A thought by Gillian Slovo

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I heard Gillian Slovo, the South African-born author, last Saturday at the International Literature Festival Dublin 2017. She was talking, along with fellow writer Danielle McLaughlin, to author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, on the topic of Why We Write. Orbach was fantastic in gently teasing out subtexts and hidden corners of thoughts – it felt more like being privy to an intimate conversation than listening to a panel discussion where, in the worst cases, the same old clichés are being rehearsed.

The questions of why we write, and how we write, fascinate me. The more I learn about this – also from writing myself – the more interesting it becomes. Susie Orbach said that she writes to explore what she is thinking. She is not alone in that – many people may write a journal for this reason, if nothing else.

I am particularly interested in literary non-fiction, and one of its main formats, the personal essay, centres on a process of verbalisation and exploration. A good essay should walk you through the thoughts of an author as they happen. This is not a special effect superimposed on the finished text in the way a murder mystery is structured. The case in essay writing is commonly that the author has a question, rather than already an answer, and elaborates and records her train of thought. Of course, there may be some re-writing once the reflection has been worked out for the first time, in order to shine up the language or bridge some jumps in the logic. But the essential format of seeking and finding will be kept, and it is actually this journey of discovery that is enjoyable to the readers. Also fiction writers are advised to let the reader discover facts about the story or characters as they go along, and not to overload them with all the details upfront. That is fit for a newspaper article, not a story.

Many writers explore personal topics this way, too, about their own present or past. This is sometimes dismissed as “writing being just a form of therapy”. This is irritating for two reasons. For one, there is nothing wrong with therapy; indeed there is nothing wrong with having mental health issues, but that is another discussion. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with writing being therapeutic. The real question is whether it is good writing, in non-fiction as in fiction. If it is good, it will be worth reading, no matter the motivation or circumstances of the author.

Gillian Slovo and Danielle McLaughlin are first and foremost fiction writers, although Slovo has also published a memoir of her childhood in South Africa as the daughter of two major figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Both authors spoke to Susie Orbach about the curious sensation of finding themselves, various parts of themselves, in the characters of their stories. These are usually not superficial likenesses of age, sex, or background. It usually concerns deeper emotions such as fears or desires. Through a character (or plot), an author can also explore darker sides of her soul, from the petty to the monstrous. As a reader, we do the same – this is one of the fundamental attractions of storytelling.

There is another way of understanding what Slovo said about missing oneself, and that is about the voice of the author. Every writer has a voice, which grows usually more defined with experience – you can also call it their style. Some writers are wordy, others sparse. Some are colourful, others minimalist, tongue-in-cheek, warm, mocking, cynical, forthright or reserved. For the reader, it gives an additional pleasure to reading. But for a writer who has found her voice, the pleasure comes from being entirely oneself, of recognising oneself and realising oneself in the process of creation, of choosing exactly this word over that, to sculpt this thought, or that. It is a feeling that imagine is similar in other artistic activities, and it is altogether addictive.

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A thought by A.A. Milne

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Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) is mostly remembered today because of a children’s book. He created Winnie-the-Pooh, the loveable bumbling teddy bear and his friends, putting his little son Christopher Robin as a character into the stories. But Milne wrote many more things – plays, poems, novels and newspaper columns. Many of the latter appeared in the British satirical and humour magazine Punch, which ran from 1841 to 2002 and where Milne worked as a contributing author and assistant editor. He wrote witty essays on a number of topics, from literature to golf, thermometers, walking sticks and food. They allow an intimate look into everyday British life in the early 20th century although admittedly mostly of the educated middle- and upper-classes.

The above quote is taken from a piece called Lunch, which discusses the merits of that meal over others:  “An invitation to dinner is formal, to tea unnecessary, to breakfast impossible, but there is a casualness, very friendly and pleasant, about invitations to lunch which make them complete in themselves, and in no way dependent on any lunch which may or may not follow.”

I enjoy reading his essays, and others like them, exactly because they draw little spotlights on everyday phenomena. Politics, morals and other big issues of life deserve a large chunk of our attention. But looking at the little things in a different light is like being a traveller in one’s own backyard; it is refreshing and opens your mind, especially when written in such a charming way.

A thought by Victor Hugo

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Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a French novelist, dramatist and poet, and is considered one of the greatest French writers. Outside of France, his best-known novels are Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although many may know them through their adaptations into numerous films, plays and musicals. Hugo was much engaged in the political and social life, elected first into the Académie Française, the council that is the official authority on the French language, and later into the National Assembly, where he campaigned for social justice, the alleviation of poverty as well as the universal right to vote and to free education. The epic Les Misérables addresses exactly these social causes, through the fictional story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, but also through essays on various historical or philosophical topics scattered through the text. They make up over a quarter of the already enormous book – one of the longest novels ever written. The above quote for example comes from Chapter 1 of Book 7 of Volume 4 of Les Misérables, where he calls for the illumination of minds through education and science. Education will not, as he points out, make us live happily ever after, but it gives everybody a chance to make their own choices and shape their own lives. Being left in the dark means not to be able to understand what is happening around us, in the natural as in the social world. It breeds fear and superstition: “It is unintelligible in the dark. It gnashes and whispers, completing the gloom with misery,” as Hugo vividly describes it. He does not believe in determinism, that we are destined to stay in the same situation as we were born in, and thus either fortunate or unfortunate. The real human division, he writes, is between the illuminated and the ones in the dark – and this can be changed. Minds can be illuminated, through education, through reading.

And think about it: Books are like flames also in that they do not diminish when they are shared. When did you last share a book with someone?

 

A thought by Paul Schmidt

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Paul Schmidt (1934-1999) was a US American professor of literature and translator of mainly Russian and German authors (Chekhov, Brecht…). He also wrote poems, plays and essays himself.

The above quote was taken from his essay “A Winter’s Feast”, published in Parnassus – Poetry in Review in 1990. The essay reflects on a passage from Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, which was entirely written in verse. In the first chapter, Pushkin describes a New Year’s feast that the novel’s hero, Eugene Onegin, attends at a restaurant. He dines on champagne, roast beef, pineapple, Limpurger cheese, truffles and foie gras. Certainly a festive, even ostentatious, meal – but it is even more than that. Schmidt unveils the multiple layers of meaning Pushkin managed to condense into a few words. As Schmidt writes, “food was a metaphor for the age,” and it is a great lyric and metaphorical tool, because it carries so much meaning within it.

In terms of food writing, I am personally most interested in literary nonfiction food writing, rather than fictional writing featuring food. This essay illustrates my main reason why. The poet or fictional author will put together a menu, dish or meal to suit the needs of the story or poem. This is, in purely food terms, less realistic. Less authentic, to use a much-abused word. Schmidt tells us, for example, that the “roast beef” was bécasse in an earlier draft of Pushkin’s text, which is woodcock, a game bird living in the forests of Central Europe and Russia. Pushkin, Schmidt writes, chose this dish “not because he liked woodcock but because bécasse rhymes with ananas (pineapple)”. The poetic or fictional use of food is of course proof of the lyrical talents of an author, which I appreciate, too, but for different reasons. As a real-life enthusiast and foodnerd, I just personally prefer nonfictional writing – like this essay itself.

After a discussion of the meal as a whole, Schmidt muses in little sub-essays on each of the dishes and their culinary-cultural meanings. The passage on Foie Gras, for instance, begins with the statement: “There is a dark side to food – the inside.” Do not let the slightly pompous tone throw you off – Schmidt tempers it masterfully by throwing, of all things, Arnold Schwarzenegger into the discussion. The subject of Roast Beef brings Schmidt to the topic of human “meditation” on our food, in the sense of meddling, of imposing culture on nature, of making food out of raw materials. The cheese, finally, prompts the thought that has become this week’s quote – the relevance of preserving food for human nutrition, and culture. Food preservation, Schmidt says, is evidence of our cognitive capacities, our big brains, because it shows our awareness of time, which sets us apart from other animals: “To set about preserving food, one must first be aware of time—not merely the fact of it: distinguish day from night, and you can tell time—but rather the effect of time on the world”. Time affects our food, lets it go from unripe to ripe to overripe and rotten. Food preservation means controlling these effects, gaining a small victory over Nature – a thought I have myself reflected on the first time I made jam. Schmidt takes it even further and relates our perception of ripeness with sexuality, the transition from the sweet innocence of milk to the provocative aromas of ripened cheese. Those smells are sometimes downright indecent – which is why we love them, of course…

A thought by G.K. Chesterton

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Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was an English journalist, writer and critic. He is now best known for his books around the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, but he was a prolific writer on many topics, publishing around 80 books and 4000 essays. He was fond of using humour in his writing, though they often dealt with serious topics such as politics, economics, philosophy and theology. This quote is taken from his essay “Cheese”, from the collection Alarms and Discursions (1910). The essay starts light-heartedly and even nonsensically, bemoaning the “neglect of cheese in European Literature”, but turns into a reflection about civilisation and modern society, and the value of diversity within them. “Good” civilisations are “varying and yielding, because they are alive,” he writes. Like good cheese.

I’m jamming… An essay on marmalade

A few Sundays ago, I made my first jam. Orange marmalade to be precise, from untreatedP1070506 Sicilian blood oranges. It took me a few hours, and I had to wash the kitchen floor and myself afterwards because everything got a bit sticky, but I did it. That evening I was sitting on my couch just looking at those glorious five jam jars with their orange-red filling. Proud as if I’d laid an egg.
Since then, I’ve made my own apple sauce and taralli (sort of pretzels), and there’s a box of orange peel in my freezer waiting to be candied. I am a bit surprised myself by my recent domestic adventures. But there is a reason behind all this. What inspired me to the jam-making…well, actually, that’s the point. I was not inspired, I was pushed. By 10kg of beautiful Sicilian oranges sitting in my hallway. My colleague’s brother has an orchard somewhere at the south-eastern corner of Sicily, and she organised a delivery of oranges up to Piemonte, for a good price, but you had to take 10kg minimum. What are you going to do with so many oranges? Marmalade, that’s what. Because you don’t want a single one of them go to waste… Continue reading