I love cookbooks. I love reading them, looking at them, following up on ingredients, doing a kind of cultural geography through cooking. I don’t need to cook their recipes but I sometimes do. I learned to cook with The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. And I still have my tattered, split and dirty paperback I bought in the early 80s —- ‘First time in paperback!’ says the cover. I don’t think I’d even made myself a cup of coffee until I left home, so learning to cook was an imperative as I had no money. And Fannie Farmer taught me. I remember working at La Ronde and thinking all day about making the Rich Devil Food Cake recipe when I got home, and then cycling through the Jacques Cartier Bridge and realising I didn’t’t have cocoa, and stopping by every dépanneur from Hochelaga-Maisonneuve to Park Extension that looked open in search of cocoa, finally finding it, arriving to the Avenue du Parc apartment I shared with Michael Bailey, making that cake half asleep, staying up for the baking time and then having some of that hot cake with cold milk and feeling completely blissed out. In the morning I awoke to loud banging on the fire escape leading from the kitchen. It was the landlord, coming to collect his rent, which I’d forgotten about, and looking aghast at my kitchen: full of dust from flour, cocoa, and bits of chocolate icing that were smeared on the table, the floor, and seemed to be everywhere. That’s the kind of obsessions cookbooks can lead to.
I’ve excluded books of history or theory from this list that have to do with work even though some (Marx, Benedict Anderson, Harold Innis, Barthes, Sontag) had an influence on my thinking that exceeded the boundaries of my job – always and at best uncertain, elastic, permeable — and seeped into shaping an understanding of life and the ways the world works. But I can’t refrain from including Pauline Kael here: she was my introduction to films and film criticism. In the mid-late 70s there were very few film books in the second-hand bookshops I trawled through and worked at in Montreal but Going Steady, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I Lost it at the Movies could usually be found there along with Bazin, V.F. Perkins, Paul Rotha, John Grierson, maybe a collection of Agee.
The problem with those and with other film books then available was that one was usually reading on films that were not available to see; one was reading …but in the dark. This changed for me when Reeling was published and was available at every corner bookshop in paperback: I bought my copy at Classics. In Reeling she was writing about some films I’d already seen or would soon see on television, and one could have a conversation with her views, and as one grew up and social circles expanded, one could also have a conversation about her work with others. It was almost de rigueur at a certain period. I saved my money and bought The New Yorkeronly to read her: I could barely understand the rest of the magazine. The weeks she wasn’t in it, I didn’t buy.
Anyway this is turning into a thesis, suffice to say that I’ve read her all my life and continue to dip into it occasionally, that no one’s writing on film entertains me more, that she’s endlessly interesting as a figure and despite her unarguable historical importance has still not received the attention that is her due (why do David Thomson, James Wolcot and all the other major figures she helped have such a tortuous relationship with her legacy – each expression of gratitude is a sting; what does it say that the person who did most damage to her reputation was a fellow female critic, Renata Adler?). I miss her irreverence, that thirties unsentimental funniness, those marvellous jazzy sentences, her fearlessness (she was banned from screenings several times). No one now exercises a similar centrality in the current culture, and that’s probably a good thing. But it does seems to me that no established popular critic now dares call out and poke fun at those in power like she did with Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, calling him ‘Feather in Brains’, one of many of her jokes that still make me chuckle over thirty years later , and largely because it hits its target so accurately. See the film. That’s what Kael always made you feel like doing.
I think it took me about a decade to really become acculturated in the UK, or at least as much as I wanted to be. The moment I knew I had become so was when I ‘got’ all the Mapp and Lucia books, laughed out loud at the word play, the social mores, had no trouble imagining tone of voice from what was visible in print; saw the humour in Mrs. Mapp’s resentment of Lucia’s social wars, Giorgino mio’s collecting, the queerness of ‘Quaint’ Irene, the fraught social situations where the invisible could be a call to battle etc . There were a series of other writers that helped nudge me along: some of Evelyn Waugh (I like the pre-war work best), the glamorous comic masterpieces by Nancy Mitford (Love in a Cold Climate, The Pursuit of Love), Barbara Pym’s excellent women — doing all the vicars’ work and quietly cycling along in spite of being side-lined and overlooked — in the lovely, sparse, pointillist novels: some of my very favourites. I’ve often re-read Mitford, and probably have read everything on her and her notorious family but E.F. Benson’s world is the cozy, lovely, humorous one I find most comforting. As my friend Helen Vincent says, ‘The thing that differentiates Benson from Waugh and Mitford and quite a few others who share his love of the deliciously bitchy is that he, like Olga and Georgie and a lot of his other characters, is fundamentally kind and generous-hearted towards the social climbers and spinsters and retired colonels in all their petty scheming ways, and that is why I love him so much more than them.’ That goes for me too.
Day Three: The Charterhouse of Parma. If Haulden Caulfield is a character that stayed with me through my teens, in my early twenties it was Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo, two young men on the make, one who has to fight the lowly origins of his birth, the other who is helped by his high origins. Julien is the smarter, more calculating, more ruthless of the two. Thus, I identified with the romantic and impulsive Fabrice in The Charterhouse of Parma much more. Stendhal’s books are knowing, unsentimental descriptions of a world of power, class and sex. The plots run along at great speed but are psychologically and socially vivid. The opening of The Red and the Black with Julien’s father calculating exactly how much he can get from the local lordling for the services of his son and simultaneously planning to take social and financial advantage of his progeny, bullying him to the extent he flees the home to try his luck with the red (army) and the (black) are marvels of psychology, dramatically rendered so that passion is always close to death. Some people have argued that The Red and the Black is the greater book; and they may be right. But I loved The Charterhouse of Parma more: the lyricism and high comedy of the humour, the dreamy romanticism, the naivete, idealism, haplessness and folly of Fabrice; the way he measures his life in relation to the what he reads; the wonderful Duchess of Senseverina, who could be a character out of Dangerous Liaisons, but even better, warmer, with more facets; the focus on passion; the way Fabrice always seems to be in the process of becoming; until in jail for nine months he’s birthed anew with a different sense of love.
Now, Andy’s question, ‘how did it affect my life?’ I’m not sure. Novels of love and becoming must be especially powerful to a young person trying to find out about these topics in a particularly intense period of development. I think there’s also the question of how an immigrant working class child learns about these things; the culture of home is always so different, from language, to structures of feeling, modes of understanding, that fictions of all kinds occupy a particularly vivid role in our imaginary; like Fabrice, one measures one’s thoughts and desires by those fictions in the hopes of more directly connecting with a culture that is both simultaneously ours but alien: how to be and how to love in a different culture instead of the way your parents insist is right? I think of Fabrice as loveably ridiculous but also the better part of the person I once aspired to be. It’s also probably why I was so socially clumsy then and have remained so since. I wish I’d come across Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son earlier. It would have been a useful corrective. I learned to love Fabrice and Julien, before the quite extraordinary pull of Gérard Phillipe playing those roles in the movies. And I’m glad I did.
Day 2: Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. There was a period in the early 80s were it seemed all my friends were reading and pushing everyone else to read this book. I quickly did the same. Isabel Allende’s introduction begins, ‘when I was young and still believed that the world could be changed according to our best intentions and hopes….’ Well, we were all young, and still believed – some of us still do — and the book offered a cogent and rousing denunciation of the systematic oppression of all of Latin American by the ‘First World,’ primarily the US in the years preceding the book’s publication, for the world to redress. I loved: the humour: ‘Fight poverty, kill a beggar’; its dictums: ‘the more freedom is extended to business, the more prisons have to be built for those who suffer from that business’; and it’s oratorical style, one full of facts but also full of feeling that sometimes turned to fury but was usually blackly funny: ‘The division of labour among nations is that some specialise in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialised in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilisations’.
Galeano’s words on the systematic oppression of the poor south spoke to a teenager living in the rich north who had already witnesses waves upon wave of migration that was a direct result of what Galeano was analysing and preaching about: the Chileans, the Argentinians, the Hondurans, the Nicaraguans, the Salvadoreans, who periodically landed in Montreal – destitute, nostalgic, grateful for a new life, sad but hopeful — were evidence of Galeano’s truth. I think there’s also a personal connection in terms growing up in what was then a cultural colony where all tv etc was American and seeing such a direct contestation in a way that was so easily legible. It changed one’s perceptions. It changed me.
Hugo Chavez gifted the book to Barack Obama on his state visit to the US.
Andrew Grimes Griffin has challenged me to a new game: 10 Books in 10 Days, with an explanation of how the book affected your life, thought, or work. I’ll skip the work bit as that would be just too much work. Do join in if you’d like: it would be lovely to see the web full of discussions of books.
Today my choice is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life, the second volume of her memoirs which began with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: from my late teens to well into my forties I was, I wouldn’t say obsessed, but I was a constant reader of de Beauvoir’s work and I’ve read pretty much all of it, from The Second Sex to The Mandarins, to the posthumous journals, letters to Sartre etc. What I kept returning to was her memoirs: They seem to offer a gay Hispanic allophone a model for inventing a life in many dimensions: intellectual – she was always reading and seeing and commenting avidly on it all; romantically (it was all discussed; what is love? what are the parameters of an open relationship, why not marry? – it was all thought through and shaped) morally (and this in reference not only to friendships and relationships but a kind of ethics for living), politically (how to behave under occupation), her relationship with her work (she put in the hours, beavered away like a good ‘Castor’) her participation in the intellectual and artistic life of the period (or not), her quest to be free, to act responsibly, to do good. What I found enthralling and inspiring was this conscious shaping of a life and a world, one which felt out of control and alien to me, but which she offered a model of willing, differently shaping, changing. Of all the diaries, The Prime of Life, which covers her early relationship with Sartre, all of the thirties, and ends with the Liberation, was the one that I returned to over and over again for many years, largely because I was in my twenties and thirties as well when I first read and re-read it. Aside from the pleasures it gave of its own, it also introduced me to French intellectual life between the wars and after, which has remained a lifelong interest.