Thursday, October 29, 2009

Food: Table for one

(Published in the Business Standard, November 2009)

“In the same way that you should get massages and take naps or meditate, you should, everyone should, make a point to eat out by yourself from time to time,” wrote Amanda Hesser in her wonderful Cooking for Mr Latte. “You should be kind enough to yourself to lavish your appetite with good food without the interruptions of company.”

And yet, most of the frequent flyers, conference junkies and global nomads I know would rather don mime makeup for a day than eat alone. One friend admits that a long-anticipated trip to Italy was ruined by her disinclination for the solitary table: she ordered room service, only daring once to eat a slice of pizza on the street, eschewing the baroque delights of the Roman table through shyness.

Another frequent traveller, otherwise a man-of-the-world, suffers mild anxiety attacks every time he has to eat alone; another will buy sandwiches and eat them in his room rather than go through what he sees as the admission of social failure involved in asking for a table for one. One friend has solved the problem at considerable cost to his liver; he finds it less threatening to nibble on bar snacks than to eat in a restaurant when on his own, but since he feels obliged to order drinks alongside, he says this is not always the best solution.

I feel for them; I, too, used to be a reluctant solitary eater. Travelling around India, often on my own, there seemed to be too much risk involved in seeking out the table for one, especially in North India where a woman on her own is automatically assumed to be in need of the attentions of (usually) hirsute, burping, half-drunk men. And eating out in fancy restaurants can be ordeal, starting with the maĆ®tre d’s thinly veiled pity as he escorts the lone diner to a table, tucked behind a pillar, viewless, where s/he is destined to be bumped into by harried waiters and ignored by the busboys. If you’re at all self-conscious, it is hard to overcome the sense that the rest of the restaurant’s patrons are wondering why you have no friends—and it is often hard for a lone diner to get anything like good service.

The essence of the single diner experience, though, is a kind of enjoyment that you can’t have when you’re with a group. Lose the crutches: the book, carried along, the iPod in the ears. The problem with these accessories is that while they allow you to block out the world, they also detract from the meal—it’s fine to comfort yourself with Ruth Reichl at a Gurgaon food court or a McAnywhere, but at a truly excellent restaurant, it would be like draping tussore curtains over a Kandinsky.

For many of us, it can take just one experimental trip to change your habits. I began to love eating out on separate trips to Malaysia and in Edinburgh—I was free to choose my preferred cuisine, to eat deep-fried Mars bars or order three helpings of tom yam soup without embarrassment, and to ask idiot questions: “What is that exotic, rare herb you’re sprinkling over the laksa?” “That would be mint, ma’am.”

Buy Patrick McFarlin and Deborah Madison’s What We Eat When We Eat Alone, or read MFK Fisher on the private joys of solitary eating. Madison has recipes for those who cook alone—they range from the elaborate to the simplicity of tomatoes-and-cheese on toast, but the bottomline is simple: treat yourself the way you would treat a guest. Fisher speaks of the “peace and nostalgia” of eating on your own; Hesser sees a kind of liberation in the ability to pay full attention not just to your meal, but to your palate and your appetites.

A few small details can go a long way towards the creation of a great, solitary meal. At restaurants, be polite, but insist on a good table—point out one by the window or in a comfortable space where you can see the other diners—and book ahead if necessary. If your waiter isn’t harried, and s/he shouldn’t be at a good restaurant, give him or her a sense of your tastes and ask for recommendations.

Eat well; eat with pleasure; pay attention to your plate and your senses; eat without worrying about butter on your chin or whether it’s polite to take a second helping. For those of us who spend much time in the company of other foodies and friends, eating alone can be a blessed reminder of the pleasures of your own company, and of the secret, childish joy of satisfying your own appetites.

Book review: Summertime by J M Coetzee

(Published in the Business Standard, October 2009)Summertime: Scenes From Provincial Life
J M Coetzee
Harvill/ Secker
Rs 799, 266 pages

That this is a book by J M Coetzee about a dead and not entirely successful writer called John Coetzee will surprise no one who knows the work of the real Coetzee. Perhaps the only defence left to a writer as highly regarded and relentlessly pursued as the (real, not fictional) J M Coetzee, and as insistently reticent, is to offer himself up in sacrificial fiction.

The work for which J M Coetzee is best known comes from his early and middle period: The Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace. In these and other works, Coetzee revealed himself as a chronicler of history—including but not limited to the history of South Africa—who was willing to deal in history’s ambiguities as well as its certainties. Each of these novels was an exploration of the human history of pain, broken by moments of compassion but rarely optimistic of redemption.

Some years ago, Coetzee, pursued by fame, began to create a different kind of fiction. His Nobel speech, built around the character and voice of a modern-day Crusoe, remains one of the strangest acceptance speeches ever in the history of the prize, written in the dispassionate third-person. He turned a fictionalized lecture on 'The Lives of the Animals' into a book about a fictional writer called Elizabeth Costello, and wrote two fictionalized memoirs: Boyhood and Youth.

Summertime is a companion volume to these two, the last in a trilogy of strange and unsettling works, where the novelist becomes his own subject. There is a biographer of John Coetzee, unnamed and largely unidentified except through the medium of his questions, and his silences. He seeks to understand the life of the fictional Coetzee through the writer’s encounters with women, and what we are offered is a series of interviews and reflections on relationships that run the gamut from affair to misunderstood encounter to close friendship.

“He was not what most people would call attractive. He was scrawny, he had a beard, he wore horn-rimmed glasses and sandals. He looked out of place, like a bird, one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory.”

This is the voice of the married woman who has an affair, ambiguous and not entirely satisfactory, with John Coetzee; she sees him as a loner living with his father, both stumbling with ineptitude around the empty spaces of their lives. She is startled to hear that Coetzee has written a book; it is not a usual accomplishment in her circles. Her marriage breaks up, and to her, it’s the story of her life, her independence, that is central, with the writer an appendix, not the main chapters.

The women offer different perspectives, all remarking on the writer Coetzee’s essential strangeness, his talent and need for distance. A cousin, Margot, remembers his brilliance but also his remoteness from family: “John sitting on the stoep of that dreary little house making up poems!” A Brazilian woman who meets him as a teacher is unimpressed, by his teaching and by his letters to her: “That is what I ask: how can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary little man?”

It would be a mistake to read too much into Summertime’s presentation of John Coetzee, poet, writer, possibly a failed man and perhaps even a mediocre practitioner of his work. But in these critiques—and the women in John Coetzee’s life are his reviewers, more than his biographers—the writer emerges as dry, reserved. The central question, as one woman asks, is whether a writer who cannot connect as a human being can truly write something that demands intimacy—the novel being perhaps the most intimate of all ways to examine the human life.

Summertime is an uneasy read, intensely rewarding but also deeply disturbing. Coetzee offers, through the fictional Coetzee, a more intimate look at his own life and passage through the world than a standard biography might reveal. But this intimacy is fictional, about an alter ego to whom intimacy is alien and uncomfortable, and it is hard to draw a line between Coetzee the writer, and his creation, Coetzee the writer.

It’s when he appears to be most open, in his fictionalized biographies, that Coetzee is also trying to tell us to trust nothing. Memoirs and biographies are compelling, but the truth of a life is elusive; and by opening up his own life in fictional form, he keeps it firmly hidden from any would-be seeker after that truth.

The BS Column: Stet: Nabokov's last work

(Published in the Business Standard, October 27, 2009)

In a few weeks, Knopf will publish The Original of Laura: Fragments. The “fragments” is key. The design chosen for the final, unpublished manuscript that the late Vladimir Nabokov wanted destroyed is appropriate to the way he wrote it. The book includes reproductions of the 138 index cards on which the author, suffering from his last illness, wrote the unfinished version of the book he hoped would stand comparison with Lolita and Pale Fire.

Before his death, Vladimir Nabokov told his wife, Vera, to destroy the manuscript. He knew that the book version of Laura was incomplete, and he forbade the release of the book in this form. After the death of Vera Nabokov, it became the task of Vladimir’s son, Dmitri, to wrestle with this grievously burdensome inheritance. An author’s final wishes, especially when stated as clearly as Nabokov had, should be binding, a father’s even more so.

But there were reasons why Vera Nabokov couldn’t bring herself to carry out Vladimir’s wishes: this was his last work, however unfinished, and it would take great ruthlessness to destroy the final remnant of the writer’s legacy. The same questions must have haunted Dmitri Nabokov: did he have a duty to destroy Laura? Did he have the right to preserve Laura, for future generations of readers and Nabokov scholars?

Vera Nabokov had some precedent for her inability to comply with her husband’s last wishes: in 1950, he had attempted to destroy the index cards on which he had written Lolita, by thrusting them into a backyard incinerator, and she had been the rescuer on that occasion. Perhaps this is what stayed in Dmitri’s mind, or perhaps with the passage of time it became easier for him to contemplate bringing to light what his father had wanted erased.

The Original of Laura, as a novel, is bound to disappoint those who expect another Lolita or even an Ada. Nabokov’s later works—Transparent Things, Look at The Harlequins!—were the products of a master stylist’s imagination, but they have never made the impact of the works he is best remembered for. And Nabokov was something of a collage artist, as many of the greatest novelists are, working over a period of years, overlaying an original and apparently complete draft with images and questions of increasing depth and density.

He ran out of time before he could do this with Laura, which he wrote as his illness progressed. “In my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible,” Nabokov wrote. The novel was complete “in his mind”, but he wasn’t granted the time to transfer that completed version onto the page.

The number of index cards—a mere 138--for Laura is a giveaway. Nabokov wrote most of his works on index cards, as he records of the writing of Lolita: “I would spend another four-hour span in a lawn chair, among the roses and mockingbirds, using lined index cards and a Blackwing pencil, for copying and recopying, rubbing out and writing anew, the scenes I had imagined in the morning.” He used 2,000-odd index cards for Ada, which gives us a sense of just how fragmentary this version of Laura is likely to be.

Beyond the worlds of book collectors and the narrower reaches of academia, we have lost the space for marginalia, first drafts and other literary artifacts. Laura is fascinating in its own right-which is to say, not as Nabokov’s last unpublished novel, or even as his last unfinished novel, but as a study of a writer’s working methods in the early draft phase. For many of today’s writers, even if they keep working copies of their outtakes and early manuscript versions, the backspace and delete keys work against the curious literary scholar ever seeing a true “first draft”. Much of the early mistakes, the shifts in tone of a manuscript-in-progress are automatically, unthinkingly deleted by the screen generation of writers.

And Laura could also be fascinating to this generation of hypertext-friendly readers. Nabokov often took his finished stack of index cards and shuffled them, “dealing himself a novel”, as though the shoeboxes in which he kept his cards offered more possibilities of order and structure than anything the novelist might impose. He sifted, corrected and added to this final dealing, but that image of random and yet meaningful connections is closer to our wired age than it is to Nabokov’s pre-Mac times.

Perhaps some day Laura will be up in the form that might be most suited to it, as an endlessly changing and randomized collection of clickable index cards in a permanent online exhibition. Until someone designs that, we’re left with Nabokov’s final legacy—a novel that is, tantalisingly, not quite a book.
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