The holiday season is approaching earlier and earlier every year. The zombie shoppers enter the stores, mouths foaming, white knuckled hands clutching coupons, and a hankering for retail employee blood forcing them on their stubby little limbs. The bastards. Working in retail is like being trapped in a zombie film. If only I were allowed to run around with a cricket bat a la Shaun of the Dead.
The one good thing about working in a bookstore is getting to be surrounded by books all day. The bad thing is uneducated people who ask inane questions like: “Is Lord of the Flies a novel?”
In my free time lately I’m doing a lot of puttering about my kitchen. I’ve always loved to cook. Being at home creating and eating one’s own food is one of the few experiences of gesamtkunstwerk that we, as a society, can still afford ourselves. There is something truly splendid about the bubbling and gurgling of fruits and vegetables as they reduce with domestic and exotic spices into jams, sauces, and chutneys. There is almost nothing as splendid as the sound of glossy onions and garlic dancing soft shoe in a golden puddle of olive oil. And let’s not forget that taste. I promise you nothing tastes better than the satisfaction of plating and then inhaling one’s own food.
This is beginning to sound like culinary porn. Excuse yourself if you’ve been inundated with saucy images of scantily clad gnudi beckoning you forth with the smell of warm ricotta…I’m such a tease.
If you’ve read anything of my last few posts you’ll have noticed I’ve also begun baking. Baking, to me, has always been a tad frightening. Too often would I catch myself going on about how crap I was at baking. I admit. I have been a bit baking-phobic in the past. I am now repenting for my close-minded actions, though. Each week I’ve been challenging myself to different floured hurdles ranging from the simplicity of pastas and pizza dough and pita to the slightly more complex realms of danish, brioche, and challah.
I’ve come to recognize the different rhythms that baking has to offer. The sound of flour moistening in a pool of honey and water, and the squishy sound of butter and eggs as they are squeezed between grasping fingers into a bowl of dry ingredients. I even love how yeast releases a bready smell long before baking.
If I had to choose baking or cooking I don’t know which I’d pick. They both give me different pleasures. The jazzy flair of cooking things is anything but complacent. Too spicy? Drizzle in some honey. Too bland? A pinch of salt and a squirt of citrus. There is just so much spontaneity when cooking. Some may say baking is rigid and over-structured. I know I was guilty of this blaspheming at one point, but I have since reformed. Baking may have more defined guides and rules, but you bake with the force of emotion and energy as it flows through your hands right into that stubborn lump of dough. You bond with it, leave it once you’ve gave it all you’ve got, then come back to knock its wind out before you deliver it to a warm glowing oven.
In thinking about my love for the spontaneous flare of cooking versus the structured creativity of baking I thought of two writers who, in my mind, embody these qualities in their texts.
First we’ll address the plentiful flavors of Etgar Keret.
“I felt her tongue on mine. The books slipped out from under my feet as I hung there in midair, not touching a thing, dangling from just her lips.”
To me, Keret, a modern Israeli author, exemplifies the blithe and impulsive nature of cooking to a capital C. He is probably my favorite modern writer, in fact. He whisks together these brilliantly insightful stories that generally populate less than three pages. Awfully concise, don’t you think?
Despite the relative shortness of his stories they never fail to disappoint. He can write in a mere sentence what takes some writers three pages. Still full of imagery and a certain carefree design his pen rings out with simple yet brilliant tones.
Now, these stories, as I said, are very short. Vignettes. I’m doing my best not to give away too much with these snippets, so do your best to enjoy them when you go find them for yourself.
“When the first spaceship reached the moon, the astronauts couldn’t find anyone around. All they found was a million craters. At first, the astronauts thought those craters were ancient graves of people who had once lived on the moon. Only on closer inspection did they discover that those craters were merely thoughts about nothing.”
(A Thought In The Shape of a Story)
You can really feel the emotion in these few short lines. They are flavored with a subtle bittersweet glaze dripping generously about each word. They are cool and direct. Terribly satisfying but you can’t help but ask for more.
The next quote is from my favorite of his stories. A Hole in the Wall. Sorry, but I do want to give you a bit of background to this one. There is a man who meets an angel. The angel becomes the most worthless friend to him. More a mooch than anything else. If you don’t want to know what happens, look away. But it’s good. Real good.
“The angel got up too and looked down into the street. He opened his mouth to say something. Suddenly, Udi gave him a little shove from behind, and the angel lost his balance. Udi was just fooling around. He didn’t really mean to hurt the angel, just to make him fly a little, for laughs. But the angel dropped the whole five floors, like a sack of potatoes. Stunned, Udi watched him lying there on the sidewalk below. His whole body was completely still, except the wings, which were still fluttering a little, like when someone dies. That’s when he finally understood that of all the things the angel had told him, nothing was true. That he wasn’t even an angel, just a liar with wings.”
Ho. Ly. Shit. Right? You’re going along, going along. A delicately spiced creamy sauce simmering away in the pan. Waiting and waiting for the garlic and onions to blend in nicely with grated lumps of green zucchini when BAM!!!! He throws in a handful of red pepper flakes. The after taste of spicy goodness mingles with the mellow depth of the pre-existing flavors as they slip down the back of your tongue.
“They had several children, and she loved to tell them stories, especially ones about the people who used to walk into the shop, smelling of sulfur. Those stories would scare them, and they’d start to cry. But still, even though she couldn’t understand why, she went right on telling them.”
(A Souvenir of Hell)
Do you see what I mean? That intense blend of tastes that jump out at you in such a way that only the most skilled author can manage. There are so many interesting aromas and spices easily jumping out of the pot. Sometimes bitter, sometimes salty. Sometimes, much like my friend Jan, subtle and spicy.
Speaking of my friend Jan. One of the single most stylish and creative people I have ever met. She is responsible for having introduced me to my auteur du boulangerie (that’s probably wrong, I took Spanish).
Despite my poor French, my attempt was definitely apropos. George Perec is a special sort of writer, a champion of turning the tedious into something beautiful and exciting. I chose him as my bakery goods because of his use of the lipogram. I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything written as a lipogram, but it can be sort of a headache when you start.
The first novel of his I read was entitled A Void. I read it kind of as a challenge to see if I could stomach it.
“Things look normal, but looks can play tricks on you. Things at first look normal, till, abruptly, abnormality, horrifying in its inhumanity, swallows you up and spits you out.”
What do you notice in here? Anything missing?
The lipogram is a form of constrained writing in which the author purposefully omits a letter or set of letters in an extended literary piece. The whole of A Void is written without any words containing the letter “e”. The novel, originally written in French has been translated into several languages, including English (obviously) maintaining this original standard. That, in my opinion, is as much of a triumph for Perec as the translator (whose not a terrible writer either), Mr. Gilbert Adair.
The novel itself is a pretty confusing parody of the mystery novel. It is neurotic and mind bending, but also humorous and very self aware of how perplexing it can be. One of my favorite sections (for which I completely don my nerd cap for) documents the lives and deaths of a character’s six sons. Each son has a name that starts with a different vowel (except, of course e). It is a bit wordy, so I’ll jump to the end.
“So Conson has a solitary surviving son, Yvon; but his liking for Yvon is gradually diminishing, as Yvon, living so far away, now hardly visits his poor old dad.”
Get it? And sometimes y? Fine, I think it’s funny, but whatever. Maybe it works better in the context of the whole.
This isn’t the only text he wrote this way. The Exeter Text follows a similar pattern but is a little sloppier. If A Void is a temperamental brioche, The Exeter Text is sort of like a pizza dough. The proportions are there, but some liberties are taken. This story, which omits all vowels but e, allowed for spelling errors. In the English translation this is maintained as a means of reflecting the original construction, the translation also contains the two words I know of in the English language that contain ‘w’ as a vowel, crwth and cwm (that’s right, I have a passion for obscure words. There is nothing pretentious about it).
“The scene’s sweetness sent me! Ellesmere, the elden demesne, seemed present there! The creeks. The scree. The petrels. The tempests. Then melt there! Be free! Where the ether reflects celeste resplendence, the ben’s green crests, the September hemp seeds! The demesne set between the mere, then the new Tempe’s cwm.”
So the method isn’t perfect. But he is still a master in my mind. And when was the last time you watched a cooking show that didn’t recommend a short cut or two? Even my collection of cookbooks ranging from the posh and fabulous Nigella Lawson to the inventive Alton Brown present the reader with a few modern snips to the traditional recipe that allow for an end result just as satisfying.
I leave you now with the closing passage from A Void followed by the closing passage of Keret’s Gulliver in Iceland. I’m sorry I keep throwing these conclusions at you in this post. It’s just sometimes they are sort of wonderful. It used to be a habit of mine to read the ending lines before I started the beginning. I didn’t really do it to find out what happened, or to make sure everything would turn out fine. I would’ve read it anyway. No, I read the last stretch because those bits of text are usually some of the best parts of the book. I’m like the girl who eats all the good chocolate out of the assorted box, aren’t I? There are worse things to be comparable to, though, I suppose. (Remind me to get a grammar book, that maybe the worst sentence structure ever.)
“…and it was that lack of wisdom, that chronic inability of ours to grasp what was actually going on, that had us talking away, constructing our story, building up its idiotic plot, inflating all its intrinsic bombast, its absurd hocus-pocus, without at any instant attaining its cardinal point, its horizon, its infinity, that climactic coda of harmony out of which a solution would at long last loom,
but approaching, by an inch, by a micron, by an angstrom, that fatal point at which,
without that taboo constituting us and uniting us and drawing us apart,
a void with its brass hands,
a void with its cold, numb hands,
a void rubbing out its own inscription,
a void assuring this Book, of all Books, a truly singular purity and immaculation, notwithstanding all its markings in ink and paragraphs of print,
a void brings our story to its conclusion.”
“I finish the book and notice that the streetlamp isn’t on anymore. In the headlights of a passing car, I see a figure in black beside me. The lights freeze, but the cold stopped bothering me long ago. The figure turns toward me. It’s him, there’s no mistaking that scythe, that skeleton face. For a moment, from behind, it looked just like a nun.”