I’m writing this blog via the dictaphone on my iPhone – who knew there were such things! It reminds me of my days as a young solicitor when I dictated everything that my secretary then typed up – those were the days! I’m out of practice and find it disconcerting ordering my thoughts in this way. So my comments on the books that I’ve been reading over recent days will be briefer than normal.
Things I Don’t Want To Know, The Cost of Living, Deborah Levy
I was disappointed with these two books – purportedly memoirs, but not in the traditional sense. Not that tradition is required but these were too distant; too opaque for me to enjoy. They were borrowed from my friend Mary- Anne. Joe and Eleanor liked them and thought I would. Levy is, after all my sort of feminist and i agreed with her observations about politics and social issues. I quite liked her first novel, to which she refers in the second volume The Cost of Living, Swimming Home. It reminded me of François Sagan, but I had to look it up to make sure of the references which shows it didn’t leave a strong memory. I’ve written about it here. The memoirs reminded me of Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station which I also didn’t like. I need to know enough about characters to fully immerse myself in their lives. Not possible here despite glimpses. I liked best the stories from her childhood in South Africa in the first volume Things I didn’t Want To Know. These are both of very slim volumes able to be read in a single sitting. The writing is assured and the descriptions of people and brief anecdotes are vivid and compelling. But the deliberate withholding of information is frustrating. In the second volume she’s a mother and recently divorced in London. There’s lots of repetition about riding her bike and other tiny details that I found uninteresting. I suppose if a measure of success is leaving the reader wanting more than these are successful but I found them disappointing. I also started her latest novel which has been widely praised called The Man Who Saw Everything. Joe enjoyed it and assured me that it all came together in the end. But I couldn’t be bothered finding out.
Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Alex Ross
Alex Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker and I follow him on Twitter where he recommended Wagner And The Erotic Impulse which I enjoyed very much as I’ve written here. I was very excited to hear he was writing this and pre-ordered it a while ago. It was published in September. Reading an e-book you can’t tell how big it is – this one is pretty big! took me a while but I loved it all. It’s like a history of the world as he takes you to all the different movements, people and places that have been influenced by Wagner as a cultural phenomenon. It’s not a critique of the music as such although he goes into that more than I expected. He starts with Wagner’s death in Venice and how that was reported at the time. Thereafter he takes you around the world illustrating the impact of the composer – through both his music and his (copious) writing – on cultural and intellectual movements, writers, film-makers, painters and others. From Baudelaire and friends in Paris, to the secessionists in Vienna, symbolists in England, to Hollywood. To modernism where-ever it emerged – Wagner pops up. Sometimes I thought there might be long bows drawn; for instance claiming Wagner’s influence on James Joyce but apparently scholarly treatises have been written on the subject! He spends quite a bit of time trawling through Wagner’s impact onHitler, Nazism and the Holocaust; acknowledging the link but arguing it only came to the fore after the Second World War. After I finished it I felt like starting all over again because I found it hard to remember all of the facts and linkages drawn in what is a real Magnum Opus. Ross calls writing it, the great education of his life. He also provides an accompanying blog which includes extracts of the music, photos and documents that he refers to in each chapter. This is a treasure trove of Wagnerian proportions by itself, but was fun to look at whilst reading the book and you can find it here.
heat, Bill Burford
I’ve had this book for ages. It was published in 2007 and I may have read reviews then, which were all good, but I bought it only a few years ago. Burford writes about food for The New Yorker. The sub-title of this book describes what’s in it. An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany. It’s a bit unfortunate that he chose Mario Batali as his tutor in this endeavour as Batali has subsequently been the subject of sexual assault allegations that forced him to surrender his ownership in all of his hospitality businesses as described here. You certainly get a picture of the macho environments that Burfurd experienced in his time at Babbo which was Batali’s high end New York restaurant. This is where where he, Burford, starts off as an intern (kitchen slave) working in the preparation areas of the kitchen in the mornings. And where he moves on to being a line cook on the grill at and pasta stations. The writing is very good and you get a great picture of what it would be like to work in a restaurant kitchen – working out who’s who in the hierarchy, understanding the standards required, and especially what it’s like to cook under pressure when the restaurant is full and everybody is ordering meals from your station. Who comes to an Italian restaurant to eat lamb chops? our author cries at one stage. He also travels to Italy to to some of the places where Batali learned how to cook, discovering regional specialities and rivalries, and explores the history of Italian cooking by researching historical cookbooks. These interludes are very interesting as well. He’s recently written in The New Yorker and a new book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training. But one journey is enough for me.
l’appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, David Lebovitz
I’ve been following David Leibowitz on social media for a long time as he was one of the earliest bloggers; sharing recipes and recommendations about cafes and restaurants in Paris as well as anecdotes about his life as an American in Paris. Here is the blog. He was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse, Alice Walkers famous restaurant in San Francisco which we visited when we were there. He is a very engaging writer and on his blog he occasionally talked about renovations he was undertaking in an apartment he had bought. This book is the full story and it’s a terrible one! He is very interesting describing the cultural differences between Americans and the French; a lot of which would apply to Australians as well. He is ripped off unmercifully by the contractors performing the work in his apartment. I became quite stressed about how badly he was treated by his builders; you can see quite clearly that is going badly, but he presses on regardless. he’s very honest about how he contributed to the outcome because of those cultural differences. He didn’t take the advice of his French boyfriend and didn’t call on his French friend for help until the very end. I’d like to see pictures of the apartment but there are none to be had in this book. It sounds wonderful _ when all the issues are fixed! He includes recipes with each chapter. There’s one for Almond croissants which Joe and I were very happy to follow it’s amazingly simple. David tells us these are a way for bakers to utilise leftover croissants not sold on the day. All it takes is sugar syrup, frangipani filling and flaked almonds. Delicious.
The Photographer At Sixteen, George Szirtes
There are photos in this book – not many but they are the fulcrum around which this memoir is structured. It’s about the author’s mother and is beautifully written and very inventive. He starts at the end of her life and works backwards. it feels as though he is explaining her to himself as much as to us. It is a deeply personal book and a great tribute to her. She comes across as a very as a formidable woman and you don’t really like her or at least I didn’t very much and it seems that George had his reservations as he was growing up. She was a very ambitious for her two boys and neither did as well, in her terms, as she wanted. Her ambition for George was for him to be a doctor – instead he became a poet. And a very beautiful one at that; he includes some written about his mother’s experiences and they are very moving. The family left Budapest after the Hungarian revolution was crushed by the Soviets in the 1950s. They wanted to come to Australia He describes the coldly clinical bureaucratic process. The mother has a bad heart – permission denied. So they ended up in England. His father was obviously an accomplished fellow; survived the war and the communist regime and set the family up in England relatively quickly. And to move up the social scale, as indicated by their different homes – very middle England. The mother was a professional photographer as the title indicates and worked briefly as that in England but then in other jobs. As we go back in time we see her low-key but deliberate defiance of the Hungarian communist regime. Her protectiveness to her two sons – photos of them in amazingly sophisticated clothes! Hostility to his mother and sister who live in Argentina. Hostility to Hungarians. Why? The war; fiancée away, mother and sister providing shelter or not. To Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her son does not presume to imagine what she endured there, but she survives. In a picture of her shortly after her release she looks amazing. She could’ve married the American soldier who carried her from the camp hospital which had saved her from the death march that preceded liberation of the camp. But she was already engaged to George’s father. We go back further to the Romanian / Transylvanian / Hungarian village where she was born and meet her mother and father and brother. All of whom disappeared during the war. George meets one family member and explores whether there was ever a betrayal. His father fills in some gaps. It’s all beautifully done. A beautifully written memoir that does his mother proud.
Sword of Honour, Evelyn Waugh
Back to the classics. I’ve had this on my iPad for ages after reading a glowing review somewhere. It was one of the books to read on my New Years Resolution list. Lockdown has provided the opportunity to get stuck into it. I don’t know how long it is – originally published as three books, this version was edited by the author to be a stand alone volume. I’m terribly glad I finally got around to this. It reminded me of the war sections in A Dance to the Music of Time which I also loved when I re-read it a few years ago. It’s quite autobiographical. I read somewhere that Waugh was not a very good soldier, losing his command because he was too haughty or something like that . Our protagonist, Guy, is a very sympathetic character; I’ve been pondering how that is done. He’s just your average upper class goose really. But through his we get a terribly clear account of how hopeless war is. Right from the start there is the class based snobbery – who knows who – that determines who gets what positions in what regiments. Then the confusion and ad hoc nature of the training provided, followed by the incompetence of senior offices. We get a clear picture of the reality of war for soldiers – boredom followed by chaos and confusion. Our hero, Guy (how many upper class Englishmen are called Guy – this was the name of Olivia Manning’s hero in the Balkan Quartet) struggling to get into the army, on through his training, his appointment to a commando unit in Scotland and and on to the disaster that was Crete and then into the Middle East. Afterwards he ends up behind the lines in Yugoslavia as it then was, blundering about not understanding what’s going on at all. It’s all quite cynical really – the spooks get it wrong as they compile a list of Guy’s purported wrongdoing, public relations turns misadventure into heroism. Women don’t get much of a look in; caricatured really. But I was moved by it all. I was all prepared for a very unhappy ending but am pleased that didn’t eventuate. I really enjoyed it
the echoing grove, Rosamund Lehmann
Another book I’ve had for ages; I think collected from either the school fete or Hillary’s little library across the road. I’m terribly pleased I got around to reading it. I was slightly wary; these mid-century English women writers can be acerbic. I’ve given up on Muriel Spark! But I loved this. A story about two sisters; one who is married to Ricky the other who has an affair with him. I love the cover – this is Dinah, the dark haired one who has the affair; Madeleine is fair-haired. It starts with the two sisters reconciling after being estranged for fifteen years. We are then taken back through their story. It’s very inventive in terms of the structure. We hear from each sister separately in turn about different critical episodes – a farewell, a miscarriage, a revelation, an attempted reconciliation. we meet new characters – perhaps unnecessarily. Late in the piece we hear from their mother – who, as all mothers do, knows more than her daughters think. We hear, in the third person, what the man at the centre of this, Ricky , is feeling. If there is a failing you wonder why these women were so attracted to him – you have to take that as a given. The best thing about it is the depiction of the relationship between the two sisters – a competitiveness hardly acknowledged but ever-present, and differing memories and understanding of shared family histories, but at bottom, in extremis, after it all, an underlying love and appreciation of each other. I enjoyed it a lot.