Memory is marked at once by absence and presence – the present memory recalling something now absent – we only have to think of Proust and his too-often-cited “madeleine”.


The human is attracted to the ruin. The human eye enjoys the complexity, attaching to the many forms and layers of ruin. The human soul the nostalgia, the roughedged memory of what once was. Pilgrimages the world over to ruins, to holy buildings, to these buildings, holders of memories. And while one might go to these places so might one be forced into exile from them. I understand this dichotomy of attraction/rejection to be a mirror reflecting the same issue. Macintyre reflects on urbicide, calling it “one of the most repulsive features of twentieth-century warfare”. While the presence of place acknowledges memory, history and identity, its absence is synonymous with loss of memory, and thus identity. Indeed, identity, so wrapped up in collective memory, is ineluctably wrapped up in place, or placeness, a real sense of place. The Israel/Palestine question is perhaps the most evocative contemporary expression of this dilemma, but it is one well known and peculiar to our age. The nature of the refugee, one who has gone in search of a place of refuge, is indeed this loss of place. As Edward Said writes in his poignant essay Reflections on exile :

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that history and literature contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exiles are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”


Letting Auschwitz fall is to deny the physical memory of the Holocaust, and in some way echoes Said’s words, denying that library of memories so important to identity. These buildings should not stand for guilt, nor self–righteousness, they should not be decreed like some new-fangled conception of original sin. In an era so devoid of sense of place, the existence of these buildings offers some sort of redemption from exile. They are a memory and a permission to remember in the most physical manner. They are a library of memories, books that can be read, evoking that same mirror library holding the books that will never be read.


‘Buildings are where we store our memories’, by Ben Macintyre, The Times Thursday January 14th.

‘Auschwitz asks Britain for help to preserve decaying death camp’, by Roger Boyes, The Times January 13th

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Culpable as one who experiences place through its being rendered literary, indeed, as one whose experience of place is deepened by the literature depicting it, (Is this perhaps the nature of a “romantic”?) I was very taken by Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places.

I can even admit to, nearing the end of the book in a teashop, being overcome by the desire, the need to be walking the country; forgoing the return half of my bus ticket and striding out several hours across the fields – a salutary effort at orientation – stuffing my handbag along the way with Shaggy Parasols, sloes from the blackthorn drooping laden to the ground, acknowledging the barking migration of the Brent geese, the egret sat white, lookout atop a once lightningstruck oak, the twining, fruiting hedgerows... navigating between round-towered church, quarry, rooftops on a near horizon, to wind my long way home.

Yet, is this what Robert Macfarlane intends in his book (labelled a ‘travelogue’) The Wild Places – that, struck by his inspiration we slip, skip off our cafe seats and plunge handbags and heels into the country, in search of the wild, those wild places, those wild experiences he writes? Is his a moral “Get the British walking” piece of work? Is he one of those screeching their “right to roam” in wellybooted marches across the countryside? For, he cannot be grouped with the Climate Change enthusiasts - although his work does acknowledge the degradation being done to the countryside and the climate – it is far from an activist rant. Nor, would one place him alongside John Clare and others alike in their celebration of the British countryside. In the bookshop, The Wild Places sits both in the Travel Writing section and in a Miscellaneous section with headings such as: Self-Sufficiency and Free Food, next to Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and Wildwood. Macfarlane was indeed great friends with Deakin, the latter who plays an inspirational role beside him in The Wild Places, accompanying him on several of his “excursions” and whose death occurs during the final chapters of the writing of the book. Deakin was known for his accounts of swimming across Britain, and surely his was the inspiration for the numerous wild swimming publications that have appeared since.

But Macfarlane is no Roger Deakin, of rambling Walnut Tree Farm. A fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, lecturer in English Lit with an ecocritical slant (think: pyschogeography, the philosophy of landscape, Gaston Bachelard...) As such, writing in The Guardian, MacFarlane considers how paths might be thought of as sculptures, “a kind of democratic art form” (May 23, 2009). Indeed he is on Radio 3 these evenings and I hear him now muttering about the “energy investment” in paths, now quoting Edward Thomas’ notion of “a sediment of sentiment”. His appreciation, his manner of thinking the countryside and the wild, is studiedly postmodern. One is not surprised to find him quoting Debord, Bachelard, the continentals are thirsting for their place in there amongst the traditionals. And, Macfarlane’s language gives it away as well – permitting himself certain neologisms, tacking words together in a Joycean whim.

"It is clear that these edgelands reciprocated the serenity and the asceticism of the peregrini. Their travels to these wild places reflected their longing to achieve correspondence between belief and place, between inner and outer landscapes."(24)

Macfarlane is writing the wild and this writing is doubled with the self-conscious thinker’s awareness of a friction-ridden breach between the inner and outer landscapes, between the self and the land, between language and the land. “But we find it hard to make language grip landscapes that are close-toned, but that also excel in expanse, reach and transparency.” (78) He remains the explorer, hesitant to impose his own language upon a presence that is mysteriously, perhaps mystically other. Before or beyond language. Or perhaps not, he disallows a personification of the land: “The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented. It is indifferent to its pictures and to its picturers.” (10) He will not enforce a moral.

And yet, there is something underlying, some tongue enfolded in these dips of landscape that Macfarlane invokes. A sensitive nerve edging his sentences, refusing the pure eulogy, pure travelogue. The signs of a thinker, a theorist... When I rediscovered Seamus Heaney – years on, my disdain faded – I was delighted by the shapes, the landscapes built by those hardedged words, the landforms hunkered within the structure of the poems. I feel MacFarlane harkens towards a similar sense: the sense that the land does have a written form, the land can be thought without being warped. I have not read his first book, Mountains of the Mind, which won a flock of prizes... but the title suggests a similar line of thought. He is tackling the thinking of nature, the writing of nature, the experiencing of nature, the naming of nature. And, something evades him:

"Everywhere that day I had encountered blendings and mixings: the blown sand moving over the set sand, the sea water mingling inscrutably with the fresh. I recalled something the writer Fraser Harrison had said: ‘Our perception of land is no more stable than our perception of landscape. At first sight, it seems that land is the solid sand over which the mirage of landscape plays, yet it turns out that land too has its own evanescence... “Place” is a restlessly changing phenomenon.’"(127)

MacFarlane must take great pleasure in quotes such as this by Fraser Harrison. And yet, I fear he is only really (h)edging, hesitant around the question. He fails to develop the theme of “correspondence between inner and outer landscapes” and the sense of otherness, of something exilic, remains a nudging, unresolved and not-quite-silenced tension. Perhaps his academic research is more pointed? It is a “nice” book, I wonder has it been tempered for the book-club trade, pastoralised to pleasure the predominantly middle-aged female market? Although, published by Granta, one would think not. But, typical of the British, he is holding something back: the theoretical surmise, the blatant philosophical study. It would seem he is cowering behind the travelogue narrative. Unlike the continentals, whose contemporary philosophers continue to philosophise, without rendering the language/thought facile (I am thinking, for example of the French: Jean-Luc Nancy, Hélène Cixous, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Georges Didi-Huberman...) the British (think Alain de Botton, John Berger...) tend to soften their thinking to perpetuate instead the gentle British manner – somewhere between the novel, self-help and literary criticism? Rather than challenge their audience, they often hap to flatter it.

"Ideas, like waves, have fetches. They arrive with us having travelled vast distances, and their pasts are often invisible, or barely imaginable. ‘Wildness’ is such an idea: it has moved immensely through time and in that time, two great and conflicting stories have been told about it. According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished." (29)

Macfarlane, draws one in, tempting, evoking the old pros and cons of the Primitive. But his conclusions are drawn in far simpler terms: "Whatever the combination of causes, I had started to refocus. I was becoming increasingly interested in this understanding of wildness not as something which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it: in cities, backyards, roadsides, hedges, fields, boundaries or spinnies."(226) One must bear in mind that he is a fan of Richard Long, who he quotes in an interview in The Guardian: “I am content with the vocabulary of universal and common means; walking, placing, stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads." Thus demonstrating the archetypal intellectual desire to renounce the intellect, to know the stone as it is, as opposed to the stone as it is thought. While Robert Macfarlane knows himself other to this wild he yearns, he gives time and poetic thought to place, and delights, as the reader delights, in knowing the wild places still exist, and often much closer to home than one might imagine.


The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta Books, 2007. ISBN : 978-1-86207-941-0

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz

“This book is my song of praise and devotion to fermentation. For me fermentation is a health regimen, a gourmet art, a multicultural adventure, a form of activism, and a spiritual path, all rolled into one.” (Sandor Katz, Wild Fermentation, p.1)

In Wild Fermentation Sandor Katz, or Sandorkraut as he is nicknamed, brings fermentation out from the mouldering cupboards of pungent Northern Eastern European cuisine to present it as the edgiest of today’s food thinking. As to whether the “wild” in the title designates the binding’s whacky fluorescents, assimilates the thinking to that of wild food, acknowledges the unconventional, even anti-conventional mindset from which the book is written or searches to highlight the experimental methods and DIY aspect of fermentation... I don’t know. We could assume it is a sort of all-encompassing wildness, or perhaps merely wild as opposed to straight.

For Katz, a self-proclaimed “fermentation fetishist”, fermentation is an integral part of a movement, a lifestyle, a sort of ecosystem even. He lives in a queer community, a “rural homestead” built from wood salvaged from a coca-cola bottling factory, rearing goats and chickens, powered on solar energy.

Bound within this thinking Katz does not let his vision remain in specific potted form but always draws it out to explore larger issues such as community, harmonious living, sustainability, mortality. Drawing widely from scientific sources, in the first chapter Sandor Katz outlines the health benefits of fermented foods. Although he flirts with complex formulae and equations he lets the facts surface to show that: fermentation preserves food, breaks down nutrients into more digestible forms and removes toxins from foods... on a primary level, the living cultures contained in fermented foods ease digestion and facilitate the assimilation of nutrients (7). And this is it: the consumption of live foods offers a spiritual and practical interaction, interdependence with what we eat.

We can move then from the near passive consuming of long dead food, to a creative, transformative action. An invitation to commune, to communicate with our living entourage – his is a (brave) positive reading of contagion (contact, Latin : con-tagere, touch with) as a form of life-giving communion as opposed to the foreboding it evokes in this double-glazed anti-bacterial fear era. Katz calls for co-existence with bacteria and creating what he calls microbiodiversity. His thinking encourages a shift in the mindset, on one level dispelling the contemporary hygiene frenzy myths, pointing out that certain bacteria are very important for the functioning of the immune system and also provide competition for heavier more potent bacteria, and on another proclaiming a possible and positive interconnection with the surrounding life forces. From decomposition and decay to life, reproduction and transformation...

“Your environment becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the Earth with to enter your environment and your intestinal ecology”(12).

In the following chapter Katz sketches out an anthropology of fermented foods, recalling the meads that wizened the oracles’ tongues, remarking on the sacred qualities pertaining to these foods and dating fermentation to pre-arable farming times, even questioning as to whether it were not the discovery of fermented grains itself that caused nomadic peoples to settle, in order to enjoy the elixirs of the harvested crops.(16) He then looks at fermentation as a means of revolt amidst a mainstream culture of mass produced, plastic packaged foods. With sections entitled : Cultural homogenization; Fermented stimulants and the rise of globalization; Resisting the commodification of culture, he outlines how “we can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators”(27).

I say all this.... and yet this is far from being very mental post-modern theorising, it is, believe it or not, a highly practical guide to home fermentation. The following chapters and the bulk of the book is made up of recipes. Recipes, yes steeped in anecdote and dilemma – the raw cheese question for example, but very clear, accessible, easy to follow recipes. Some of the foods we know well: yogurts and cheeses, sauerkraut, sourdoughs, miso, beers, wines and meads, and then many others exotic, unheard of and to experiment with. The concoctions are wicked. And, for Katz, fermentation is not a science confined to a laboratory, the methods are simple, the apparatus readily available. Water, sea-salt, a vessel and off you go! He will suggest alternatives for any hard to find equipment, such as a balloon in place of an airlock stopper, and let you know where you can pick up crocks and other items. He has tried all the recipes himself, so abounds in tips for taste, ideas for what to do with the foods when they are ready, (he even gives his email address for fermentation troubleshooting!) and his documentation of his own outrageous experimenting permits us too to experiment (outrageously). This year we have made batches of ginger beer, and have bubbling pots of lacto-fermenting cucumbers and green beans sitting on a shelf on the kitchen. Today, forced to pull our carrots early because of the fly, we have attempted a sort of carrot kimchi and we look forward to soon starting on sauerkraut, borsht and perhaps some miso pickles.

Unlike freezing, dehydrating, jam making and sterilising, fermentation conserves food at no energy cost, it is therefore a highly efficient manner of preserving. Out in the wild west of Ireland where the winter garden production is sparse we hope to somewhat sustain ourselves on this suddenly seemingly (wow!) fastfood, as after weeks, months of fermenting, transforming, ageing, renewing, our pots and crocks can be pulled out of the cupboard and placed on the table ready to eat... In Wild Fermentation we enter into a lucid food process, a recipe book which is less about quantities and ingredients, but about concepts, methods and practice. Encouraging a slight deviation in one’s mindset one can begin to observe, to learn by trial and error, to test according to our singular tastes, to experiment with what is growing around us, our climate and living conditions.

In a system so keen to dis-able, to render ignorant and dependent, Katz opens the other door: enabling, empowering, giving knowledge. Is this not the first true step of revolution?

“Come participate in a cultural revolution! Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods possess a great, unmediated life force which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease. These microorganisms are everywhere and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible.”


The numbers in brackets are page numbers. For online information you can see Sandor Ellix Katz’s wild fermentation website: http://www.wildfermentation.com/

See also The Art of Lacto-Fermentation

Wild Fermentation is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003 ISBN: 9781931498234