Tuesday, 16 March 2010
Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts
Can you taste books? Can you perceive the flavour of sentences, metaphors and similes? Does a particular passage in a novel make you lick your lips?
Well, apparently 'Rayuela' by Julio Cortázar made me lick mine.
I'll explain. Some days ago I was in the staff room, immersed in Horacio Oliveira's love saga (review to follow soon) when I was suddenly interrupted by a colleague. What are you reading? 'Rayuela' by Julio Cortázar, it's translated as 'Hopscotch' in English. Why were you licking your lips? I was what? Yes - her, chuckling - you looked as if you were eating a pineapple and the juice was running down your chin and you were lapping it with your tongue.
'... sus ojos verdes de una hermosura maligna...' ('his green eyes of an evil beauty'). That was the passage that - apparently - made me lose all sense of decorum in front of my colleagues. Cortázar uses the same phrase seven times in the space of five pages, thus, adding an element of aesthetic elegance to what is already an absurd situation (Oliveira turning his room into a fortress in order to pre-empt his friend Traveler's alleged retaliation, in the middle of the night at the mental institution where they have both started working). When I read that scene I thought of my comforting 'mate caliente' with a dash of honey, slowly journeying down my throat; the bitterness mixed with the sweetness. So, yes, my colleague might have been right (in fact, she was right, why else would she have told me then?), I licked my lips. But, then again, when presented with first-class writing, I tend to cast aside all my inhibitions. And above all, my palate becomes more acute.
Am I the only one who finds Atwood's writing the equivalent of a Sunday roast? Eagerly awaited and elegantly presented, you know that no matter which bit of the chicken you choose, you will always be satisfied. And any puns involving her novel 'The Edible Woman' are verboten. The roast potatoes will be crunchy, the greens will be soft and the Yorkshire puddings will be well cooked. Margaret is to me the epitome of a family gathering. I crave her writing style in the same way I crave my wife's roast dinners.
With Milan Kundera the flavour that comes to mind is rich and creamy cheesecake. Put too much on your plate and you'll be sick. But allocate yourself the right amount, especially after a yummy dinner and you'll be licking your lips. 'The Joke', 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' and 'Immortality' come to mind. Plus, toffee cheesecafe.
But the question I want to ask you, fellow bloggers/readers/authors, is: do you feel the same when you write? Regardless of whether you're a professional writer or not, a published poet or an aspiring one, a blogger, or a freelance journalist, is there a moment in the writing process, when a turn of phrase, a trope or a 'deliberate accident' makes you want to lick your lips and say to yourself: 'This is good, this-is-so-good, this tastes absolutely divine'. I didn't ask you about your agent and editor, thank you very much, but much obliged for the reminder.
Has literature got a flavour? And if it has, what does it taste of? When I first read Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children', I felt the same way I do whenever I have my favourite brand of crisps: Kettle Chips. I call them grown-ups' crisps: mature, intelligent (none of that half-full/half-empty pack shenanigans like Walkers') and addictive. Same with Salman's fiction. It's full of a silliness that is trascendental and lyrical at the same time. He clearly has fun writing, ergo, I have fun reading him. And I have fun, too, eating Kettle Chips.
A poet I 'discovered' a few years ago gave me the best definition of coffee I've ever read in my life. First Mahmoud Darwish mentions the beverage in his poem 'My Mother': 'I long for my mother's bread/My mother's coffee', then we have a longer explanation about the meaning of coffee to him in his memoir, 'Memory for Forgetfulness'. I confess that not a single day has gone by since I first came across the passage below without me brewing coffee at home (I usually have instant, but occasionally I like drinking the real McCoy) and thinking of Mahmoud's words:
'I know my coffee, my mother's coffee, and the coffee of my friends. I can tell them from afar and I know the differences among them. No coffee is like another, and my defense of coffee is a plea for difference itself. There's no flavor we might label "the flavor of coffee" because coffee is not a concept, or even a single substance. And it's not an absolute. Everyone's coffee is special, so special that I can tell one's taste and elegance of spirit by the flavor of the coffee. Coffee with the flavor of coriander means the woman’s kitchen is not organized. Coffee with the flavor of carob juice means the host is stingy. Coffee with the aroma of perfume means the lady is too concerned with appearances. Coffee that feels like moss in the mouth means its maker is an infantile leftist. Coffee that tastes stale from too much turning over in the hot water means its maker is an extreme rightist. And coffee with the overwhelming flavor of cardamom means the lady is newly rich.
No coffee is like another. Every house has its coffee, and every hand too, because no soul is like another. I can tell coffee from far away: it moves in a straight line at first, then zigzags, winds, bends, sighs, and turns on flat, rocky surfaces and slopes; it wraps itself around an oak, then loosens and drops into a wadi, looks back, and melts with longing to go up the mountain. it does go up the mountain as it disperses in the gossamer of a shepherd’s pipe taking it back to its first home.
The aroma of coffee is a return to and a bringing back of first things because it is the offspring of the primordial. It’s a journey, begun thousands of years ago, that still goes on. Coffee is a place. Coffee is pores that let the inside seep through to the outside. A separation that unites what can’t be united except through its aroma.'
Reader, I ask you again, what does literature taste of to you? In the meantime, I'll put the kettle on.
Next Post: 'Synecdoche, New York (Review), to be published on Thursday 18th March at 11:59pm (GMT)