Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Mrs. Ramsay and the bay leaf - peering into the dish in To the Lighthouse

This is a piece about how readers change.  And about food.

The long dinner chapter of To the Lighthouse (1928), Chapter XVII of “The Window,” what a masterpiece.  It does so much.  Here is a taste.

… and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off.  The cook had spent three days over that dish.  And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes.  And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought. (100)

Mrs. Ramsay thinks of celebration but also death, that love “bear[s] in its bosom the seeds of death.”  Then the outside intrudes on her and the dinner guests praise the dish, a boeuf en daube, and mock English cooking as “an abomination (they agreed).”  I have to say, I ate so well in London, the English food included.  No doubt circa 1910, the time of the novel, things were not so good.

The stew is first mentioned about twenty pages earlier, in Ch. XVI.  Mrs. Ramsay is nervous about her big dinner:

… and they were having Mildred’s masterpiece – Boeuf en Daube.  Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready.  The beef, the bay leaf, and the wine – all must be done to a turn.  To keep it waiting was out of the question… things had to be kept hot; the Boeuf en Daube would be entirely spoilt.  (80)

When I last read To the Lighthouse, maybe twenty-five years ago, I suppose I nodded along, sympathizing with Mrs. Ramsay’s anxiety.  This time, though – do you cook? – you saw it, right?  “The bay leaf must be done to a turn”?  The bay leaf!

Boeuf en daube is beef stewed in wine, and is not a difficult dish.  It is classic Provence country cooking, not imperial cuisine.  I can make a daube – come over some time.  One good way to agitate bookish Twitter is to say a book is or is not “difficult,” because the word can mean different things.  In fact, daube is difficult in three ways – let’s use a recipe attributed to Julia Child:

1. The list of ingredients is long.  Nothing exotic, but many pieces.

2.  The preparation ideally takes, as the cook has told Mrs. Ramsay, three days, which requires planning.  One day of marinating, one day of checking the stewpot, one day of just sitting there until reheated.  The amount of work by the cook is, mostly, minimal, although see below.  I am assuming the Ramsay vacation house has a stove.

3.  At one point, you have to make a basic roux, and you could burn that.  I mean, I could.  Pay attention!

Otherwise, this is a forgiving and flexible dish.  It will not be “entirely spoilt,” nor spoilt at all, if reheated.  The meat was actually “done to a turn” the day before the dinner.

As for the bay leaf, and for that matter the wine and many other ingredients, you just toss them in your Dutch oven, or your daubière if you have one, and put it in the oven.

Mrs. Ramsay does not understand what her cook has told her.  Apparently, at some point in the past, there was some fuss over bay leaves.  Perhaps the cook insisted that she could not make a certain dish because there were no bay leaves, and now Mrs. Ramsay fixates on them.  “Done to a turn” may be the cook’s phrase, too.

Now, having said this, the logistics of getting the food to the table at the right temperature for a dinner of twelve or more is a challenge.  Then there is the question of the stove.  A cook at the time often functioned more like a naval engineer, keeping a complex and temperamental machine operating at a consistent temperature.  Too bad Kipling never write a story about this, a great cook and the things she can make her Victorian stove do.  Keeping dishes hot required real skill.  We have it easy, now.

I wonder if I had any idea what boeuf en daube was when I first read this novel.  Now that I know, and even know how to make it myself, an entire extra little dimension of the story unfolds.

So this is one way we change as readers.  We learn things.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales - Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious

Seven Japanese Tales (1970, tr. Howard Hibbett) by Juichiro Tanizaki.  Four of the “tales” are short stories from the 1910s and 1920s, pretty obviously newspaper pieces, although heaven forbid an editor mentions where anything is from.  Three tales, two from the 1930s and one from 1959 – impressive career! – are more like novellas.

I thought this would be a good place to get to know Tanizaki, who I had not read at all.  Poking around, I found a review or two saying it was not the place to start.  I suppose I did not think anything in this book was world-class, but I know Tanizaki wrote other books.  And much is visible right here.

The oldest story, “The Tattooer” (1910), made Tanizaki famous.  That is worth seeing.  A sadistic tattooer dreams of creating the perfect tattoo (“a huge black-widow spider,” 167) on the perfect woman.  He does so, but somehow in the process transfers his creative strength to the woman:

“All of my fears have been swept away – and you are my first victim!”  She darted a glance at him as bright as a sword.  A song of triumph was ringing in her ears.  (169)

Sure, why not.  I had picked up somewhere that Tanizaki was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and in these early stories I can see it, not so much in the Gothic giant spider but in the extreme, self-destructive psychology of the men, who all succumb to Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  I noted Theodore Dreiser borrowing the same idea in The American Tragedy (1925), contemporary to Tanizaki’s early stories, although Dreiser also borrows Poe’s distinctive, bizarre language, Tanizaki much less so, at least in this translation.  But in the character who has a phobia about riding on a train (“Terror,” 1913), or the kleptomaniac who can’t bring himself to tell a lie (“The Thief,” 1921), I can see the shadow of Poe.  “’Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious’” (184).

Also immediately visible was Tanizaki’s interest in another aspect of the word “perverse.”  Five of the seven stories feature dominant / submissive relationships with a woman in the dominant and a man in the submissive role.  “The Tattooer” is the only one where the man is dominant but becomes submissive.  Some of these relationships are sexual, some not, but the psychology is repeated.  Theme and variation.

The most interesting variation was in “A Portrait of Shunkin” (1933), where the woman is a blind music prodigy and the man is first her servant, then pupil, then lover – husband, really.  She is a tyrant, willful and capricious; he is perfectly devoted.  At one key point, his devotion goes way, way too far, in a way I do not want to describe.  Yikes!  Ick!  Tanizaki seems to like extreme cases.

I thought “Shunkin” was the best-written story, too, in the sense that the sentences were the most interesting.  More phrases and clauses, more rhetorical variation.  In some of the stories, the prose got pretty flat.  The recurrent symbolic songbird theme was blatant but effective:

Nightingales are often long-lived if properly cared for, but they require constant attention.  Left to an inexperienced person, they soon die.  (51)

The Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 13th year, is ongoing, so I read this book and hope to read another Tanizaki or two.


Monday, February 3, 2020

Yet somehow this is not the Fool’s own book - The Book of the Red King by Marly Youmans - One can only go so far with logic

I read only a few new books last year, but two of them starred Fools - the capital F kind – Kehlmann’s Tyll and Marly Youmans’s The Book of the Red King, a collection of lyric poems that do not make up a narrative, exactly, but suggest one, or many.

I, Fool, unpacked The Book of the Red King
And wrote these words because I could not bear
For every spark and speck of mystery
To die, then sealed them with my foolish kiss.  (from “Naked in the Sands”)

The Fool searches for the Red King; the King awaits the fool.  Or the Fool dreams of the Red King; the King dreams of the Fool.  Who can say which creates the other.  The title is the first of many, possibly endless, literary references.  Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel’s Red King, from Through the Looking-Glass (1871), is on the left – do not wake him!  Youmans’s characters dream a lot, and occasionally try to pass through mirrors (see “The Looking-glass Stop”).

King Lear had a Fool, I was thinking, and then he appeared in “’My Poor Fool is Hang’d,’” although luckily this king rescues his fool, who is hanging by his foot, like the Hanged Man in the tarot deck.  The Fool is himself one of the Major Arcana, and the next poem is “The Tarot Fool.”

Yeats is everywhere, his gyre built into the book’s third major character, a spiral shell that could be the female principle, the Holy Ghost, or a pretty souvenir the Fool picked up at the beach, and in the Red King’s spiral tower.  The cento near the end of the book, “Fool’s Motley,” is composed of lines of Proust, Yeats, Dickens, Christopher Logue, Charles Causley, and other authorial spirits.

I have followed the  writers because I enjoy the pursuit, but they are no help, in the sense that they do not explain the poems, no more than following the motifs of snow, mirrors, stars, games, leaves, or many others from poem to poem.  Stated plainly, they look so simple, but Youmans creates such complex patterns with them, or perhaps she scatters them about like seeds so her readers can create their own patterns.  I have noticed that readers have been reluctant to quickly interpret The Book of the Red King.  See Scott Bailey’s piece, please, or Fred Chappell’s metaphor of the book as “a mystical, metaphysical board game.”  It is a game with a large number of pieces.

Hart Crane is explaining the obscurities of his own poem sequence, The Bridge (1930), to Yvor Winters in a letter: “One can only go so far with logic, then willfully dream and play – and pray for the fusion.”*  The fusion is up to me.

And why is this the book of the Red King
When it was plainly written by a fool?
Its every word proclaims its lunar source,
Yet somehow this is not the Fool’s own book…
The Fool has done nothing to earn the book.
The Fool was given a gift, and that is all.  (from “The Red Book of the King” – note the curious alternative title)

I wonder how the poems look on their own, without their neighbors or any sense of sequence, without my attempt to connect them.  They would look different.  Perhaps my favorite, all by itself, although it fuses with several other poems, is “The Fool Tells the Children a Story at the Solstice,” about Hob, the  speck of dust who dreamed of becoming a star:

Hob floated in the dark’s abyss,
Dreaming of a burning kiss

To change his coat of soil to light,
To pin his flame against the night.

See Bailey’s post for the ending.  Hob’s dream comes true, logically, even.

The Book of the Red King seems to me like a major work, if that is a term anyone still uses in the context of poetry.  I suspect you will have to buy it yourself if you want to read it.

Marly is Friend of the Blog.   We have discussed, in comments here and there over the years, some of the poets who lie hidden behind or around her book.  She has recommended Charles Causley to me several times, but still I have not read him.

* O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, eds. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber, letter from Nov. 15, 1926, p. 289.