Friday, 30 September 2011

Cooking the Books: Frank Tallis

When I started this blog I thought half of it was going to be about baking. It turns out, though, that whenever I bake something I always just end up eating it before I remember to take pictures. This is obviously not good enough, and so I have come to a decision. This decision is that whenever I read a book with really exciting food in it I am going, in the spirit of research, to make that food. And I am going to blog about it.

The rules of the game are as follows:

1) The foodstuff must, obviously, appear in the book in question.
2) it must be mentioned by name.
3) Preferably it should be described in some way.
4) Bonus points if the description is sexually delicious.
5) I really do have to take pictures of it. Google images will not do.

The first food-centric book on my list is Death and the Maiden, by erotic pastry writer extraordinaire Frank Tallis. I've written before about Frank Tallis's probably very Freudian relationship with cake, and also about how reading his books makes me want to go bury my face in the front window of a Patisserie Valerie.  

Death and the Maiden, it turns out, is not as sugar-laced as Frank Tallis's previous efforts (I felt somewhat cheated - I want cake with my death!) However, cake still gets mentioned by name nine times (that's not counting savoury foods or all the times the characters are just 'eating pastries'), so the foodstuffs I get to choose from for my first experiment are: Guglhupf, Mohnstrudel, Topfenstrudel, Apfelstrudel, Palatschinken, Mannerschnitten biscuits, Sachertorte, Marillenknodel and Vanillestern biscuits. Of these, Mannerschnitten turn out to be wafers that come in plastic packets, Marillen are apricots, which are not in season, Schinken are pancakes, which are not very inspiring, Mohn means poppy seed, which is not exciting either, Apfelstrudel we all know far too well anyway and I had Sachertorte in the actual Hotel Sacher last year and thought it was disgusting.

So I went with the Guglhupf. It is described in Death and the Maiden, with masterful brevity, as
a sponge slice, sprinkled with icing sugar
Which is perfectly delicious sounding, but not particularly helpful to someone actually trying to cook it.

Now, I've been fascinated by Guglhupf for quite a while. It keeps coming up in Austrian-themed books, quite mysteriously. No one seems to ever quite be able to describe what it is, although it is unanimously seen as A Good Thing. It turns out, once I began to scan Google for recipes for it, that no one on the internet can agree on the recipe for it either. Sometimes it has chocolate in it, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it has orange juice and raisins and rum, often (but not always) it has almonds, sometimes it is made with icing sugar and, most interestingly, sometimes the recipe calls for yeast. This, I think, is the important thing, since when I went onto Wikipedia in desperation I discovered that -hupf means jump. A jumping cake! I like it.

In the end I went with a recipe without chocolate (since I think that would be Schokoguglhupf and slightly different) and with yeast: basically, this one from but without the almonds (I hate almonds) and with more sugar (Guglhupf can be savoury sometimes, and that is fine for other people but very definitely Not What I Was Going For). Yes, it's in American, but proper cup measures are fairly easy to find in England these days and if you don't have those there's always the miracle of Google.

So, in the name of Science, here's my modified Guglhupf recipe.

The romantic ideal
Yeasty part
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Cake part
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon dark rum
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
6 tbsp sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large egg yolks
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 

Heavily butter a Guglhupf tin, or a Bundt tin (which is what I have), or any other sort of round and holey cake tin you fancy.

Heat the milk in a saucepan until it is lukewarm. This took an astonishingly short time - I ended up overheating it and then having to wait for it to cool down. Basically, ten seconds will do it. Pour the milk into a bowl, add the yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons turns out to be one of those little Hovis fast-action packets, so save time and just chuck the contents of one of those in), stir it about and add the flour. Cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm place.
Rum raisins. Excellent.

MEANWHILE! Add the rum to the raisins in a bowl and let them sit. I'll be honest, I added more than a tbsp of rum - it seemed somewhat stingy. I like rum.

Watch 20 minutes of Celebrity Masterchef. Return.

Fluffy yeasty bit. With lemon.
For the ordinary cakey bit, cream together butter, sugar (90g of each, if you don't have a US tablespoon) and salt, then add the vanilla and the lemon zest. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, THEN add your puffed-up yeasty mixture. The original recipe is so bloody vague about the difference between 'dough' and 'sponge' that I did not notice this direction and just went straight ahead and added the rum and other flour. So don't be like me. Add the yeast stuff, mix; sieve the rum out of the raisins (leave the raisins out for later) and add that, mix; add the rest of the flour, mix; let the mixture sit.

Watch 10 minutes of Celebrity Masterchef. Return.

Dough. Buttered.
Beat the dough a bit more, until it's smooth and elastic (I think what you're doing here is equivalent to kneading) and then beat in the raisins (and almonds, if you're using them). At this stage the batter tastes somewhat like Stollen, that is, nice and yet odd.

At this point, the recipe says  
Scrape the dough into a buttered bowl and turn it over so that the top is buttered. 
I find this direction confusing, mainly because it seems so deeply unnecessary and also makes me have to wash up another bowl. I did do it, but I suspect the cake would be OK without it. Now cover this new bowl of yours with cling film and leave it in a warm place to rise again. (There is a lot of rising in this recipe. Definitely not one for the temporally challenged.)

Do 20 minutes critical reading that you should have done before you watched Celebrity Masterchef but you didn't want to. Return.

Scrape your batter into your mightily buttered cake tin, then cover with a tea towel or some buttered (!) cling film (what is it with this author and buttering things?). Then leave in a warm place 'until it is doubled'. The recipe helpfully makes no mention of how long this should take, and 30 minutes after I first left it IT HAD NOT RISEN AT ALL. I got so desperate that I put it on my desk so it could get the sun. Unfortunately this did not seem to do anything for it.

Ready to be ovened.
After 45 minutes I got bored and annoyed and just turned on the oven to 190 C (or 170 C for a fan oven) to preheat. Fifteen minutes later, I put in my stubbornly un-hupfy Guglhupf and left it to bake it until 'well risen and deep golden' - the recipe says about 40-45 minutes but it took my oven 30. This may have had something to do with the lack of rising beforehand. (Pro tip for cake doneness measuring: Stick a fork into it and if its prongs come out clean you're there.)

Out of the oven.
Take it out and leave to cool for ten minutes, then flip over and get it out of the tin. GENTLY. Leave to cool the rest of the way and then sprinkle with icing sugar for fancy effect.

And there you have your Guglhupf.

I'm sure it was because I abused the yeast in some unknowable way, but I am a bit sad at how very un-hupfy my Gugl turned out. It seems to make the time I spent sitting about waiting for it to rise slightly futile, in retrospect. This Schokoguglhupf recipe seems much more achievable (whipped egg whites instead of yeast) and I may try it for contrast some time.

The not entirely romantic reality
But then I took the finished cake to dinner at a friend's house, and it actually turned out to be very nice. It definitely did have a bready Stollen sort of thing going on - buttery lemony raisiny goodness with that nice tangy kick that booze leaves behind when it cooks. As one of my friends pointed out, it would be especially excellent at Christmas time (she also suggested adding a few plastic reindeer and Father Christmases around the top but I think this would be down to personal taste). I admit that it was a bit heavy - you could probably hurl it at someone and do them a fair injury - but this is because of my mistake rather than any fault of the poor recipe's.

Anyway, a tasty if slightly perplexing recipe, and one that convinces me more than ever that Austrian baking is Where It Is At. And now this book is most definitely on my Christmas wish list. (I bet Frank Tallis would like it too. You know, in case you were trying to find a present for him. Which you might be. I don't know your lives.)

Friday, 23 September 2011

1001 Books Review - Austerlitz

It's very easy to get World War II Fatigue when it comes to literature. A lot of writers behave as though they believe that history began in 1939 and ended shortly afterwards in 1945, and this, as a reader, can be annoying. All the same, though, there's something very attractive about World War II from a writer's perspective. It's not just that it was very BIG, and that the good guys were Good and the bad guys were Bad (and in easily recognisable uniforms), but, because of generations of exclusively 39-to-45 history lessons, all of your potential readers know the period, in a deep-down, under-the-skin way. Those dates are in our brains; it makes up an almost unique shared historical shorthand. We've all got these mental countdown clocks, with September 1939 bright red and labelled YOU ARE ALL BUGGERED NOW. Read 1938 and you think one year left!, read 1943 and you start calculating how long it is to summer 1945, and read Jewish and Poland and 1942 and you think, oh shit.

That's what makes it so interesting that Austerlitz's main character, Jacques Austerlitz, who arrived in Wales in 1939 as a very young child as part of the Kindertransport scheme, doesn't know anything about what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1945. He spends the first half of his life trying - mainly unconsciously - to blank it all out, so effectively that when he does come to investigate his past he discovers that he has no idea of the larger background to what really happened to him. We hear the facts of his early life - Czech Jew, four years old in 1939 and we know what he's escaped from, and what must have happened to his lost parents, but he's got to discover it all for himself, as though it was completely new.

It's a weird concept, which is fitting, because Austerlitz itself is an extremely strange book. I've never read anything else quite like it. Really what it is is a work of art that happens to be made up of a lot of words. It's set out as an intense stream-of-conscious meditation on the everything (including moths, battlements, tree roots, railway station architecture, European history, underwater villages and hats), in vast rambling sentences with almost no paragraph breaks. It's to the enormous credit of Sebald's astonishingly beautiful writing style that reading it doesn't feel like being beaten in the face by language - that, and the pictures that appear in it every page or so.

I like pictures a lot, and am all in favour of them where books, especially long and serious ones, are concerned. I have the Artistic Version of The Interpretation of Dreams, which is great - every time the words are about to wear you out, you turn the page and see A GIANT PICTURE OF A FISH EATING A TIGER and you are refreshed. The pictures in Austerlitz are even cleverer, because they actually make up part of the story that's being told. Sebald'll be describing the window display of a shop in some tiny town in the Czech Republic, with a squirrel holding a banjo, and there the squirrel is in photo form, like a visual clue from a massive Europe-wide treasure hunt. Sebald must have actually travelled to every place he mentions in the book and taken pictures of them all, which makes him a nutter, but a very visionary and thorough one.

Austerlitz really is the work of a craftsman.There is so much skill, and so much knowledge in the book that you could read it five times over and see something totally new in it every time. It's like one of those paintings by Bruegel with five hundred tiny people all doing seven things at once in very bright colours, except without the bright colours. Everything in Austerlitz is misty and sombre, all the streets are deserted and all the buildings are crumbling and it is always late afternoon in autumn and everyone is sad. Or dead.

This is not, as you might have guessed, a cheerful book. It's a treasure hunt with no resolution (we never do find Austerlitz's parents) it's a personal tragedy and it's the story, of course, of an international tragedy on a mindboggling scale. Even though I loved it, actually reading it left me feeling sort of hollow and grey inside. I'd still highly, highly recommend it, though. It's stunningly lovely in so many weird and perspective-altering ways, and it manages to make World War II as a topic seem almost new. Just make sure you're feeling really optimistic before you pick it up.

4 stars. And 18.18% complete.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Two-Birds-With-One-Book-Review: Goodbye to Berlin

With the glorious sense of timing that only a Department of English can provide, I have finally been given my MA optional modules a whole week before term begins. I assume this is meant to provide us with a sense of excitingly Bohemian edge-of-our-seat living, as we frantically try to hold three books in our right hand while we scribble down notes with our left.

But amidst this hipster madness it does rather pleasingly turn out that many of the books I've been told to read for my 'Literary Biography and Autobiographication' (bonus points if you know what that last word means precisely, because I don't) course also appear in my nemesis the 1001 Books list, and most excitingly of all one of them is the very book I've been dying to have an excuse to buy since I watched Christopher And His Kind last spring.

This BBC drama, for a random one-off production about an author that most people my age have never heard of, was watched by an unusual number of my friends. This was, of course, because of its superior script and heartfelt political message, which is a polite way of saying that everyone wanted to see Doctor Who having gay sex in Nazi Germany. What I - and I think everyone - took from Christopher And His Kind was an hour and a half of staring at Matt Smith's alarmingly snow-white and icicle-like torso as it lounged in various locations with a variety of men (and sometimes women, platonically).

Goodbye to Berlin turns out to be, oddly enough, the inspiration for the film Cabaret. This is strange to me, because I've never seen Cabaret, but from what I know about it the resemblance seems tenuous. Sally Bowles does appear in it, but there's really not much singing and dancing in Goodbye to Berlin at all. When the characters do go to bars, they tend to sit around gloomily in an atmosphere of creeping unease and encroaching ruin. It's very proto-hipster, although with a political message, which redeems it somewhat.

The other thing that redeems it is Christopher Isherwood himself. Goodbye to Berlin is a very artistic-licence version of his own time in Berlin, during Hitler's rise to power in the early 1930s, and luckily he makes a great narrator. He's wry and observant and writes in a snappy, deadpan style that I like a lot. He's the sane guy in the middle of a world that's fascinating and recognisibly similar to our own but also completely, terrifyingly crazy. In Isherwood's Berlin, Nazis aren't cackling maniacs, they're plumbers, or bar men, or professional yodellers, and when Isherwood walks down the street he's just as likely to see two SA men casually turn around and beat some random guy's eye out of his head as he is to come across someone selling scarves. It's easy to explain away Hitler as the result of about 80% of Germans going raving mad in 1933, but the mad thing about Goodbye to Berlin is that these people aren't crazy. They're normal. And they still think that Hitler is a good idea. Are you unsettled yet? You will be after you read this book.

If you did watch Christopher And His Kind, you'll find Goodbye to Berlin very familiar. Its writers pretty much boiled down and tidied up the stories of Goodbye to Berlin (it's made up of six vaguely-linked chapters, each one to do with some part of Christopher's stay in Berlin), and then, because they were making a big-budget TV drama, made the result heave with added sexiness. The sex in Goodbye to Berlin itself turns out to be more referred to than written about, which is hardly surprising - since it was originally published in 1939, Christopher Isherwood could hardly include sentences that finished with, "... and then I had sex with a man I picked up in a bar!" I assume the BBC writers got most of their source material for that from Isherwood's memoir (also called Christopher And His Kind, and written much later, after most of the interested parties were convieniently no more). I may have to read it one day.

But anyway, Goodbye to Berlin was great, and disturbing, and a real relief after all that critical reading I've been wading through. I am now all in favour of bringing Christopher Isherwood back into literary favour from the Wasteland of Largely Forgotten Writers where he is currently hanging out. Because he's a good writer, and also because knowing about Christopher Isherwood can sometimes be very handy to a person.

4 stars. And the progress meter is at 17.98%

Friday, 16 September 2011

Review - The Children's Book

As you may have heard, I am frantically trying to read half of the 1001 Books list before I turn 28. I had a cunning plan to steam through the list more quickly by reading the shortest books available to me.

Well, I got bored of that.

The Children's Book by A S Byatt may be part of the list, but it certainly is not short. At just over 600 pages it's beautifully chunky, and reading it reminded me that I really do like longer books. If it's done right, a big fat book gives you a satisfying sense of involvement in the world on offer, and you end up not only truly bothering about, but almost living alongside, the characters in it.

Last summer I read War and Peace (I enjoyed the Peace more than the War, and the beginning more than the end, and the whole thing an awful lot more than I thought I was going to), a Big Book if ever there was one. It took me almost a month, and I remember at one point feeling like I was just going to have to SET MYSELF ON FIRE if Nikolai didn't end up marrying Sonia. I'm still really bitter at Tolstoy about that one. But Tolstoy's dodgy romantic decisions aside, The Children's Book has that same sort of feeling about it - in it, Byatt has managed to create an English version of the big, all-engrossing, over-populated world of a Russian novel. Each one of the characters in The Children's Book - and there are many - have their own interesting, odd concerns and their own way of getting through life, and they're all a pleasure to spend time with.

I was put off reading this book for quite a while because my mother told me she hadn't really enjoyed it. the moral of this story is that I really need to learn to stop listening to my mother when she tells me she didn't like a book. Or rather, I need to remember to enquire whether or not the reason why she didn't like it had anything to do with the presence of myths, fairy tales, unrealistic creatures and/or any other fantasy elements, because my mother is a sensible woman with a generally very good taste in books, but things that are not real make her deeply nervous.

We don't really see eye to eye about this. In fact, I spent most of my childhood presenting her with fat bundles of paper and announcing, "I WROTE YOU A STORY! It's about this GIRL and she FALLS THROUGH A PORTAL INTO ANOTHER UNIVERSE and discovers an EVIL PLOT in a RUINED CASTLE and then she gets chased by VAMPIRE PRIESTS and they're just about to SHOOT HER IN THE FACE but she turns into a WERE-CAT so everything is all right in the end. Also there's a talking bear." It is to my mother's everlasting credit that she dutifully read every one of these stories and told me how lovely they were.

Anyway, I really do like fantasy in my literature, and (as always in these cases) the exact things that made my mother doubtful about The Children's Book made me completely fall in love with it. The Children's Book turns out to be all about the late-Victorian preoccupation with myth and fairy tale - the central character, Olive Wellwood, is an exceedingly E. Nesbit-y children's novelist who writes about little things hiding underground and people with animal heads and evil fairies at the bottom of the garden. I grew up with E. Nesbit's stories, although I was always a bit suspicious of them - I could never work out if they were meant to be twee or nasty - and it's obvious that Byatt did too, and felt the same way. Olive's stories are weird expressions of all the strange things lurking in the Victorian unconscious (my favourite), equal parts cute and horrible and of course, because this is A S Byatt, pitch-perfect reproductions of her chosen genre.

I deeply approve of the way A S Byatt has spent time thinking about fairy tales, and how they manage to affect the way people think about themselves, and even live their lives, no matter how grown-up and anchored in reality they think they are. Myths matter, to both individuals and countries, and that's what The Children's Book explores in a very interesting and non-intrusive way. At times it reads like a very nice political and cultural history lesson, but a history lesson told like a fairy tale ("And then the Fabians were born, and they were nice but hopeless, and they argued with the Imperialists and the Tories who meant well but were flawed"). I wish my highbrow cultural history books were like this, because then I might understand what they were getting at.

When it's not about stories, The Children's Book is about art, and particularly pots, which is something else that pleases me very much. My mother, when she wasn't reading my awful fantasy stories, was an art historian, and so I spent a lot of my childhood in various museums. I love it, therefore, when a writer takes the time to really look at and describe beautiful things.

And god, can A S Byatt describe beautiful things. She has a famously dirty literary feud going on with her sister Margaret Drabble (apparently they won't even appear at the same literary festival, so you have to pick one or the other), and after The Children's Book I sort of feel like I understand it from Margaret Drabble's point of view. If your sister was A S Byatt, wouldn't you want to just rip her head off out of sheer jealous spite? I know I would. I still sort of do and I'm not even related to her. How dare Byatt be able to use words like that? How can she be able to describe a pot so well that you want to reach out and touch it, and then on the same page write about a landscape so you feel like you've been there? That cow! She has too much talent and I want some of it.

This, for example, is Byatt's description of the first vase aspiring potter Philip sees when he arrives at the Wellwoods' house:
The light flowed round the surface, like clouds reflected in water. It was a watery pot. There was a vertical rhythm of rising stems, waterweeds, and a dashing horizontal rhythm of irregular clouds of black-brown wriggling commas, which turned out, inspected closely, to be lifelike tadpoles with translucent tails.... It rested on four dark green feet, which were coiled, scaled lizards. Or minor dragons, lying with closed eyes and resting snouts.
That's colour, movement, music, landscape, language and biological detail, all visually observed like she's making a scientific discovery, and it's all about a pot.

But Byatt isn't all delicate intricate descriptions. The Children's Book sweeps about, through  five different (but interlocking) families and several decades, which include some very unpleasant historical moments. When I reviewed Ragnarok I said that Byatt seems to enjoy writing about nastiness as much as she does beauty, and you can see the same thing in The Children's Book - it's Grimm's toothy, gory fairytales that she's most influenced by here, and when we get to World War I at the end, characters get shot in the face and drowned in the mud with gleeful abandon. You care about Byatt's characters, and you can tell that she does too, but she isn't afraid of bumping them off, and I think that's a mark of a really good writer.

And, in case you couldn't tell, I think that A S Byatt is a really good writer. She's clever, she's bold, she's beautiful and (most importantly) she's a pleasure to read. She doesn't rub how ridiculously smart she is in your face (which is not to say that you don't realise it. But at least she's not being rude about it). Ah, I loved this. And when I finished it I hit 17.78% completion of the 2010 list.

I've still got a way to go.

4.5 stars.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Review - Darkness Rising

So, the Booker Prize shortlist for this year has been announced. And there it is. It's a shortlist. Unmistakably a list, and a short one at that.


I'm really struggling to muster any emotion about this one. I feel... whelmed. Distinctly whelmed (because I am in Europe, and I can be). The Sisters Brothers has the best cover, and Sense of an Ending is, er, the thinnest (can you tell I haven't read any of these, or really been moved to?). If I had to pick a winner, though, I'd go for Pigeon English, since it's the only title that seemed to be generating any sort of low-level person-to-person buzz before it was nominated. I mean, I worked in a fairly literary, well-read bookshop for most of this year and I don't think I even sold a copy of any of the rest of them. I'm going to try to read some of them, and we shall see, but... hmm.

Anyway, review.

I spent most of last Wednesday sitting in a hospital waiting room. Which turned out very well for all concerned, so don't worry, but at the time was not exactly restful. We happened to be sitting next to a woman who kept calling people up and saying awful things like, "and then his lung collapsed, and then his OTHER lung collapsed, and then he lost sensation in his legs, and then his SPLEEN burst," while her child ran around in circles screaming "MUM I'm BORED I'm SICK THERE'S A STICKER MISSING FROM MY COLOURING BOOK!"

I had sort of guessed it might not be a place for my MA reading, and so I brought along a book that would be exceedingly restful. And then I read the whole thing. That day had a lot of time in it. I think they might have been slowing down the clocks. But Darkness Rising kept me calm, because there are two things that soothe me more than anything else in the world and those things are CAKES and MURDER. And that is all Frank Tallis's books are ever about.

There is an amazing amount of pastry in a Frank Tallis murder mystery. His excuse, I think, is that they are set in Vienna, where cake is a form of religion (I have been there. I know. French pastry wishes it was that delicious), but even so, his characters' relationship to pudding borders on the obsessional. You could make a very profitable Frank-Tallis-spot-the-foodstuff drinking game, and the last time my boyfriend read one I got a stream of delighted texts all along the lines of CAKE! CAKE SPOTTED IN CHAPTER FOURTEEN!

And this is not just any cake, either. These cakes all have mysterious and delicious names, like guglhupf and punschkrapfen, and whenever a character bites into one you are treated to an intricate and borderline erotic description of the taste sensations they are experiencing:
At once his mouth was suffused with a melee of flavours. The coolness of the shell contrasted with the warmth of the alcoholic sponge inside, and he was overwhelmed by an almost dizzying sweetness. After he had swallowed, his taste buds were still tingling with flavours: marzipan, nuts and jam.
I mean. Take off all your clothes, Frank Tallis is writing about food again.

Frank Tallis's background is nearly as bizarre as Anne Holt's. He's a practicing clinical psychologist who happens to write historical murder mysteries on the side - and, of course, because he's a clinical psychologist his chosen bit of history is Vienna at the turn of the last century, when Freud was getting everyone het up about children sucking their thumbs and people dreaming about wolves in a wardrobe. His main character, Dr Max Liebermann, is a disciple of Freud, and all the murders he investigates are conveniently to do with unconscious desires and sex mania. We also get treated to hilarious b-plot side cases as Dr Liebermann treats his patients - in Darkness Rising, for example, we get the case of a man who thinks he's pregnant. Which is totally brilliant.

What Frank Tallis is not, though, is a technically excellent writer. His policy seems to be that he knows a lot of words, and by god he is going to use all of them. People aren't unconscious, they're insensate, a carving of bears becomes eponymous ursine relief work, and image of someone's boobs in a low-cut dress is described as
She was wearing a tight silk dress, the intrepid neckline of which descended steeply, revealing a plenitude of bulging flesh.
You guys, she was stacked.

But all the same, it's not the sort of language-abusing writing that makes me want to tear out my hair in a rage. It's just gently silly, and the result is an awful lot of fun.

Darkness Rising's plot, such as it is, concerns a series of mysterious murders of notable anti-Semites, who all turn up beneath plague monuments with their heads ripped off. If you know your Jewish folklore you're going to get to the answer quite a bit before Liebermann and his policeman sidekick Inspector Rheinhardt do, but the point of this book is not cunning trickery. The point of this book is cakes and psychoanalysis. And the cakes are good.

I nearly forgot I was in a hospital waiting room.

3.5 stars.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Being Critical of Critics

This is the month that I begin my MA, and so this is the month that I am beginning to do reading for my MA and I have to tell you that things are not going entirely well.

Whenever I pick up critical texts it dawns on me that I may not be a very scholarly person. I tend to enjoy books in which words make sense, and mean things, whereas the main point of words in most criticism seems to be to make the average reader frightened and confused. Consider, for example, this delight of a sentence by Nancy Stepan:
By the 1850s, the shift from the earlier ethnographic, monogenist, historical and philosophical tradition to a more conservative, anthropological, and polygenist approach... had advanced quite far in Britain... Races were now seen as forming a natural but static chain of excellence.
SO MANY WORDS, and all of them carefully crafted to be as bamboozling as possible. It's nonsense! And that's just one sentence. Imagine this drivellous stuff going on for pages and pages, and you will understand why I after a while I begin to feel like every word of it is jumping gleefully up and down on my head until my brains run out from my ears.

I don't understand why critics think they have to make up so many technical words to get across what they mean - in practice, they're just isolating themselves from a vast majority of readers who might otherwise be interested in what they have to say. Shouldn't criticism be about, I don't know, explaining things to people?

There are exceptions, of course. Some critics do try to light up their reader's brains rather than smear the product of their own superior cerebral cortexes all over the page, and some essays have such wonderful (or hilarious) ideas behind them that I don't even care if they're expressed in a slightly confusing way.

As an example of this, please see pretty much anything written by Freud. He does have an unfortunate fondness for phrases like "libidinal object-cathexis", but he also (with an entirely straight face, which makes it even better) has entirely brilliant, totally insane thoughts that make his essays completely worthwhile.

Okay, so. Birth. Freud has thoughts about birth. According to Freud, we should see birth as a form of
castration in the mother, (based on the equation 'child=penis').
Isn't that AMAZING? The child is a penis! Of course it bloody is! If you read Freud's essays you will quickly come to discover that everything is a penis unless it is a vagina. Hats are penises. Buildings are penises. Trains are certainly penises. He's essentially one of those mad little old men who wander the streets with wheelie bags yelling at passers-by, except better educated.

The horse is a penis
But, in the main, I'm struggling with the critical mindset. I find that I don't like most of these people's writing styles, and then I feel bad for not liking them. It's very awkward. Everyone KNOWS Raymond Williams is a genius, so how can I be thinking that he is an idiot? (Bloody Raymond Williams, he is the worst of the lot. He does these twee subjective-pretending-to-be-objective value judgements that drive me nuts because of how totally random they are -  he'll just merrily state that some book is an author's "best" work, and then move on as though he's stated an obvious scientific fact. It makes my brain bleed. BEST, Raymond Williams? What do you mean by BEST? Did you TEST this theory, did you ASK PEOPLE or did you just MAKE SHIT UP OUT OF YOUR HEAD)

So this was how I was feeling when I came to nearly the last book in my pile, Walter Benjamin's Illuminations. And, oh my god, it was like I had stumbled upon an actual person writing an actual book for actual people.

I think (and this is rare for me, with critics) Walter Benjamin and I could definitely be friends. If he wasn't dead. He's not only poetically good with words, he loves using them, and (even more importantly) he loves books, in a greedy, geeky way that most critics refuse to admit to. The following passage is the best and most wonderful critical thing I've read so far:
one of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give it its freedom - the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in Arabian Nights. To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.
He's one of those rare people who can write about a text and (no matter what it is) make you desperate to read it - there's an essay in Illuminations about A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, which I can safely say I have never had the slightest inclination to pick up, and by the end I was absolutely desperate to rush out to the nearest bookshop and pick up the fifteen-volume set. Walter Benjamin made me want to read Proust! The man's a miracle-worker.

After all that Freud and Raymond Williams, I want to take a bath of happiness in Walter Benjamin's essays. I want to gambol through the fields with them like a person in a pastoral poem. Oh, clever and normal man, where have you been all week? Walter Benjamin proves to me that you don't have to be an ass just because you have complicated thoughts in your head. Raymond Williams I am looking at you.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

1001 Books Review - Animal Farm

I've told you before about the incredibly rash promise I made to read half of the 1001 Books List before I turn 28. I must have been mad. Depending on which year's list you look at, I am currently hovering around the 17% mark, which is worrying, since this represents the achievement of MY ENTIRE LIFE SO FAR. Clearly I need to make up some ground, and fast.

To do this I am rushing through the list by reading the thinnest books I can find. These days I tend to look at a book and assess whether I want to read it or not purely by how slender it is. Hence both Disgrace and The Thirty-Nine Steps (I've already talked about them somewhat, but for the record: 3 and 2.5 stars respectively), and hence, after having it on my shelf for about fifteen years, Animal Farm.

This is a book I really ought to have read years ago. All the way through my childhood well-meaning relatives kept giving copies of it to me, because they had heard I liked animals. Being a child who was a) very emotional and b) not stupid, I was suspicious enough to find out more before I began to read it, and my research led me to discover that a) Animal Farm is not really about animals at all, and b) the horse TOTALLY DIES.

Spoiler: the horse does die, and nastily. It's probably a good thing I didn't read this as a child, because there is a heavy lot of animal-on-animal cruelty in this book. But, of course, Animal Farm isn't really about the animals. It's all a great big allegory, and as an easily understandable expression of what tends to happen when you put a high-minded ideology into practice, and especially why Communism is such a total non-starter, it's brilliant. If, it argues, even cuddly little animals end up shooting each other in the face and turning into human beings out of sheer wickedness, then those of us who were human in the first place have NO CHANCE. As arguments go, it's bloody compelling.

I'm a big fan of George Orwell's non-fiction writing because it manages to be simple, elegant and above all memorable, and this is no exception. Animal Farm is sound-bite heaven. It's incredible how much a text that's less than 100 pages long has become part of our culture and the way we understand politics. Phrases like 'Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad', 'Napoleon is always right', and 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others' get trotted out (hah) endlessly, even by people who haven't read the book.

Credulous beasts of burden
With that said, though, Animal Farm is by no means perfect. Where it doesn't really work is as an actual story. It's so obviously INTENSELY FULL OF MEANING that you can't focus on what's going on on the surface because you're trying to work out which of the pigs is meant to be Stalin (and to remember exactly who Molotov was, because it turns out that you may not have been paying full attention during that History lesson).

That doesn't affect its cleverness, but it did influence how I felt about its characters. Yes, Boxer dies, and that is sad, but because he's just a horse-shaped allegorical symbol for the credulous Soviet worker, it's hard to have a real depth of emotion for his fate. It turns out, contrary to what I was expecting, that you don't feel particularly sad when metaphors kill other metaphors, even if the first metaphor does it by sending the other metaphor off to be turned into glue. Oh well. Sucks to be a metaphor, I guess.

Essentially, I appreciated the ideas behind Animal Farm a lot, but I'm not sure I actually enjoyed the process of reading it. Nor do I feel that, now that I have read it, I have any deeper understanding of its political message than I did before. It's an immensely clever bit of writing, and what it has to say is (I think) immensely true, but that's really all. I know this is one of George Orwell's most famous and important works, and I'm probably ruffling a lot of feathers with this opinion but I still think I prefer him when he's in essay writing mode.

3 stars.