Sud de France by Caroline Conran (TLS)

BOOK REVIEW

The Languedoc, or langue d’oc, the land and language of Occitan, is hemmed in by the Pyrenees in the south-west, the Rhône in the east and the Mediterranean sea.  The rich mixture of influences heard in the region’s language is echoed in its culinary traditions, as portrayed in Sud de France, Caroline Conran’s eminently readable cookbook.  The region’s food, she explains, is determined by location: spanning mountain, river and sea, strung between neighbouring Provence and Catalonia, there is the Catalan pan amb tomát and salt cod;  fromage de brebis from the mountains, Roquefort from the caves; octopus, lobster, mussels;  salt from the Camargue.  Olive oil and lard are combined in cooking.   Practices of home charcuterie, hunting and foraging are widespread.

The recipes are preceded by a compelling seventy page essay on “The Tastes of Languedoc”.  With knowledge of produits du terroir, la cueillette and la chasse, Conran expounds the varieties of garlic, onions and the best cheeses of the region.  She describes hunting wild boar and picking mushrooms, and how to prepare snails:  purge for two to three days, feeding on “bunches of thyme or dill, to perfume their flesh”, fast for two to three weeks, cook, soak in brine, gut.  She initiates the reader into “pig-killing day” or the more poetic “les noces du cochon”, when the family pig is slaughtered and butchered.  “Charcuterie is essential to everyday life in the midi” and Conran herself doesn’t falter: “There is something thrilling about making your own sausages” even if it comes to “wrestling with a funnel and a wooden spoon”.  At moments her enthusiasm wavers: “One taste I have very nearly acquired is […] for feche” (salted pig’s liver), and as to le sac d’os, the Languedocien answer to haggis, “I have never seen it or tried it, and probably that is a good decision.”

Sud de France is as much a guide to the region as it is a cookbook.  It contains an index, a glossary, a table of the names of wild herbs in French, Latin and English and details of the regional markets and food festivals.  Engaging and erudite, Conran revivifies the sort of cookery once championed by Elizabeth David, not haute cuisine but the food of wayside inns and provincial homes.

SUD DE FRANCE by Caroline Conran

The food and cooking of Languedoc

330 pp.  Prospect Books.

978 1 903018 90 3

This review was published in the TLS November 30th 2012.

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Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc (TLS)

Violette Leduc’s novel recounts the brief, but overwhelming, love affair between two girls at a boarding school. Gallimard considered Thérèse et Isabelle too risqué to publish when it was written, in 1954, and despite Leduc’s autobiography La Bâtarde (1964) having drawn praise in French literary circles, the uncensored version did not appear until 2000, twenty-eight years after the author’s death.

The story begins with a dispute. The girls are cleaning their shoes.

I wrench Isabelle’s face around, I dig my fingers in, I stuff the rag blotched with wax, dust and red polish into her eyes, into her mouth; I look at the milky skin inside the collar of her uniform, I lift my hand from her face, I return to my place.

Told in the first person, present tense, and with absorbing attention to detail, the narrative events unfold tantalisingly close to the reader. Leduc expressed her intention to “render as accurately as possible, as minutely as possible, the sensations felt in physical love.”

Her voice is poetic, often broken or exaggerated, and effervescent with imagery.  As the girls are overcome by their feelings, Leduc’s prose echoes the rhythms of their pleasures and angsts, eccentricities and impossibilities.

Isabelle was making my ankles drunk, rotting my knees with ecstasies. I was like a fruit stewed in the heat, I had the same liquorous seeping.

The French are, perhaps, unrivalled in their use of this language of lust and eroticism.  It is therefore a joy to read Sophie Lewis’ impeccable translation. The text reads like a transparent film, as if traced over the French original: Leduc’s exquisite 1954 text trembles just beneath.

The book’s cover-design, featuring a scantily clad girl gazing through a door ajar, depicts the novel as light erotica. Erotica it is. But, of decidedly more interest, is its literary value.   Thérèse and Isabelle is written with unflinching sincerity and Leduc’s progressive attitude and experimental style confirm it as one of the greatest examples of French-language erotic literature.

Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc

Translated by Sophie Lewis

Salammbo Press

978 0 95680 821 9

This review was published in the TLS, October 5th 2012.

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy – Longlisted for the Man Booker prize

She was not a poet. She was a poem.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, one of And Other Stories 2011 titles, has been longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. I reviewed the book here, when it was originally published.

It is both a joy and a shock that a literature and a publisher that slip outside of the mainstream be included in the longlist for the Booker prize; one hopes it is a symbol of recognition from the Booker committee of the other literature, the other stories. Below, a few words about the publisher, and an abridged review of Levy’s novel.

And Other Stories is shaping a novel space and a novel place in the literary world. 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.
(Deborah Levy, Dalkey Archive Press)

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 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.


Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Published by And Other Stories, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-908276-02-5

The Natural Explorer by Tristan Gooley (TLS)

BOOK REVIEW

Following on from his previous, more utilitarian, The Natural Navigator, in The Natural Explorer Gooley pleads his case for ‘the new explorer’.  “In this new age neither physical extremes nor those of vainglory are prerequisite, only heightened awareness and honest expression”.   His method?  “Reaching back to the many who had the spirit in years gone by and out to the few who have held on to it”.  So Gooley introduces the reader to a quixotic collection of explorers that they too might learn the art.

The structure of the book is aligned according to a modest walk, which Gooley narrates, through the Sussex countryside.  Each prosaic passage gives rise to a new chapter and theme.  Thirty chapters, crammed into 300 pages, study subjects from the scientific “The Earth” to the philosophical “Inner Time and Mood” via the less obvious “Worldly Goods”.

Gooley is fascinating as historian; he tells tales of scientific wonder and geographical discovery.  Each themed chapter, complete with illustrations, maps, diagrams and literary quotations, stands alone as a mini-museum in tribute to exploration.  With a collector’s eccentricity he combines the extraordinary with the arbitrary, whisking the reader through notions of ‘The Noble Savage’, stories of the honey-diviner bird, and the invention of the ‘cyanometer’, instrument used to measure the ‘blueness’ of the sky.

The main cast of explorers, numbering barely twenty, includes Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt and Henry David Thoreau.  But the characters featuring in this book number many more.  While this array impresses, the grandeur of the figures that populate the book detracts from the sense of Gooley’s trudge through the countryside, rendering the main theme tangential.  The intellectual promiscuity, displayed by insistent references to other explorers and other places, does not enlighten but undermine this ‘new explorer’.  Gooley would have better served his end by honing down his troop of players, and concentrating his gaze on the land.

For, he reads the landscape with a genuine perceptiveness.  “Beaches are vast graveyards of rocks and animals that have lived and died in company with the waves”.  Ancient woodland is telling as to the soil beneath: “these forests have survived by clinging to land no farmer wants”.   These reflections are more in tune with the new explorer Gooley heralds: a humble character, mindful, and curious about his surroundings.

The Natural Explorer by Tristan Gooley

Published by Sceptre
978 1 4447 2031 0

This review appeared in the TLS, May 11 2012.

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (TLS)

Martha Gellhorn’s first full length novel was published in 1940 and recounts a week spent by Mary Douglas, a war correspondent, in Prague, in 1938, during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. There are two strings to the narrative. The first details the wide-eyed, impassioned gaze of this journalist on a city teeming with lifeless people, “like old bundles of gray cloth”. The second, the love story of communists Rita and Peter.  This, the novel’s core, despite playing out the hackneyed theme of the struggle of love in a climate of war, reads as terribly fragile, poignant against the austere backdrop.

This plot is caught up within another, less grandiose, equally tragic:  the dilemmas of a journalist, unable to affect change in a landscape heavy with injustice.  Journalist and communists’ shared cause stands in contrast to the somewhat seedy glamour of the group of “bright and dispassionate” other hacks reporting there. These, “the usual camp followers of catastrophe” and the novelist figure peddling others’ tales:  “hearing a name, that meant a face, a story, something you could store up and later alter in your imagination, until it had a shape”, divulge something of the author’s own insecurities.  As journalist, and novelist, these characters parody aspects of Gellhorn’s own.  This self-consciousness reveals itself in an offhand jibe at Mary Douglas.  “You’re wasting yourself in this business.  If I were a woman, and looked like you, I’d marry for money.  It’s only sensible.”

A Stricken Field sometimes reads like a series of newspaper reports, scenes glimpsed and tacked one to another. But Gellhorn’s forte lies in reporting the small narratives behind the headlines, so, in this novel she gives voice to the unheard. She depicts the houses of refugees “furnished with still bodies”, as if on canvas: “people painted against the walls, growing from the floor, the woman with one hand on her hip as if she had always been standing in just that position”. Gellhorn as novelist is able to dwell on situations, to write with a slower, more intimate gaze.

Underlying Mary Douglas’ finally futile efforts to affect change, Rita and Peter’s tragic finale, are Gellhorn’s own frustrations.  In the afterword, dated 1985, she says of A Stricken Field: “I wrote out the accumulated rage and grief of the past two years in this one story, one small aspect of the ignoble history of our time.”

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

Republished by Chicago Press, 2011
Originally published 1940

978 0 22628 696 9

This review appeared in the TLS, April 20 2012

The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg (Peirene)

BOOK REVIEW

And I was not particularly surprised that this time there was a weary, vacant look in Henrik’s eyes.  Time had clearly caught up with him.  He had tried to stay ahead of it by rushing from one town to another, but though his simple cart had transformed into a carriage and screeching prostitutes had become bourgeois ladies from Stockholm, time had at last got the better of him and disclosed to him the permanence of his destiny, its inexorability: he was still the same man who had first been cheated of a horse and then of a woman. 

In The Brothers, Finnish writer Asko Sahlberg conjures a nineteenth century drama that is as deftly modern as it is richly archaic.  This, the first of the Peirene Press series of the Small Epic, measuring a mere 122 pages, is an epic indeed.  Set on a farm in Finland, the return of one of the brothers gives rise to a hefty family dispute.

I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.

The story of two brothers, Henrik and Erik, is narrated through a series of monologues that unveil the events of the past and lead to the eventual dénouement.   There are six voices: their own, and that of The Farmhand, the Old Mistress, Anna, Erik’s wife and Mauri, a relative, who fought with Erik in the war.  These tongues rise from a land bereft of artifice.  The backdrop, a wasted Scandinavian environment, is thick with snow in the depths of winter.  This setting is intrinsic to the narrative:  As the landscape is austere, so are the voices.  Like the landscape, they are purged of artifice, unperturbed by superflu, startlingly direct.   Although set in the nineteenth century, the narrative style is so paired down, so clean it feels immediately modern.

Yet, Sahlberg has set this tale in a land and age where the language of people and the earth can rise unperturbed by the chaos of the contemporary era.  Modern, but also ancient, earthy.   There is an overwhelming sense of engagement with the landscape: the characters are shapely as the land, their ‘speech tells you they have rough palms’, they are but playthings of the elements:

Nature toys with humans, pokes fun at us.  It is a grim game in general, as when frost hits the fields, or a river floods, or a thunderbolt strikes a man dead.  At times one feels as if the earth were waging a war against men, along with the sky, the winds and of course the snow.  A human being puts up a fight as best he can, but he might as well throw himself down and wait for the axe to fall.  

Nordic, flash with fights, with lust, with war, gaming debts and family secrets,  The Brothers is made of dramatic and grandiose stuff.  It is deserving of fringed velvet curtains, the clamour of crowds.  Critics have swerved to the appellation “Shakespearian” when describing the book, I would instead invoke a comparison with the work of García Lorca.  For like Lorca’s work, Sahlberg’s is rife with the effects of the landscape, thriving with blood feuds, ridden with characters earthy and raw.  But, where Lorca is heavy with passion and bravado, Sahlberg’s tale has something of the quiet pastoral.  Lorca’s plays take place in the insufferable Andalucían heat; Sahlberg’s epic stands therefore as their colder Scandinavian brother.

Told by six voices, in monologue, the book reads as a polyphony, a symphony of many voices, luring the reader.  These voices create a chant, mnemonic, revealing and awakening memory.  So that, while many-voices, these are also a coherent whole, each voice integral to the construction of the piece.  Like the gathering of a crowd, the voices echo, closing in on the situation, gaining compunction as the tale unfurls, clutching tight around the final climactic scenes.

The tale has the elements of tragedy, set in one day, one place, all threads lead toward the final denouement.  It is an art to construct a narrative that combines theatrical grandiloquence with quiet pastoral.  Sahlberg does this by composing a tale that is rich with the ostentatious elements of epic, but also modest, using a simple directness of language and speech

This is my fence.  It is beginning to rot, little by little.  Futile, like everything I have ever done.  If it is true that, after his death, a man is remembered by his achievements, I might as well refrain from kicking the bucket, because any memory of me will just spill out and trickle away. 

The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg
Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah
Published by Peirene Press
ISBN: 978-0-9562840-6-8

 

The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw (TLS)

BOOK REVIEW in TLS

Ali Shaw’s debut, The Girl with Glass Feet, a novel-cum-fairytale published to acclaim in 2009, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and went on to win the Desmond Elliott Prize.

The Man Who Rained is of the same ilk. Billed as a “modern-day fable about the elements of love”, it entwines contemporary concerns into the fantastical. When her father, a storm-chaser, dies in a tornado and her boyfriend proposes, Elsa’s New York life falls apart.  Only a vision of Thunderstown, the lights seen from an aeroplane, as  “a network of interlocked spirals glimmering through the dark” holds any hope.  Elsa flees New York on a quest to find out who she really is.

Untouched by modernity, rife with folklore and superstition, roamed by fairytale characters and loping dogs whose eyes reflect the sky, Thunderstown is an  otherworldly place subject to the whims of the weather.  It is surrounded by four mountains, four storms “weary from whipping and raging through the air”, which are inhabited by a series of fabular creatures. These include a man that dissolves into a cloud, who becomes the subject of Elsa’s love: Finn Munro, born of a thundercloud, cumulonimbus, who lives exiled from the town.

Ali Shaw charms with his depictions of this magical and moody world.  His pen a paintbrush, he conjures a land that is bold and bright, effusive with primary colour.  Indeed, his art is his imagination. The creatures that populate the tale are part weather:  canaries are cadmium bursts, born of sunbeams; raindrops metamorphose into insects, their bodies “like murky water”; and when killed, the skin of the ‘brook horse’ is not full of flesh and bone but “dirty flood water, seeping outwards from a shrivelled coat.”  However, The Man who Rained fast falls short of its own pretensions as a modern-day fable.

The power of the fable lies in the moral lesson it gives, the allure of the fairytale is in the sinister.  The Man Who Rained fails on both these accounts: it lacks the substance and menace necessary to give it gravitas or appeal.  The magical and the modern are irreconciled.  The concerns of the latter, which could be construed as archetypal struggles with death, love and self-knowledge, appear instead as frothy anachronism.  The tale does not succeed in reaching beyond the fantastical world it concocts.  It reads as a love story, flimsy, predictable at best, dressed-up in the garb of fable.

The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw

Published by Atlantic Books

978 0 85789 032 0

This review was published in the TLS, 24th February 2012.

Travelling Light by Tove Jansson

BOOK REVIEW

The birds started screeching before dawn, like a thousand furies spoiling for war.  Their feet tramped over the sheet metal roof as if laying siege to the cottage.  They were everywhere.

Tove Jansson, best known for her children’s tales of the Moomins, was brought into literary consciousness through the posthumous publication of her adult writing in English translation, revealing her as a serious and very singular writer.

This latest collection, Travelling Light, gathers a handful of tales with the loosely shared theme of travel.  The theme is perhaps extraneous to the reading of the stories, for Jansson’s writing tends often towards something of travel: exiled, singular characters wander alone in vast and strange worlds, gazing upon their surroundings with the fresh, open and often surprising gaze that is that of the traveller.  Of the traveller, or equally that of the child.

One particular story from this collection, The Gulls, is not only exquisite, but also exemplary of her literary originality.  The Gulls tells of Elsa and Arne, who take a trip to one of the Scandinavian islands in a plea to cure Arne of his angst.

“Tell me again how it’s going to be.”

“You’re sitting in the bow and you’ve never been in the islands before.  With every new skerry, you think we’re there, but no, we’re going all the way out, right out to an island that’s hardly a shadow on the horizon.  And when we land, it won’t be Papa’s island any more, it’ll be ours, for weeks and weeks, and the city and everyone in it will fade away, till in the end they won’t even exist or have any hold on us at all.  Just pure peace and quiet.  And now in the spring the days and nights can be windless, soundless, somehow transparent…”

Jansson spent much of her life and based many of her tales on the Finnish Island Klovaharum.  This provides the setting for her first novel published in English The Summer Book, for many of the stories in the collection A Winter Book and two in this collection.  Is not an island, that writerly retreat, the espace exemplaire of the imagination?    The Scandinavian islands have been brought to us in the dark, poetic films of Ingmar Bergman, shot on the Swedish Island of Faro.  They again came into the public consciousness last Summer with the shooting on Norwegian Utoya. Where the latter is deeply disturbing and contemporary to our society, where Bergman is heavy in his poetry, Jansson is light, hers a feathertouch, her islands are more air and sky than land mass.  In trying to evoke the lightness I come to think that the touch of her pen recalls that of a watercolour.  This is not anodyne, for Jansson was equally an artist and illustrator, illustrating all the Moomin tales herself.

Casimir came.  The same persistent piercing cry, the same strong soft wings touching her face, the same firm grip on her hand.  She laughed out loud, let the dish fall and grabbed the gull with both hands, overcoming the powerful resistance of his wings.  It was just exactly as she had imagined it, a great silken-smooth life force caught and held in her hands.  To her astonishment, the rare furious joy of clasping the creature in her arms, suddenly went right through her and took her breath away – and at that moment the huge bird twisted out of her grasp soared out over the shore and vanished.

The particular and creative perspective that becomes apparent when reading her adult fiction explains the popularity of her children’s writing  – one understands Jansson to be writing in that boundless childworld of the imagination.   It would however be erroneous to depict her as childish, her writing as naïve or gentle.  It is in fact the unfettered gaze of the child that one recognises in her adult fiction. Far from being pretty fantasies, the worlds Jansson conjures are often sinister, full of rift, terror or anxiety.  They face unflinching into the crucial reality of life with an abrupt lucidity, but subjects are broached with the paintbrush of the imagination, creating a duality between the light and joy of the world with the dark.

A warm sunset still lingered over sky and sea.  It was dead calm and indescribably beautiful.  The large islands were soon behind them, and only very low skerries marked an invisible horizon.  Arne was sitting at the bow.  From time to time he’d turn and they’d smile at one another. […] When they arrived a screaming cloud of hundreds of seabirds rose chalk-white against the evening sky. 

The indescribable beauty of the islands, the sense of being protected from the outside world, is thus not marred by, but married to the horror induced by the whirling seabirds.  For Arne, an eider waiting for her eggs to hatch comes to represent safety and healing.

“She’s asleep,” he whispered. “When the leaves open, she’ll feel more protected.  Don’t you think?”

The chicks hatch out and Arne likewise comes out of himself.

It was unbelievable, fantastic such a remarkable thing to see […]  And at that moment came a powerful beating of wings and a great white bird dived out of the sky and seized one of the chicks.  As Arne watched in helpless horror, the eider chick disappeared down the bird’s throat bit by bit.  He screamed, rushed forward, picked up a stone and threw it.  Never before in his life had Arne thrown anything straight and true, but he did so now.  The bird fell on the granite slope, wings outspread like an open flower, whiter than mist, with the legs of the eider chick still sticking out of its mouth.

We are too often oblivious to how literary fashion dictates narrative style, to how terribly narrow the breadth of tone and voice of literature published in English is.  Only when reading something so utterly singular and unafraid as Tove Jansson’s writing, does one recall the expanses that literature can explore.  I thank Sort Of Books for having the courage and insight to bring her writing, which refuses comfort and subverts convention, to an English speaking audience.   For, reading Tove Jansson widens the literary horizon for readers and writers alike by explicitly challenging the short-sightedness of our literary tastes.

The estranged, irreconciled characters that populate Tove Jansson’s stories, the grim-but-human subjects, all are told in a voice that is expansive, breathy and yet deeply chiselled.  It is same touch that we recognise in her illustrations, colourful, bright, imaginative and yet deeply troubling.

Travelling Light by Tove Jansson
Published by Sort Of Books
9780954899585

This review was published in The Short Review

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Peirene)

BOOK REVIEW

“Peirene books have become recognisable due to their quality of prose, clear as glass, succinct like poetry.  Exquisitely translated from the German by Anthea Bell, Matthias Politycki’s novella is a literary lovesong, where the boundaries between dream and reality, between this world and the next, are constantly being rewritten.”

If only it hadn’t been for that smell!  As if Doro had forgotten to change the water for the flowers, as if their stems had begun to rot overnight, filling the air with the sweet-sour aroma of decay.

In the first pages of this novella the reader gazes, alongside the narrator Schepp, into a room, early morning, where his wife sits leant over her desk, having apparently fallen asleep over her editing.  Schepp looks on, prolonging the moment prior to awakening her, prior to planting a kiss on her neck, prior to stealing up quietly like a man newly in love.  And the reader too remains, still, in gentle contemplation, in this gentle gaze onto the room where Doro sleeps.  This gaze has the generosity of young love, of love that has aged but remains tender as first love.

Then he bent over Doro.  Once again the smell hit him, an entirely strange smell now, a sweetish aroma mingled with the odour of sweat and urine and – he shrank back, his mouth gaping.
Gulped, gasped.

Doro has died in the night.  Her slouch having apparently fallen asleep in her chair, having forgotten to put the lid on her pen, having forgotten to change the water in the flowers, is in fact her slouch in death.  Schepp wades around her, around the room, in the first floundering moments of understanding.

At least it hadn’t been the rotting flower stems that he had smelt when he came into the room, he knew that now.

These first pages are thick with smell, with senses and sensuality.  The room, love and death are exposed not only through their contours but by the meeting of air and light, of smell and texture.  It is the stuff of dreams, the dreamstuff of awakening, the stuff too of love.  We are drawn further into this sense-rich landscape as we are drawn into the past.  Doro was a mystic/academic studying the I-Ching, and had a vision of the next world.  This she had confided in Schepp when they first met.  A dark lake, its waters motionless, in the midst of a bleak landscape.  You might try to swim across, but it is impossible.  Sooner or later you are drawn under.  This was the next world, and this death.  Doro was petrified of it, and Schepp had promised then to die first so that he might scout out the terrain for her.

I read these first pages as a lovesong.  Indeed, I was so persuaded the tale was the most poignant one of love that I read long into the book as a lovesong.  I have likewise written about it now, drawing out these pungent and painterly sceneries, glossing over detail to instead focus on the romantic touches.

My gaze myopic, for what I have failed to mention are the piles of manuscript on Doro’s desk.   These are a piece of Schepp’s earlier work scrawled over by Doro, as editor.  Doro’s scrawling reads like a dying note and is in fact a pre-meditated goodbye letter.   Schepp’s reading of this divulges a landscape terribly other to that first perceived, and sheds light on the many layers of their relationship concealed from one another.  Neither character is as they first appeared, nor is the relationship as it seemed in that first glance.  This does not shatter the love theme, but turns the tale several shades darker.   Looking on it now, it is rather a tale of secrecy, of obsession, certainly of misreading.

The novella is also a tale of the bliss of ignorance, and more so, the bliss of myopia.  The contours of dreams are thus sharper than those, blurred, when awake.  It can be read as a eulogy to myopia, to not seeing stark reality but perceiving life behind the eyelids, through the other senses.  I am reminded of an essay by Hélène Cixous: ‘Writing Blind’.  This too is a eulogy to myopia, to the moment between night and day, to the blurred contours of short sightedness.  As Schepp complains about his eye operation, which has been the cause of this grievance, so Cixous writes:

I must escape from the broad daylight which takes me by the eyes, which takes them and fills them with broad raw visions.

In the final pages of the novella, Matthias Politycki again plays with our perceptions.  Having drawn us deep into the deceitful web of this relationship, he then offers an alternative version of the tale.  The tale has been about readings, about misreadings, about writing and rewriting.  As the tale draws to a close, Politycki, in a humourous turn, or in a reassertion of that original lovesong, again rewrites it.

I need not further demonstrate the style and language of the novella, for the lines I have already quoted do this justice.  Peirene books have become recognisable due to their quality of prose, clear as glass, succinct like poetry.  Exquisitely translated from the German by Anthea Bell, Matthias Politycki’s novella is a literary lovesong, where the boundaries between dream and reality, between this world and the next, are constantly being rewritten.

From the far end of his room autumn sunlight came flooding in, bathing everything in a golden or russet glow – the chaise-longue in the corner was a patch of melting colour.  They’d have to open a window to let all that light out later.

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki
Translated by Anthea Bell
Published by Peirene Press

ISBN: 978-0-9562840-3-7

‘Writing Blind’ from:
Stigmata by Hélène Cixous
Publ. Routledge 2005

ISBN: 0-425-34545-6

Beside The Sea – Southbank Centre – March 2012

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.

I am still struck by my first reading of Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea: a steaming Sunday afternoon in a London backyard, breath barely drawn, eyes, edged with tears, clutching to the stark narrative.  Peirene Press’ adage is somewhat thus: “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single-sitting: Literary cinema for those fatigued by film.” (TLS) and Beside the Sea is exemplary.  One reads it in one breath, unwavering.  It is a tragedy.  Indeed it near’ obeys the three unities of Greek tragedy: time, place and plot. It is grim and yet so terribly beautiful that it stands also as a flawless work of art.

Beside The Sea will be performed by Lisa Dwan in the Southbank Centre in March 2012.  I had the opportunity to see her dramatic reading of the monologue last July at Shorelines, Literature Festival of the Sea.  Her rendition of the novella was so apt, so terrible, as the French might put it, to mean both terrible and beautiful, that I am delighted to see it will be performed again.

Below: An abbreviated version of my original response.

Petite, elfin, with a beautiful mouth stretching to smile on meeting, Lisa Dwan comes from county Athlone in the depths of Ireland.  The mouth is not immaterial, nor is her background:  Lisa is best known in the UK for her role in Samuel Beckett’s monologue, Not I, in which a disembodied Mouth, lit-up eight-foot above stage-level, performs an angst ridden monologue, a logorrhoea, an internal scream.

Although Bord de Mer was written and published as a novella, Olmi, dramatist and actress, has apparently also construed it as a dramatic monologue.  Written in the first person, present-tense the text gives itself fluently to theatre.  Lisa first performed Olmi/Hunter’s text, an abridged version of the novella, at the English launch of Beside the Sea, at the French Institute in 2010.  Tonight, sat on a chair beneath a spotlight, barely glancing at the sheets of paper in her hands, Lisa’s voice embodies this harrowing female character for a second time.

One cannot overestimate the heartstopping prowess of Lisa’a handling of the monologue, which commences with the mother’s words: We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.   Directly launching the spectator into the intimate directness of one woman’s terror before the world and before the responsibility that comes with motherhood.  As Lisa performs, the parallel with Not I becomes evident – When they were both asleep it was hard for me.  The talking started all of its own in my head, I hate that, thinking is a nasty piece of work.  Recalling the buzzing suffered by Mouth:  …yes…all the time the buzzing…so called…in the ears… though actually not in the ears at all…in the skull… dull roar in the skull…  Lisa wowed for her performance of Not I in under ten minutes at the Southbank centre, and yet it is not so much the speed that wows but the capturing of an expression, of a consciousness, in the mere mumblings of a mouth.  Likewise tonight Lisa stuns.  Sat on a chair she becomes, through her reading alone – such is the art of theatre – that mother, those two boys, in that brown hotel room.  Beckett is cited as saying of Mouth: I knew that woman in Ireland.  I knew who she was – not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.  So, we recognise the figure on stage, as much in peripheral figures of society as in our own core.

A brief pause, before the reading flits to the final passages:

I decided to start with the the little’un first.

The mother smothers her two boys with the hotel pillows. Despite the dramatic intensity, heightened by Lisa’s rendition, the narrative is so tight, so engaged with the mother’s seeming detachment during the infanticide, that only with the poignant final paragraph does the act hit home:

I had two dead children. And them?  What did they have? 

I looked at them and I saw.  I saw something I’d never thought of, something I’d never imagined ever: Kevin’s face was turned towards the wall, and Stan’s towards the window.  They had their backs to each other.  They weren’t together, no, each had gone his separate way.  They weren’t joined together in death, they’d lost each other there.

And I screamed.

Read my full response to Beside The Sea: Salon and Dramatic Reading here.

Read what The Guardian wrote about it here.

Beside The Sea – Southbank Centre -7th-8th March 2012.

Beside the Sea, Veronique Olmi
Translated by Adriana Hunter
Published by Peirene Press, London 2010.
ISBN: 978-0-9562840-2-0

Returning to Paris – Remembering George Whitman

Places are built of the stones that structure them, of the people that populate them.  Of the latter, there are some whose presence is so integral that they render the whole coherent. On visiting old haunts it reassures us and revivifies place to come across these figures: they are a testimony at once to time passing and to the continuity of place. George Whitman was one of these. He stood as one of the stones of Shakespeare And Company Bookshop

I first met him eight years ago. I was, I remember, daunted, petitioning somewhere-to-sleep on the back of a rumour; naïve, dreadlocked, likely barefooted… Then, a later occasion, another memory: George careering down the stairs, hammer in the hand, as I again begged a pillow to rest my head, a shout: “Are you published?!” Pasted on the bookshop walls a sign reads: Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise. And so, on these and many, many other occasions I was given a home. I remember too: during a particularly highbrow Shakespeare & Company Literary Festival, George sat with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, bookseller, publisher, of City Lights Books, on the bench outside Shakespeares sharing a bottle of wine. Humble then, who would have known, amidst the glamour of contemporary literati, that these were the real stars, the real literary figures, the visionaries.

One comes fast to understand that one’s individual relationship to person or place inscribes itself in that of a wider history, in a collective memory. George Whitman ran Shakespeare & Co. for 61 years. The scope of his presence is wide as the length of those years. So, pilgrims have marched from all over to visit the famed bookshop, to stay even, or work there. Where Shakespeare & Co. is the inn, George Whitman was the innkeeper. The bookshop: humble as an inn, dusty too and unchanged. An inn, but also a shrine. A structure standing in memoriam. To Shakespeare? Perhaps to Shakespeare, father of literature; or to the original Shakespeare & Co. Bookshop set up in the VIème by Sylvia Beach, where Ulysses was first published. Perhaps then in memorial to Shakespeare, to Sylvia Beach, to Ulysses, or to all the authors housed in the shelves of the bookshop, to the Beat Generation behind glass, or the Lost Generation with their own section. Perhaps too, to all the wanderers, writers and dreamers that have slept between those books, the tumbleweeds, as those that stay are known, blown in from the world over; or to those angels in disguise, the pilgrims that have walked through the doors.

So it was we took the aged red Peugeot 106 on surely its first overseas voyage to Paris Vème, and to Shakespeare & Co. And the trip, overnight from Norfolk, had all the traits of a pilgrimage. The modern pilgrimage, of course, occurs in petroleum-fuelled transport, depends on the whims of P&O ferries, and, minus staff and sandals, has to cope with bad traffic on the Périphérique. We were guided then, overcity and underground, by angels? to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise.

In the city of Paris, a great space has been carved to house the dead. With its own streets, tree-lined avenues and stumbling alleyways; with structures strutting high and low, some tended, others dilapidated; with its views over and above the city to the North; and where, to the South it sinks below the city’s heights to look out on shopfronts, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, Père Lachaise is worthy of the term city. City, or citadel, walled shadow city within the city. A city in negative. So, after the service held in La Coupole, we walked, thronged behind the coffin through those shadowstreets.

The service was beautiful, quiet, original. The French drone of the Maître de Cérémonie lifted by readings and testimonies in English. Perhaps most harrowing of all was the joyful singing of You Are My Sunshine to end the ceremony. Prior to the inhumation – and, isn’t the French word, now quixotic, wonderful – a reading of Yeats’ poem: Sailing to Byzantium. Beneath winter-grey Paris skies, amidst grey tombs, on grey cobbles, a girl with red hair read:


An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

The cemetery, the tomb, stands as a memorial in it simplest form, and Père Lachaise is already a heaving centre of pilgrimage. It is home to hefty literary types: Proust, Perec, Molière, and Paul Éluard, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde. Pilgrimage is the act of inscribing oneself in archetype and ritual by re-enacting motions enacted over years. Walking a way others have walked, one is treading a path other soles trod, a road moulded by other feet, other dreams. The path becomes the measure, the sculpture, the shape in relief form of the pilgrimage. Self dissolves, singularity melds with unity.

George responded to his daughter Sylvia’s complaint, young, of being an only child – but, you have brothers and sisters all over the world. So she does. Those at the funeral were from many countries and spoke as many languages. Was it Georges Bataille who came up with the notion of une communauté de ceux qui n’ont pas de Communauté? So, George Whitman set up a place for this community-of-those-without-community, a home for exiles, wanderers, for dreamers, writers and existential orphans. Where better to do so, than in a bookstore in Paris? For, is not Paris the city of exiles? Is not literature the territory par excellence of exile? So, George, Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter, knew well.

George Whitman is remembered as a maverick, a bohemian, an eccentric. As the soul of independent bookshops. As a visionary. But, most of all, as father, friend and host. His hospitality shaped the inimitable quality of Shakespeare And Company.

Same immense, and unconditional, hospitality was showed to us by all at Shakespeare & Co. on our trip prior to Christmas to mourn, remember and celebrate George Whitman. This welcome read as a prayer: that in a world where the maverick, the bohemian, the eccentric feels ever threatened by extinction, George Whitman’s extraordinary and enlightened vision forge onward, shouldered by his daughter Sylvia and the other angels guided to those doors.

In Memoriam George Whitman – 12 december 1913-14 December 2011

Thank you to all at Shakespeare And Company.

Badaude has done a lovely illustration in memory of George Whitman, which can be found here.

Walk The Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

BOOK REVIEW

“Not a hate about it. The land’ll be here long after we’re dead and gone.  Haven’t we only the lend of it?”

Martha told stories.  In fact, she was at her best with stories.  On those rare nights they saw her pluck things out of the air and break them open before their eyes.  […] her pale hands plucking unlikely stories like green plums that ripened with the telling at her hearth.

As Martha tells stories, so does Claire Keegan.  Each offering to the reader tales that appear simple, but reveal their complex core through the telling.  Her characters, while rich with earthiness, with belonging, are thick with longing for something else.

The Parting Gift is exemplary of this.  A beautiful, understated and perfectly formed tale of a girl leaving home to go to America.  The not uncommon difficulties surrounding going away are slowly revealed to have more pertinence, as home-life is revealed:

…And then that stopped and you were sent instead, to sleep with your father. […]  Then the terrible hand reaching down under the clothes to pull up the nightdress, the fingers strong from milking, finding you.

Terrible is the strongest word used.  The tale does not judge or criticise; it does not overdramatize.  As with all her stories, Keegan simply pens a picture, which as one gazes upon it, as one might a painting, reveals its details, eventually presenting a scenario of much deeper complexity than the original glimpse contained.  Written in the present tense and the second person singular you form, the story is unsettlingly close.   But at the same time, the protagonist is distantiated from the reader: a “you”, she is other, elsewhere, as she will soon be, arriving in Kennedy Airport at 12:25.  Although unspoken, knowledge of the father’s abuse is hinted at as her brother says he stayed at home to look after her.

I did, but I wasn’t much use was I, Sis?

His sister departing, he too glimpses the possibility: I’m giving up the land.  They can keep it.  The role of the land, so present in the Irish psyche, representing livelihood, duty and pride, is also a set of inescapable shackles, binding people to their paths forever writ.  Thus, Keegan writes off the possibility of change, the embrace between brother and sister at the airport, When his stubble grazes your face recalls the father’s embrace: the mandatory kiss at the end, stubble, and cigarettes on the breath. And so her brother will not leave, he will do as expected and son will become father.

You do not have to deliver the message.  You know he will put his boot down, be home before noon, have the meadows knocked long before dark.  After that there will be corn to cut.   Already the Winter Barley’s turning.  September will bring more work, old duties to the land.  Sheds to clean out.  Cattle to test, lime to spread, dung.  You know he will never leave the fields.

Again and again characters are bowed under by their duties to the land or community, to the power of a neighbour’s opinion.  And yet, each is also edged with a flicker of yearning, so that they enact their liberty in small unspoken ways.  In Walk the Blue Fields, the title story, the wedding the Priest is attending is in fact that of his former secret love, for: If he could not leave the priesthood, she would not see him this way again. Likewise one of Martha’s children was not conceived as assumed by her husband, but by a man who came to the door to sell her roses.  How strange and soft the salesman’s hands felt compared to Deegan’s.  One of the profoundest expressions of this is in that of a Grandmother, Marcie who is taken to the ocean by her husband for one hour.

Just as he was taking off, she jumped into the road and stopped the car.  Then she climbed in and spent the rest of her life with a man who would have gone home without her.

Keegan’s voice is singular.  She is often compared to John McGahern, indeed, one of the stories in this collection, Surrender, is after McGahern. There are obvious parallels to be found in two Irish writers who tell of Irish life, but where exactly they lie beyond the setting of rural Ireland is harder to explain.  Both writers capture with perceptive insight the workings, the thinking, the dreams and thoughts of Irish communities, but what perhaps relates them more is a mood; a subtle air that tinges the writing, like the angle of a breeze, the tint of the sky.  Something I have always admired in McGahern, the echo of which I find in Claire Keegan’s writing, is the capacity for still in a story, for instants of calm; often the gaze is drawn back from the specificity of a situation to look upon the sky, to gaze across a field.  Like a breath being drawn: simple, clear.

There is surely something in the Irish voice that is different.  The sense of belonging is coupled with one of exile.  So, I believe, is the voice.  There is a language so deep and undisturbed, an oral tradition almost integral to the people, that it seems to gurgle from the throat much as it might from the land itself.  And, there is something else, something that finds its most urgent expression in the writing of Beckett and Joyce, it is a difficulty in sitting comfortably in a language, a refusal of complacency.  Perhaps it seems nostalgic to see it thus, but there is something in the attribution of this sensitivity to the fact that the predominant written and spoken language in contemporary Ireland is English, the language of the colonisers.

Thus Claire Keegan writes, in a hefty literary and linguistic tradition, but stark, and sharp, striking out sentences like chords unveiling the both harrowing and life-affirming depths of her characters’ lives.

This review was published in The Short Review.

Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan
Published by Faber 2007.
ISBN: 9780571233076

Notes: On Forage, Mushrooms and the Noma Cookbook

PLEASE REFER TO LA BONNE BOUFFE FOR OLIVIA HEAL’S FOOD BLOG
We do not stop the world when we eat; 
we go into it a little more deeply.
Olafur Eliasson (Noma)


Cep
Allow me a paintbrush, a palette…a pile of artistic licence to tell of some friends of mine and their wild ways.  Boys they are, a huddle of them, bare’ approachable and and not easy to handle.  They can’t be tethered down and one won’t find them for looking.   But, one might come across them…
On the foreshore by night fighting the tide for a last Sea-bass; atop a tree, gathering Plums to pot a Pigeon in; plucking a Greylag large to feed a crowd.  Adventurous with tastes, unperturbed by roadkill, they’ll be smoking Mackerel in a filing-cabinet-cum-smoker; cooking Mullet in milk for fishcakes; stewing Cockles in a split can of cider on an open fire; barbecuing Samphire.  How very nineteenth century lyrical said a friend as I rhapsodised about baskets of Ceps, and indeed, these are the Huck Finn’s of today, the unassuming artistes of forage.
Dried Chanterelles
Last I called by, Muntjac was roasting in the oven, surfaces brimming with mushrooms gathered, some dried, a hoard: Shaggy Parasols; Chanterelles, orange and sweet-apricot-scented; something blue.  Another fellow appeared a basket in his hand large to gather wood, in it full – Penny-Buns, Ceps, plentiful as a baker’s.
We ate then Parasol:
The cap cut into long, thick strips, doused long in egg and salt and pepper breadcrumbs, fried quick and served slathered unashamedly in mayonnaise.  A dream.
Parasol Mushrooms in Bowl of Apples

The Ceps so plentiful I took some home.
This weekend, another scene: ‘midst fashionistas, florists and folklorists, stepping the streets of London town…  On gathering my basket and boots to return home, risen at dawn to the cockney cries of Columbia Road Flower Market, pressed into my hands was a copy of Noma, Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi.  I have long hankered after this book and was delighted to be given it.  (Thanks Laur!) It is indeed an extraordinary book, but with over half of the pages covered in photos worthy of the wall, it is not a manual.  The recipes themselves, so daunting that I’m glad I didn’t turn to it to cook my Ceps, relying instead on friendly advice and Elizabeth David (see below).
Indeed, I now understand that the book is less a cookbook and more a book to wander through, wonder at, that tells of the story behind the Michelin starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma.  No longer silent, secret, unassuming; at Noma forage is ostentatious, it’s an artform plucked or peacocking, it is the very edgiest of foodthinking, where food overlaps with artthought and critical theory.  But on closer inspection, I am also ready to bow to this.  Of René’s moment of illumination, he writes:
I realized that we had to exploit the seasons in a better way, so that you could only get a particular dish here and now.  We should explore the extremes of nature, seek out the thousand or more species of edible fungi, the many wild plants, roots and seashore plants. […] The guests dining at Noma should feel a sensation of time and place in their very bones.
Ingredients were thus combined not only with those of same season, but those of their natural habitat.  If venison was on the menu, the meat should be served with snails, pine shoots and mushrooms.  Thus recipes such as: Bouillon of Steamed Birchwood, Chanterelles and Fresh  Hazelnut; Stone Crab and Beach Mustard, Cockle Gel or simply Snails and Moss.  And abruptly, the nineteenth century lyricists and the uber modern restaurant look no longer askance upon one another, artistes the both.
Ceps
Not Ceps and Poached Truffle Meringue (à la Noma) but Cèpes à la Bordelaise (Elizabeth David) with Brown Rice Risotto.
In her French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David quotes the recipe of Alcide Bontou (refer to the book to read more).  I shall do likewise:
“Choose 12 firm cèpes, small rather than large, and with dark heads; remove the stalks and peel them, but only wipe the heads; make incisions on the underside of the heads with the point of a knife.  Put a glass of olive oil in a frying-pan; when it is hot, put in the heads of the cèpes; turn them over when they have browned on one side.  Season with salt and pepper.
Chop the stalks with four cloves of garlic and some parsley.  Throw this mixture over the cèpes.  Let them all sauter in the pan for 3 or 4 minutes.
You may add a tablespoon of soft white breadcrumbs.  Serve.”
I made a pseudo-risotto with Short Grain Brown Rice, butter, Shallots, Bay-Leaves, White Wine and Wighton, a local creamy but hard cheese.  And served the Ceps on top.  Divine.
Another great friend, longdeserving of a blog post dedicated to her green fingers, her inexhaustible creative energy and her kitchen concoctions, whose latest addition to the home is a goat in the back garden (soon I hope we’ll be on milk and cheese)… makes a Puffpall Pâté of such flavour it is also worthy of Michelin stars.
Puffball Pâté
I haven’t the exact recipe, and I rather doubt there is one.  Try:
Chop and very gently fry up Puffballs with Garlic and Cumin in Butter.  Blend the lot adding Salt and Pepper or a touch of Soy Sauce.  Spread on bread for a deeply mushroom flavour edged with garlic and cumin.  You could also try adding cream, cream-cheese.
If you do attempt this let me know!

Notes:
 -The Noma cookbook is indeed a gift, only on the verge of my foray into it, I hope to write more anon.
 -Writing at first light, I espy another forager: a grey squirrel feasting on the last of the overripe Bullace.

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (Peirene)

BOOK REVIEW

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.

Maybe This Time, by Alois Hotschnig.
Published by Peirene Press, London 2011.
ISBN: 978-0-9562840-5-1

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.

Simple French Cooking for English Homes by Xavier Marcel Boulestin

PLEASE REFER TO LA BONNE BOUFFE FOR OLIVIA HEAL’S FOOD BLOG

BOOK REVIEW

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.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (&Other Stories…)

BOOK (P)REVIEW

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’sSwimming 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.

(Deborah Levy, Dalkey Archive Press)

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 thenouveau-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.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Published by And Other Stories, 2011 (NYP)

ISBN: 978-1-908276-02-5

Tea and Saki

PLEASE REFER TO LA BONNE BOUFFE FOR OLIVIA HEAL’S FOOD BLOG
If one’s soul was really enslaved at one’s mistress’s feet, 
how could one talk coherently about weakened tea?

Stopping for tea, an afternoon last week… and tea it was, leaf-tea in cups and saucers, bread, butter and that blackcurrant jam, radishes and salt, à la façon française… recalled a story by Saki, entitled: Tea.

Proposing marriage, even to a nice girl like Joan, was a rather irksome business

But as James Cushat-Prinkly sets out one afternoon to fulfil his duty, he realises with distaste that his arrival coincides with the hour of afternoon tea.

Joan would be seated at a low table, spread with an array of silver kettles and cream-jugs and delicate porcelain tea-cups, behind which her voice would tinkle pleasantly in a series of little friendly questions about weak or strong tea, how much, if any, sugar, milk, cream and so-forth.

He takes a detour via a distant cousin Rhoda, who happens to be having a picnic-meal of bread and butter and caviare, red-pepper and lemon, and tea.  Based on this, and amusing conversation, Cushat-Prinkly’s marriage proposal is instantly transferred to this cousin.

Only to find, coming into the drawing-room, once married:

Rhoda was seated at a low table, behind a service of dainty porcelain and gleaming silver.  There was a pleasant tinkling note in her voice as she handed him a cup.  ‘You like it weaker than that, don’t you?  Shall I put some more hot water to it?’




Tea,  by Saki
In 76 Short Stories, Collins, London 1956

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.

Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (Peirene)

BOOK REVIEW

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.

Tomorrow Pamplona  by Jan van Mersbergen

Translated by Laura Watkinson

Peirene Press, London, 2011.

ISBN 9780956284044

Shorelines – Salon: Beside the Sea (Peirene)

I am still struck by my first reading of Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea: a steaming Sunday afternoon in a London backyard, breath barely drawn, eyes, edged with tears, clutching to the stark narrative.  Peirene Press’ adage is somewhat thus: “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single-sitting: Literary cinema for those fatigued by film.” (TLS) and Beside the Sea is exemplary.  One reads it in one breath, unwavering.  It is a tragedy.  Indeed it near’ obeys the three unities of Greek tragedy: time, place and plot. It is grim and yet so terribly beautiful that it stands also as a flawless work of art.

On Friday, two months on, I joined the novella’s translator, Adriana Hunter, in going to Shorelines, billed as the world’s first literature festival of the sea.  As the novella, with its gloomy imagery that subverts our notion of the seaside, so, blessed though we were with a sudden ray of sun, Southend-on-Sea, or the streets through which we drove, verged on the grim and our only glimpse of the sea, albeit wide and bluesparkling, was heavy with industrial edifice.

 The sea had lost all its colour, it wasn’t blue at all, it looked like a torrent of mud. It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered.

Solomon’s Pump House, a space named after an eighteenth century tenant farmer, who had built a well there, sat in Chalkwell Park, is a cultural haven, the home of Metal, association hosting cultural events and literary salons… the crowd was hip and diverse, indeed, despite being beside the sea, it felt a long way from preened North Norfolk!

The festival was introduced by Jude Kelly, artistic director at the Southbank Centre, and curated by the writers Rachel Lichtenstein and Lemm Sissay.  Festival inviting punters to dwell upon literature of the sea, and in the same step inviting investigation and interrogation into the role of water in our lives…   Rachel Lichtenstein mapped the literary-scape embraced by the festival and, citing The Tempest, Moby Dick, The Odyssey, she highlighted that the sea, considered a wild place, is a typically male terrain.  The literature of the sea thus tends towards male writers and male protagonists.  Thus, typical notions we might have of the sea were again subverted when she introduced Beside the Sea, written by a woman, translated by a woman, narrated by a mother.  A book in which: a mother’s love for her children is more dangerous than the dark world she protects them from.

Thence followed an intimate and anecdotal introduction to the book by Adriana Hunter.  We learnt that the original idea was spawned by a few lines glimpsed in the newspaper by the author, Véronique Olmi, telling of a mother who took her two boys to the sea, and there killed them.  Adriana discovered Bord de Mer when published in 2001, and, because of its length (uncommon at the time) and its difficult subject matter, she failed to find a publisher.  However, so determined was she to bring the book to an English audience that when offered a residency in The Villa Gilet, she persuaded them to let her use the time to translate the story.  However, it wasn’t until a rather turgid seminar in “marketing difficult books” during the London Book Fair in 2009 that she came across Meike Ziervogel, who was then setting up Peirene Press, and the two decided to publish Beside the Sea as the publishing house’s first book.  Risk which proved highly successful: the book was chosen by Nick Lezard as paperback of the week in the very week of publication.

What drove Adriana to persevere so long?  She was not only taken by the story, she explains, but particularly by the narrative voice of the book, I could hear her, see her.  The figure is not well-educated, nor does she have a fantastic vocabulary, but she manages to air some profound philosophical ideas.  Olmi wrote her literary fiction in an exploration of this mother’s act, not condemning, nor condoning it, but exploring both the emotions surrounding motherhood, and wider human anxieties as to being in the world.  Olmi is not justifying, nor explaining the event, Adriana points out, but exploring, and helping us to understand it.  This is what she believes the role of literature is:to help us to understand the human condition.

Petite, elfin, with a beautiful mouth stretching to smile on meeting, Lisa Dwan comes from county Athlone in the depths of Ireland.  The mouth is not immaterial, nor is her background:  Lisa is best known in the UK for her role in Samuel Beckett’s monologue, Not I, in which a disembodied Mouth, lit-up eight-foot above stage-level, performs an angst ridden monologue, a logorrhoea, an internal scream.

Although Bord de Mer was written and published as a novella, Olmi, dramatist and actress, has apparently also construed it as a dramatic monologue.  Written in the first person, present-tense the text gives itself fluently to theatre.  Lisa first performed Olmi/Hunter’s text, an abridged version of the novella, at the English launch of Beside the Sea, at the French Institute in 2010.  Tonight, sat on a chair beneath a spotlight, barely glancing at the sheets of paper in her hands, Lisa’s voice embodies this harrowing female character for a second time.

One cannot overestimate the heartstopping prowess of Lisa’a handling of the monologue, which commences with the mother’s words: We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.   Directly launching the spectator into the intimate directness of one woman’s terror before the world and before the responsibility that comes with motherhood.  As Lisa performs, the parallel with Not I becomes evident – When they were both asleep it was hard for me.  The talking started all of its own in my head, I hate that, thinking is a nasty piece of work.  Recalling the buzzing suffered by Mouth:  …yes…all the time the buzzing…so called…in the ears… though actually not in the ears at all…in the skull… dull roar in the skull…  Lisa wowed for her performance of Not I in under ten minutes at the Southbank centre, and yet it is not so much the speed that wows but the capturing of an expression, of a consciousness, in the mere mumblings of a mouth.  Likewise tonight Lisa stuns.  Sat on a chair she becomes, through her reading alone – such is the art of theatre – that mother, those two boys, in that brown hotel room.  Beckett is cited as saying of Mouth: I knew that woman in Ireland.  I knew who she was – not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.  So, we recognise the figure on stage, as much in peripheral figures of society as in our own core.

A brief pause, before the reading flits to the final passages:

I decided to start with the the little’un first.

The mother smothers her two boys with the hotel pillows. Despite the dramatic intensity, heightened by Lisa’s rendition, the narrative is so tight, so engaged with the mother’s seeming detachment during the infanticide, that only with the poignant final paragraph does the act hit home:

I had two dead children. And them?  What did they have? 

I looked at them and I saw.  I saw something I’d never thought of, something I’d never imagined ever: Kevin’s face was turned towards the wall, and Stan’s towards the window.  They had their backs to each other.  They weren’t together, no, each had gone his separate way.  They weren’t joined together in death, they’d lost each other there.

And I screamed.

Applause for Lisa’s apposite performance was muted as the reading hit hard, and the audience left the auditorium stunned.  The trial for the panel, made-up of Rachel, Adriana and Lisa, was thus:  to put words to something that knocks words out of us, to give sense to an experience so terrible (and let me use the word here in the French sense for something both terrifying and beautiful) and yet not alien to any one of us.

Rachel launched the discussion, questioning what exactly made the book so powerful.  It is an act of love.  Lisa’s response, despite being hard to grapple, is pertinent; this terrible killing is an act of love.  She takes her own fear of the world to its logical conclusion, Adriana elucidated.   Indeed, unable to cope in the world, these boys she is supposed to protect will be less able to cope, she thus ends their time in this world.  The reader is helpless, we are all so helpless in it, the narrative builds to the inevitable and yet shocking conclusion, obliging us to engage with and comprehend the final act.  Both actress and translator have dwelt with and in the text, and they respond to it with empathy, both are quick to concur with Olmi that the book should not be pigeon-holed as a story about mental-illness.  It is an expression of humanity, which in this case finds its form in motherhood, and incites a core of sympathy, in the simple innocence of wanting to take her children to the sea invoking in each of us times when we have wanted to do something that has not turned out as planned.   Any of us can fall through these cracks, it shows us our own fragility.

The discussion was then opened to the floor.  At first tentative, hands started rising, rapidly to question further both translator and actress’s relationships to the work, and the work’s pertinence in the society in which we live.  A surprising number of male voices were heard (a community that one might have imagined exiled from the discussion, so founded as the novel is on motherhood) offering commentary on the role of the media, the notion of moral as well as how the book reflected on the situation of children in a similar situation.

Need I say that discussion continued unabated as Adriana and I were obliged to set off back to Norfolk.  The literary Salon was indeed a punch-packing inauguration of what looks set to be an extraordinary literary festival, and I was only too sorry not to be able to stay for the whole weekend.

Beside the Sea, Veronique Olmi
Translated by Adriana Hunter
Published by Peirene Press, London 2010.
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.

Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden

BOOK REVIEW

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

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.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/ben_macintyre/article6987063.ece

‘Auschwitz asks Britain for help to preserve decaying death camp’, by Roger Boyes, The Times January 13th
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6985570.ece

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

BOOK REVIEW

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

Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz

BOOK REVIEW
 
 

“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

Winter Roots and Spring Shoots

ARTICLE

WINTER ROOTS

Wearied of frostbitten greens, sprouts and mincemeat, pickles and preserves, the temptation is to plunge, without a glance backward, into the onset of Spring.  I would first like to offer one last eulogy to winter vegetables, to three of the less common and more remarkable tubers, hoarded in the dank depths of the vegetable underworld.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE, OCA and SALSIFY
These, beside their ruddy counterparts, are the rockstars of the roots: sultry, elegant, with extravagant tastes, ebullient spirits…  But this isn’t about their looks.  Stubby, grubby and hairy, they are the sweetest, the most delicate flavoured, most exotic of the roots.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKEHelianthus tuberosus
Towering eight-feet-high in triffid-esque arrogance, the stalks nodding with yellow flowerheads at the height of Summer, the Jerusalem Artichoke, also known as the Sunchoke, is related to the Sunflower.  Indeed, the name Jerusalem is thought to come from a confusion with the original name, originating in Peru, the Girasol. They are one of the most labour-free plants to grow, and if a few tubers are left in the ground when harvesting, will provide a crop the following year.  Unfortunately, the Jerusalem Artichoke is famed for being the cause of foul wind and tortuous flatulence – I have yet to hear of a sure-fire remedy.  But their sweet, delicate flavour, reminiscent of artichokes, keeps me growing and eating them.  As for the baneful after-effects I have a couple of suggestions.  Don’t eat Jerusalem Artichokes in large quantities and try and combine them with herbs and spices that ease digestion such as fennel, bay and cumin.  I also take the time to first peel and blanche the vegetables in acidulated water (add vinegar or lemon-juice), which is then discarded, in an attempt to lessen the effects. 
You can roast, soup and mash Jerusalem artichokes, or eat them raw as, somewhat surprisingly, you can most roots… Their reputation has taken a recent upturn and they are to be found, in the form of diaphanous Soufflés and Veloutés, in the very highest realms of haute cuisine.
Jerusalem Artichoke Purée
Purée Jerusalem Artichokes for a jazzed-up variation on mashed potatoes.  Peel, then boil in acidulated water with a potato.  When beginning to fall apart, drain and blend with butter and black pepper.
Jerusalem Artichoke Salad
For the sassiest raw Winter salad.  Slice very thinly, cover immediately with lemon juice to prevent discolouring.  Add walnut oil and toss with toasted walnuts.  Sprinkle with chives or an available green.
SALSIFY- Tragopogon porrifolius
Salsify, or Scorzanera – the two varieties vary only slightly – can be planted in Autumn for a Winter harvest.  A showering grass-like fountain above ground, Salsify tapers to a long hairy root.  It is related to the Jerusalem Artichoke but, fortunately, did not inherit the side effects.  Its taste is light and difficult to define, somewhere between oysters, chestnut and coconut.  It can be put in gratin, and the Irish chef Dennis Cotter, of Café Paradiso renown, braises it with star anise…  I think, as with all these delicate roots, it’s best as it is.
Salsify as it is
Boil unpeeled for twenty to thirty minutes in acidulated water (it exudes a sticky, milky sap and discolours).  Once cooked slip off the skin and add a squeeze of lemon juice or Umeboshi seasoning for a breathtaking combination.  A nut-oil or a knob of butter gives a gentler flavour.  Serve warm with salt and pepper to taste. 
OCA – Oxalis tuberosa
Oca, long unknown, has likewise recently hit the headlines of haute cuisine.  The tubers are planted like potatoes in Spring and grow slowly to be harvested in the depths of Winter.  A shrub of shamrock shaped leaves and pretty yellow flowers, it originates in Latin America.  The leaves and flowers are edible and make pretty additions to Summer salads, but the plant is high in oxalic-acid so beware of gorging!
Oca on the table
Like a lemon-scented new potato in the depths of December, the tuber is a welcome addition to the Winter table.  Serve as new potatoes for that Summer zing, roast in their skins with garlic and rosemary for a taste of Italy, or cook up with cinnamon, ground ginger and orange rind for a festive feel.
SPRING SHOOTS
NETTLE, SORREL, DANDELION and SEA BEET
The lengthening days herald Spring and the first new shoots.  Young, green, tender, these first greens are the best to be had.  Purging and purifying after the heavy winter vittles, their appearance, like that of the first blossom, is joy!   Surely the best way to salute the arrival of these greens is to gather a handful of each and, keeping the Nettles aside, to throw them together as a bright salad.  Chop up the Nettles very finely to break the stinging needles, mix with garlic, olive oil and vinegar, for a simple Nettle vinaigrette to pour over the salad. 
NETTLE – Urtica dioica
High in protein, Iron and Vitamin C, Nettles are a sturdy and popular spring green.    They appear early, and their young tops are the best parts to use.  As well as eating them fresh, they can be picked and dried for teas or frozen as greens for stir-frys, tarts and soups.
Nettle Pesto
Chop 500g fresh Nettles finely.  Add to this 250g of Pine nuts toasted and crushed (lay in a tea towel and roll over with a rolling pin), the same of coarsely grated parmesan, a lot of finely chopped garlic (for garlic lovers as much as a whole head) and coarse sea-salt to taste.   Mix lightly with a favourite olive oil, until it reaches a chunky, thick consistency.    Serve the pesto with pasta, spread on bread, add to courgette soup.  Freeze or pot and pasteurise.
The recipe can be done with a blender, but the oil tends to emulsify and create a brown sludge.  Chopping all the ingredients separately by hand creates a vibrant green pesto of myriad textures. 
Vegans can replace the parmesan with sunflower seeds.
Those nettle-venturers who are not yet convinced aficionados might want to supplement half the nettles with a more docile green, such as rocket, basil or sorrel…
SORREL – Rumex acetosa
One of my favourite wild greens, Common Sorrel is much like French Sorrel in appearance and flavour.  It is perennial and grows vivaciously all over the UK and Ireland.  A Rumex, it is related to the dreaded dock, and forms a similar seed-head in Summer.  Like Oca, it is high in oxalic acid, giving it a sour, lemony bite.  The wild version is much stronger in taste than the French, cultivated variety.  Like all the other greens it can be eaten raw in salad, chopped into a vinaigrette, wilted, steamed or stir fryed – although the flavour remains good when cooked, it does lose its emerald green colour to become a sludgy khaki.  If you don’t mind the colour, then just use sorrel in the following recipe for a really sharp flavour, otherwise mix sorrel with other greens, such as young spinach or sea-beet.
Sorrel tart
On a blind-baked pastry case layer buttered softened onions, wilted sorrel and chunks of blue cheese. (In Norfolk Mrs Temple’s “Binham Blue” is a particularly good local alternative to Stilton).  Whisk 4 eggs (duck eggs are very good in this wild and rich tart), mix with a small pot of Crème Fraiche and a dollop of milk.  Pour the egg mix up to the edges of the tart and cook for about twenty to thirty minutes at 180C, or until the egg is cooked.  The quiche should be starting to brown on top and risen in the middle.
DANDELION – Taraxacum officianalis
The name comes from the French “dents-de-lion” (lion’s teeth) due to the toothed leaves.  The French actually call the plant “pissenlit” (wet-the-bed), as it is a well-known diuretic.  As well as a diuretic, Dandelion is a versatile detox.  In tea or tincture it is good for the liver and kidneys, as well as for the bladder and it is used by those suffering from anaemia.  It can be eaten raw, picked green or blanched (grown in the dark – easy to do at home, under a bucket, as rhubarb, endive…), and again, stir-fryed, steamed, added to soups, casseroles or stir-frys.
A favourite memory of feasting on dandelions was in France, where they are quite a common form of sustenance.  As the first swallows sailed in to announce Spring we picked great handfuls of dandelions and served them as they were, the leaves and the flowers, bathed in vinaigrette, tossed only with a few compulsory lardons and a baguette, spread on a table in the sun on the side of a village road.
  
Dandelion Salad
Use the youngest and most vibrant dandelion leaves.  Cut out the stalks of any larger ones as they can be bitter.  Toss in vinaigrette.  Add lardons if desired.  Finish with a mass of flowerheads.  Serve when the swallows arrive for a glorious sun-shone spring salad.
SEA BEET – Beta vulgaris
Growing on the edge of the marshes, and along the coast, Sea Beet is a staple spring green.  Recognised by its thick, fleshy leaves, shaped as arrowheads in a rosette, it can grow into a large shrub.  Although it is apparent year round, in Spring it provides an early source of substantial greens.  It has a good texture and rich flavour and is used like spinach in a variety of recipes.   Blanche it, steam it, stir fry, wilt or fill tarts with it.  Or serve with fish or shellfish to continue the coastal theme.
Stir-fryed Sea-Beet.
Stir fry young sea-beet leaves with onions, garlic and caraway seeds in olive oil.  At the last minute douse with Tamari and Balsamic Vinegar.  Serve on its own or on the top of Puy Lentils with a spoonful of yogurt.


This article was published in Permaculture Magazine, (PM 67 Spring 2011).

The Art of Lacto-fermentation

It first occurred with samphire.  This only-locally-known marshplucked food became haute-cuisine overnight. In fact, timbales lain with samphire sprigs in chic London restaurants are now so commonplace they are nearly passé.  Then nettles: not just in soups, but in gnocchi, in vinaigrettes, and before long, the likes of sautéed foie-gras and roasted veal sweetbreads were being served on a bed of wilted Dorset nettles.  Then game: woodcock on toast, head still on, beak spiking through body, became the sexiest starter.  Now, with the latest rustic DIY trends, nudging into foodspeak is lacto-fermentation.  It may sound horribly Heston Blumenthal, but lacto-fermentation is not only simple, but a highly nutritious, tasty, ethical and low-energy way of preserving vegetables and dealing with autumnal garden gluts.
Fermentation heralds from ancient traditions the world over, and, used in the production of alcohols, sourdoughs, yogurts, cheeses, miso and a host of lesser known foods, it remains a fairly common part of our everyday diet.  As to the lacto-fermentation of vegetables, it is best-known in Europe in the too-often-dismissed form of sauerkraut.  Before you turn your gaze away in festering disgust, I beg you to look again on this sour cabbage, which has too long mouldered in the cupboards of pungent Northern European cuisine. Today, nutritionally, ethically and ecologically, lacto-fermentation is proving to be the edgiest in food thinking. 
Lacto-fermentation preserves vegetables in an environment of living cultures.  These good bacteria are known as lactobacilli, they break the vegetables’ nutrients into more digestible forms, thus facilitating their assimilation, remove toxins and increase (yup!) vitamin levels, all whilst conserving the vegetables in a raw state.  And, you can try this at home!
The lacto-fermenters of this world suggest that a diet in which everything is bacteria free and pasteurised starves our intestinal flora of the necessary nourishment, making us more susceptible to disease.  Acknowledging that certain bacteria are very important for the functioning of the immune system and also provide competition for heavier, more potent bacteria, we can begin to dispel these current hygiene frenzy myths.  Indeed, barrels of sauerkraut onboard ships saved sailors from the recurrent sea-disease, scurvy.  And, the process of lacto-fermentation, as opposed to pickling and pasteurizing, by using living cultures keeps vegetables crunchy, sharp and alive over the winter months.  What offers more delight than, in deep winter when barely a leek is standing in the garden, levering the lid of one of your fermented pots to let the smell of sparky summer vegetables pervade the room.
When fermenting, I refer to two excellent writers, perfect opposites, they are perfect complements.  The first is highly practical Scandinavian Annelies Schöneck, hers is a deep technical knowledge, and she tends to offer an introduction reminiscent of science lessons, followed by step by step fermentation recipes.  She has at least a couple of books that have been translated into English: Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home: Creative Recipes for LacticFermented Food to improve your health and The cultured cabbage.  Vaguely retro, you might just spot their faded covers on the bookshelves of your local charity shop.
At the other extreme is a startling book by Sandor Ellix Katz, called Wild Fermentation.  Quite as wild as the title suggests, Katz 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; his book outlines how “we can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators”.  Wild Fermentation is an extraordinary, lucid food process, a recipe book which is less about quantities and ingredients, but about concepts, methods and practice. 
Katz’s lesson is important, that the consumption of live foods offers a spiritual and practical interaction, interdependence and interconnection with the surrounding life forces.  Lacto-fermentation shifts the food process from the near passive consuming of long dead food, to a creative, transformative action, from one of decomposition and decay to one of life, reproduction and transformation.
On a more practical level, lacto-fermentation manages to preserve vegetables without the use of freezers, canners, without pasteurizing or heating, simply by placing them in conditions that encourage the production of lactic-acid bacteria (lactobacilli), this natural preservative that inhibits the production of other bacteria.  These conditions are Anaerobic and demand Pressure, a Catalyst and Salt.  As with all food, the best results will be obtained with the best ingredients, so a wild sea-salt (such as Sel de Guérande) a pure unfiltered water or natural spring water and of course the freshest vegetables. 
The catalyst is usually already present in vegetables, for example in the organisms on the cabbage leaves.  However, to ensure a good outcome, I tend to use a supplementary catalyst.  This can be blackcurrant (or gooseberry, raspberry or similar) leaves, which are high in lactic acid bacteria, and have their own sweet, subtle yet unmistakeable flavour.   Whey can also be used, I make it straining yogurt or separating milk.
Although there are beautiful ceramic crocks made for the purpose, with a water airlock system, these are expensive (keep an eye open in flea markets).  Kilner jars are likewise good fermentation apparatus, and can be found cheap on markets, however, do get hold of new rubber seals…
Otherwise, a bucket will do.
For a one gallon bucket of sauerkraut:
Roughly 5lb cabbage, 3tbsp sea salt, ¼ pt whey and/or 12 blackcurrant leaves.
Chop or grate cabbage.  Pack it into bucket layering it with salt, blackcurrant leaves or whey and other ingredients of your choosing (chopped apples, turnip, horseradish, rocket, caraway seeds, juniper…), pushing down with your fists, kitchen implement or feet as you go.  This (pressure) and the salt will help force water from cabbage, to create the brine in which the cabbage will ferment.  Once bucket is full put a snugly fitting plate on top and weigh it down with a clean weight (i.e. a large stone you have washed).  Cover the whole thing with a cloth.  Leave for three or so days at warmish room temperature to get fermentation going, then move to cooler place and allow to ferment slowly.  Don’t be afraid to check on it regularly, touching, tasting, noticing changes in consistency… mould may appear on the top, scrape it off, the kraut underneath will be fine, the white substance is lactobacilli… Leave at least three weeks, before digging in… Sauerkraut improves with age! 
For a jar of lacto-fermented French beans:
Chop young French beans (roughly 1lb) and push into jar (1 pt), layering with salt (1/2tbsp), blackcurrant leaves (or spoonful of whey) and flavourings of choice (onion, garlic, dill heads, mustard seed, tomatoes…)  Put on pressure and add more beans until jar is full and can take no more, cover with water, pressure again and fix lid.  3 days room temp, might start bubbling, then move to cool dark place for at least three weeks.  Store until needed, open and enjoy!
Other vegetables
This recipe for beans will suit most vegetables, some (such as cabbage, beetroot) will produce their own liquid under pressure, and you probably won’t need to add any water.  Always make sure the top layer of vegetables remains under the water, you can use a weight of sorts, as this creates the necessary anaerobic conditions.  The amount of salt will affect the speed of fermentation and the length of time the vegetables will remain preserved for, I estimate between ½ – 1 tbsp per pint jar of vegetables.
Lacto-fermentation is experimental, success or failure is bound up in a symphony of tiny details.  A serious stench will warn you if things have gone bad.  Keep an eye on the developments, test according to your singular tastes, and this curiosity will in its turn allow you to adventure further… Once you have the basics you can experiment, last summer, as well as the staple sauerkrauts and French beans, we had buckets of cucumbers bubbling all over, a pile of delicious carrot kimchi (using chillies, ginger and spices), jars of broad beans (ours were foul, as was our kale!), lacto-fermented beetroot, courgettes, seaweed…
Serve these bright crunchy veggies simply with rice, mix into a potato salad, for breakfast with kippers, amuse-bouche or as a tangy side. You can use the remaining juice as a starter for your next batch of lacto-fermented veggies, or drink it for a serious health-boost. 
Fermentation is not only a highly practical skill in this peak-oil era, but is a domain for the curious and those keen to approach food in a more ethical manner.  Encouraging a slight deviation in one’s mindset one can begin to experiment with what is growing around us, our climate and living conditions.  So, why not reconsider that sour cabbage and join in this latest food frenzy!
“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.”
Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation

This article featured in Permaculture Magazine, (PM 64 Summer 2010)
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003 ISBN: 9781931498234
For online information and fermentation troubleshooting, see Sandor Ellix Katz’s wild fermentation website: www.wildfermentation.com 
The sauerkraut recipe I give here is adapted from his online recipe and my own experience.

The Roly-Polys by Monique Wittig

TRANSLATION

The inhabitants of this town have the propensity to think themselves the centre of the world and that everyone has their eyes trained upon them. They are of the sort that encourages each and every person to quickly curl up in a ball in the name of the body’s ideal state, of which all its contours show a tendency towards rolling up: the roundness of the shoulders, the rotundity of the buttocks, the head, the curve of the back. Obligatory rolling-up is thus the order of the day – what  they call roly-polying – and which is done with the most ease in the world by staring at one’s belly button. It is indeed true that in this position, when the face is at the level of the belly button and remains stuck there, the legs tend to rise up over the head and fold themselves back again. One couldn’t really call it comfortable, but since we’re talking about an ideal state no one complains. Those who walk on their feet cross themselves now and salute one another as if they were the sole survivors of a disaster. The followers of rotundity propagate. They head towards the carnival in a prodigious tumult, producing a chant of victory, with an assuredly slow rhythm, which is heard in bursts as the heads disengage in the descending movement of the Roly-Polys. Ah, what a marvellous sight, all those small and large bottoms that show themselves in the air whilst the tumbling movement hides the face between the legs. Pubic tendrils develop, some reach all the way to the ground. Hair falls loose. Mouths shrivel up. They begin to eat directly through the anus. Never before in any carnival have such delightful figures been seen.

Originally published as ‘Les mises en boule’ in Paris-la-politique et autres histoires (P.O.L. Paris 1999.) This translation appeared in Chroma Journal, Issue 7, Summer 2008.

A Call to Madness by Monique Wittig

TRANSLATION

Raving has become reason, madness the norm. With sheer inconsideration for those poor creatures often put away for life because of it, the proclamation is heard on all public squares: Long live hysteria. And the people could not be happier; obliged to immediately fall into convulsions, delirious outbursts, to tremble, lash out on all sides, howl, roar, tear out one’s hair, grind one’s teeth, clench one’s fists, drool, foam at the mouth, gaze around with wild eyes, jerk one’s arms, stamp one’s feet, choke, roll around on the ground and… (I won’t go on). Any unfortunate passer-by is set upon, summoned to loosen their chains, get over themselves, abandon their aloofness. Their bad luck if they refuse. The people are quick to drag them to one side, where they have their methods to titillate the nerves. Although they use no physical violence to do this, the passer-by is soon seen to leap from between their hands, to rage onwards, yelling their fury. So they get what they wanted: to blow one’s top is proof that one cannot escape the empire of madness.

Originally published as ‘Les appels à la folie’ in Paris-la-politique et autres histoires (P.O.L. Paris 1999.) This translation appeared in Chroma Journal, Issue 7, Summer 2008.

Catching Darkness by Nicole Brossard

TRANSLATION

“The dark suspends everything. There is nothing that can, in the dark, become true.” Alessandro Barrico

I often look at the time on my watch. There, in the dial’s deep luminous reaches, I happen upon the reflection of my eyes. Yesterday something slid into my thoughts that has changed the course of time in such a way that I, for a reason that remains unknown to me, want to write a book, slowly, in a language that is not my own. A way of avoiding shortcuts in my mother tongue, or perhaps also of taking flight. Like a stranger, I want to plunge into the landscape of a provisional world where meaning repels meaning along the steps of my path. I also write this book so as not to be gentle and to see the horizon approach in flames.

I am everywhere that I am. I am here to understand and to elude. I have posed a distance between my mother tongue and reality. I courageously try to imagine how pleasures and joys, fears and frights construct themselves in an unfamiliar language. I try above all to understand how, with a vertical body, it is possible to impale reality at the same speed as fiction. Then I let that gentle, ever gentle immensity heave its blue of Nordic melancholy onto my shoulders, without collapsing.

Around me the vast kingdom of time-flown-by forces me to coexist with words unknown and so harsh that I hesitate to articulate them; to speak that which one shelters, is to devour cold the narrative of our sincere lives.

I constantly strain to cast life, luminous and fascinating bait, before me, then I rest still for days, amidst words and tombs of high night. This forces me, this urgent, vertiginous time, to listen to what I call a maelstrom of dizziness grammar as a bottomless pit. That’s the way it is.

I will do what I must to understand, yet I will have to simplify down to the bone, to flaunt the darkness, embrace it, carve open its soul, in broad daylight, if I must.

Many before me have chosen to write in a language other than the one given to them in childhood. Each held by the wind, suspended above a fecund void, neither distanced nor returned to the land of the young child, vivid, vital, thirsting to name everything. The world is always ready to dress itself in our joys and our wounds to adorn its surroundings. This world is perhaps nameless, unwritten, just swallowed along the reel of time by a finite number of dawns and twilights parched of languor and reason.

The years have gone by and never have I felt the sombre settle into my day-to-day acts. Nothing in the depths of my thoughts suggested a darkening that was not isolated and minor. Then one day, scarcely visible in the landscape, a small mark of something nascent in the form of an amoeba, a dimming of the houses, the trees, of passers-by, women and their children. A feeling of threat and tenderness reunited, as when compiling a biography, or if holding the hand of someone you don’t know. There is a blackness on the horizon, a surface that does not reflect light, a lifeless surface that flies out from the expanse into the volume of life as precious as the arms of a child, as the leaves of tall crimped trees, as the turquoise surface of the water at the foot of glaciers. In my language I have exhausted the vocabulary that would have permitted me to name this intriguing black that approaches: raven, raptor, feline, black of volcanic sand, of marble, of ink and soot, of leather, of cassock, of niqab, chador and of charred corpse. Now I am in need of other words for this darkness, born of nature and civilisation, which draws nearer.

I do still, when travelling, dream, but with smaller and smaller images, difficult to stake out, like miniatures composed of an incalculable number of unreadable letters, assembled on a flimsy surface as if a world were on the point of wiping itself out, but a world whose disappearance is unthinkable.

I am everywhere that I am. Today, a lot of words take flame in my dreams that do not relieve me from my mother tongue, nor from the other that is already at work, I know, to transform my thoughts, to make me more sombre than I am.

Something silent passes through me when I imagine the foreign language. Like that day when I arranged to meet a girlfriend in a restaurant where the meal was served and eaten in utter darkness. Closing ones’ eyes or opening them made no difference. Each of our words, each of our gestures drowned in an opaque and nameless black that I qualified all the same as friendly as this black staged a new invention of space apt to renew the familiar reference points. A black that held no terror, it was part of a universe that had until now eluded my sensory experience. As with everyone, I had become accustomed to the half-light of cities and believed it offered a joyful alternative to night. That day I had to learn to breathe deeply, to break down those little barriers of resistance which, habitually, shorten my breath and turn me into a creature puffing with longing and anguish.

No one searches for darkness, nor likes to see the weather shadow over. I know nothing of the black. It is here, sudden, like a feline that takes its place in daily superstitions. It is now up to me to go to it, to approach and probe its soul with the invisible part of mine that, since yesterday, has begun to take on a life in a foreign language.

‘Catching Darkness’ is an extract from La Capture du Sombre, by Nicole Brossard novel published 2007. Extract translated from the French by Olivia Heal.

This translation appeared in Chroma Journal, Summer 2007.

Hunger – a response.

In Harry Johnstone’s article, Hunger is presented as a moral dilemma, a dilemma at once contemporary and ancient, one of myriad shapes and inextricable causes. Indeed, Hunger is donned a persuasive personality, polymorphous, it is seemingly godlike, in-conquerable, infallible, immortal…

Johnstone aptly finds fault with a number of methods proposed to flay the beast: he picks apart the arguments of a number of theorists, vilifies the current leftist thinking, questions where on earth to start… his points are valid, and valuable, but he fails to propose his own theory, neither as to cause nor solution, and in its absence lies a hollow account, reeking more of resignation than resolution.

In the article Johnstone fails to engage with the role the West has in perpetrating hunger, as well as glossing over the link between the agricultural industry and food insecurity, both factors I consider fundamental as to the roots of hunger the world over. I believe that there are solutions to world hunger, but that these solutions dramatically jeopardise our own lifestyle, and we therefore refuse to consider them.

It is very easy to be self-righteous. Mine is a gut response to Johnstone’s article, which stems from the conviction that we are the perpetrators of hunger. I am convinced of our own hypocrisy, not just that of our government, not just the big players, but our own – yours, mine. It is sad to acknowledge our own error, and yet even in acknowledging this, yup, acknowledging this, the smug smile is still shaping on my face, for acknowledging my own error, mine and yours, I am in the “know”…

On debilitation:

The ‘trap’ of hunger and poverty means most of these people have to undergo an enormous struggle to break from this cycle of perpetual hunger. If they are severely undernourished, their cognitive and physical capacity is affected, making it much harder for them to develop the skills needed to overcome hunger. Almost every factor confronts these people: their natural environment, their social and political environments, and the economic structures functioning around them. Their struggle becomes one of mental endurance as well as sustenance.

I fear this “trap” is of our own making.

The notion that “these people” could ever possibly overcome this hunger seems to me implausible, implausible, for example, as the notion of their overcoming Western supremacy, implausible as long as we in the West continue to live as we do. As long as the capitalist/consumerist world governs our lifestyle, as long as we continue to abide by its ways, as long as we continue to over-consume, to buy cheap food, cheap clothes, to import from abroad, to fly and to drive… basically, as long as we continue to live unsustainably, depleting world resources… As long as we, in the West, define our greed as “need” and demand that all food be cheap and that all food be available all year round, as long as we remain totally out of touch with the food and agricultural industries, we are contributing to food insecurity in the poorer countries.

As an early parenthesis, it is interesting to note that our own food security is less sure/secure than we suppose. It has become apparent that it is in fact an utter myth, we are totally dependent on imports from these same countries, imports and also/thus oil, a non-renewable. Food insecurity is worldwide.

Until we ourselves are self-sufficient, community-sufficient, truly in-dependent of the poorer and coincidentally food insecure countries, these countries will be dependent on our “aid”, and (interestingly) the people of these countries will thus (through same dependence) remain dis-empowered. We can thus recognise the flaws in the kindly-meant notion of “capacity-building”, this supposed “enabling”/“empowering” is never quite strong enough to overrule the disabling/dis-empowering taking place at the same time, meaning that these people are never able to develop the skills needed to overcome hunger.

Hypocrisy: our open-handed gesture of aid follows on neatly from a back-handed one of debilitation. The cycle continues.

Something in it rather reminds me of the farming industry in the UK – a topic I am considering at present. A farmer turns and tills and ploughs and reaps and starves his soil over years, until today the soil is dead, bereft of any nutrients, of any lifeform. So, the farmer fertilises his soil (with potash, nitrogen and phosphorus, from fossil fuels btw) and the cycle continues. Were the farmer to farm holistically, to look after his soil in the first place, the soil would remain alive and be able to provide its own potash, nitrogen and phosphorus, creating a sustainable ecosystem within the fields. Instead he causes the destruction with one hand and with the other seeks to fix it.

It is important to recognise the profound connect between the modernisation of the agricultural industry and the rise in food insecurity. It was thought that the modernisation, industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture would provide more access and availability of food worldwide. However, we failed to consider the secondary effects – the social, health and environmental consequences of this industrialisation. In particular the impoverishment of the same landscape we depend upon to grow food and provide nutrition.

[To go down the route of genetic engineering in a hope to provide more food for more people would not only further the disconnect between people and planet/palate but risk even more severe secondary affects… must we trundle on repeating our mistakes? It is too late to alter the roots of this hunger? As Johnstone himself asks: do we really want to?]

As a pertinent aside let me sum up the points made in Timothy Wise’s article ‘The True Cost of Cheap Food’, which I have been reading alongside Johnstone’s:

The demand for cheap food has impoverished farmers all over the world, rid them of an income, impeded them from investing in their own farmland, put them out of work. The globalised food trade has meant that countries have stopped producing their own food because they can source it cheaper elsewhere, this creates enormous food dependency, and in turn food insecurity. When prices rise and supplies are short > food crisis. i.e .what happened in the Phillipines: no longer producing enough rice to feed own population, unable to source it because governments of other countries concerned with feeding their own first = food crisis. On top of all this, globalisation of trade brings with it globalised market failure.

Wise does not offer theory, but facts, and to my mind, by offering an understanding of the situation and the role we play as collaborators, he also offers us a means to change the situation. (This is what I understand by empowerment!)

On balance:

Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, and our race has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?

In the pre-pre-globalised world, in a time long past, population was dependent on resources. In each locality, settled, separate, independent and unmoving as it was, the population was a part of the ecosystem, working with it, in times of abundance the population grew, of scarcity, the population diminished. In many places it seems the population remained steady over very long periods of time.

And in those where the population grew inproportionately, too often alongside technology, the civilisation collapsed (Mayan collapse hypothesis etc). Trade, technology and the globalised world have yet again shifted this balance, it has gone skewy.

If populations were still contained, if food were a merely localised entity, the ratio of food to population would be and would remain coherent. Today, existing on a massive, indeed global scale in multiple forms, the food industry, like hunger appears to have taken on a life of its own. It is an issue that Johnstone appears to highlight, one cannot grasp Hunger, nor its causes, the theories are as numerous as they are cerebral. Yet, until the question is palpable, grasp-able and practical it is un-solvable. It is my opinion that agriculture and food have to be returned to a practical and practicable, local level before the question can be grasped. To do this, before imposing it elsewhere, we have to call into question our own practices.

On moral:

Our political, economic and ethical systems incentivise technological development and individual wealth over genuine human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century.

Referring to “the systems of thought that underpin our political, economic and ethical systems” Johnstone is speaking abstractly. But, I sense a nuance of something emerging, a nuance of something angry and idealist, is he perhaps blaming the thought-structure of the Capitalist system?

I am convinced that hunger, in its myriad forms, is the result of our own blind greed. Were it to be plotted on a graph, I am sure there would be a direct correlation between obesity in the developed world and malnutrition in the developing. [Not to ignore that hunger is present in the developed world as the developing]. Are we that ignorant to not realise that by participating in the food industry as it is we are collaborating in world hunger? We ease our moral conscience with gimmicky good deeds, we smile self-righteously, we totally ignore that we – you, me, are the cause. We go as far (for example) as persuading ourselves that by eating Kenyan green beans we are providing employment for Kenyans, it is therefore morally correct. I am not convinced. This attitude does not reflect the multiple and intricate effects of this sort of detached consuming – the workload, the treatment, the minimal wage of the Kenyan bean-grower; the environmental effect of the pesticides and fertilisers used – loss of topsoil, erosion of landscape, poisoning of air and rivers (fortunately not in our back garden); not to mention the effect of these hazardous products on the workers themselves; the carbon footprint of farming, fertilising, packaging, importing, chilling the beans… We choose to be ignorant, it is so much more comfortable.

If the West were to release their hold, if they were to relax their control, if the West were to let go of their power… Inconceivable, and, as with Iraq, Afghanistan, it’s too late, we’re implicated, we’re in too deep. But that is how I see the situation, to tell the truth, right now I see development as a total farce, a psychology of power employed by the West to keep what it wants for itself and to keep those in poorer countries providing for us, impoverished and dependent on our aid – not unlike the days of the immensely rich and powerful Church attended by the poor.

I find our methods to put an end to hunger unconvincing. Until we as a group of united nations consider how much we really want justice and equity, how much we are willing to forsake, the wealth/lifestyle distinction between “us” and “them” will remain, and hunger will persist.

The information quoted is taken from Harry Johnstone’s article.
‘Hunger’ by Harry Johnstone is published on allAfrica.com
http://allafrica.com/stories/201008231073.html

‘The True Cost of Cheap Food’ by Timothy A. Wise appeared in Resurgence Magazine no.259 March/April 2010.