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.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Synecdoche, New York (Review), to be published on Thursday 18th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I love that feeling, when I write a sentence that's just right and it tastes so sweet and decadent like Lindt chocolate on my tongue. It doesn't always happen but when it does I savour it.


  2. So strange, I just 'discovered' Mahmoud Darwish yesterday. After watching 'Dispatches, Children of Gaza' I wanted to read more Palestinian poetry having only read Palestinian-American poets like Naomi Shihab Rye, and Suheir Hammad... have you heard Suheir Hammad?... this memoir by Darwish sounds wonderful and I shall hunt for it. But in the meantime I am so glad to read your work... when shall we have a poem from you? I can just taste it, can't you?! :)

  3. What an interesting post - I think I experience more of a synathaesia when coming across a delectable phrase in a literary text -savouring it visually rather than tasting it or licking my lips - I read a great book this weekend that i would like to recommend to you - The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - also i have a list of what me and my reading friends consider the best 100 contemporary novels of past 5 years - would you like me to email it to you?? Let me know and Greetings from Mexico

  4. My first impulse, in answer to your question is "I don't know!" My husband, who is a chef, has told me that he thinks I'm a super-taster, such is my ability to pick out obscure herbs and such from dishes. And as you might know, I'm also a voracious reader, but I don't think I've ever thought of the taste of literature. Now I want to think about it and I'm going to. I think of The Brothers Karamazov, one of my favorite novels and I think I taste cardboard, for some reason. And I think of Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope and taste some kind of grassy herb. This is fun, Cuban -- and I'm going to think about it further and further...

  5. hahahah!!!!!you are funny!!!!i am refering to my blog!!!It was just a dream!!!!Uhhhhhuuuu!!!
    but you got a beautiful blog...I am watching you!!!!!hugs!!!:):):)

  6. This a terrific post, Cuban.

    I'm fascinated by your experience and that of others here.

    For me my synathaesia-if indeed it's a variation of that condition-runs not to tastes or colours but to places.

    I can write something or read something, I can sit with or see a person and I am transported somewhere else visually.

    So no, I don't taste when I read or write, I go places, obscure places to which I have been before, places seemingly unrelated to those I write about or sit with or see.

    And the same words or people might attract the same scenes in my head, the main street of Portsea, the beach near Parkdale, the terraces outside Melbourne university, the same places again and again splash across my inner vision.

    I wish I could taste but it seems I have more of a geographical sensibility.

  7. All this talk of coffee reminds me of the Colonel in the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story and his recycled coffee grains.

    I hear/see/feel...even smell more with writing and reading than anything much to do with taste. At least so far.

    But we're all different...


  8. Oh, Cuban! We must share a bit of mind or soul or something... On reading your post, I was sitting here saying, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" to all of those questions you asked and all of those remarks you made. Yes to Atwood. And yes to Mahmoud Darwish. And yes to Milan Kundera. But also, yes to the question about writing. When I write, do I want to lick my lips sometimes because it's good? Well, it's not the writing, my writing, that I'm licking my lips over, necessarily (I am a bit of a Narcissist but I do know how to control my self-love). It's more the writing process itself... that is what elicits the desire to lick my lips. It is the flavor of the moment of finding the right word, the right turn of phrase, the right "light" that needs to be added to complete the ambiance.

    I loved every word of this post, Cuban! And may all readers and writers always have something over which to lick their lips!


  9. Your opening image startled me out of my still lingering sleepiness. Once fully awake, I savored your post. As for your question, the answer is, yes! Sometimes, as a writer, I experience an ambrosial sensation of having just participated in magic, where I have had the privilege of entering a world apart from this one. As I return to an awareness that I am in front of my computer screen, I might then become aware that I am shaking my head in wonder. The experience goes beyond taste. It also encompasses all the other senses. I have existed there – wherever there is – just as objectively as I exist in my everyday world. I have made love to my writing and am now in the afterglow.

  10. ' I have made love to my writing and am now in the afterglow'

    I will definitely keep that image with me for many years to come. It wouldn't be wrong to assume that the majority of writers feel that way.

    Synesthesia was a word I first came across when I worked in the arts. One of the heads of arts I met had that sensation. He told me once that he could visualise music in different tonalities. I'm glad that some of my fellow bloggers are naturally predisposed to the same feeling.

    Shaista, although I do write poetry, it's such an irregular phenomenon nowadays that I wouldn't bother to include any of my poems here. Also, they are in Spanish and I'm loath to translate my own poems into English. I guess that the perfectionist bit of my Virgo rising.

    I'm fortunate to belong to a bloggy-neighbourhood where there's such a wealth of creativity that wherever I go, I can taste it. And it comes in different flavours. All posters who have commented so far, bring a unique quality to blogland and for that I thank you all.

    Greetings from London.

    PS: And yes, you bet I was licking my lips when I read your responses. :-)

  11. A nice thought indeed. I think your writing is excellent too.

  12. Intriguing and I had to think about this carefully. I think it's not taste, so much as a physical sensation delight, when I get the rights words or a good pun. It's just a feeling of sheer delight.

  13. Kundera/Immortality...bubbles of champagne, slowly exploring his soul!
    This post is filled with amazing tid-bits..thoroughly edible!
    Eat a peach!!
    Thank you..

  14. I enjoyed this feast of literary reviews! I agree that a reader can sink her teeth into Atwood, but Kundera is better sampled in smaller portions, although I love them both.

    Fun question on literary taste. My novel SAD would taste of salt and lobsters since the love interest in a lobsterman. “as u like it,” set in Manhattan, would taste of NYC bagels, burnt pine nuts, Rum and Coke, sukiyaki, green tea, Kenyan spices and pancakes. Those flavors all feature in the narrative and reflect the cultural mix of the central characters. Every book has it’s own distinct taste.

  15. Hello London,
    I sat down just now with a freshly brewed cappuccino ( à ma façon ) thinking I would give myself a few more minutes of luxury and take in your latest posts. I can't just read them on the fly - that wouldn't do them justice. They take a certain effort to read in that I can't be lazy and read en diagonale .

    And am thinking, not for the first time, what an original you are. I have never associated reading with taste - sound and sight and touch, yes, and smell too. I delighted, though, in your gustatory associations and perhaps the next time I'm reading something delicious, I'll find myself licking my lips.

    I absolutely loved Judith's line about making love to her writing.

  16. PS In fact I liked it so much that I put it here at http://friko-fridgesoup.blogspot.com/2010/03/writing-as-orgasmic-experience.html and watched the comments roll in.

    Just for fun....I hope Judith doesn't mind (I gave her credit)

  17. I noticed that, too and left my comment there. Please, tell Judith, too. :-)

    Thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  18. As a coffee addic... I mean, connoisseur, I could taste every one of Mahmoud's words. Thanks for sharing them with us!

    Me being a self-confessed bookworm, there have been times when a book provided me with such rich imagery that I had to put it aside lest it gave me indigestion. However, most of those times I ran back to it not too many minutes later, like the glutton I am, begging for more delicacies.

  19. CiL, a well written post chock full of meaty morsels, as usual I might add!

    It has been too long since I sat with your posts to savour the sustenance you provide through your reviews, insights and observations. Your posts always call to me to understand, think deeply and respond with paragraphs rather than a few words. Thank you for the effort you put into your blog, I know full well the time it takes to put together posts such as you write.

    For me, it as if you serve us up a meal and though our reactions and collaborative effort, building ideas one upon another, we are sitting around the dinner table and enjoying the company and exchange of ideas - food for thought. Most probably, because I am usually unable to pounce on your post immediately, I benefit the most from the contributions others make in response to your initial post and your replies in kind. It is a full meal deal for me indeed.

    Indeed, we all have individual reactions when reading well written literature. For me, it is not so much the feeling that would make me lick my lips, - no sensation of cardboard or Sunday roast or potatoe chips (as we call crisps here) but rather it is the same pleasure that comes after a great meal or after the mellow-sweet bit of dark chocolate. I don't experience the what of the food eaten, I experience the sensation of satiation after an exceptionally great food item, dish or meal. It isn't akin to the feelings of tasting and swallowing but it is the afterglow if you will. A well written phrase can cause me to grin from ear to ear and a wonderfully crafted paragraph the same, regardless of the ideas being conveyed.
    It is even better when that paragraph is one I have written . To extend Judith's comment, "I have made love to my writing and am now in the afterglow." The afterglow is what I experience in response to great writing.
    Absolutely Atwood is spectacular, but I would be remiss to point out that she is but one of our well loved Canadian authors. Thank you for reminding me of Milan Kundera - I must pick up another of his. Most of all thank you for introducing me to Mahmoud Darwish. The passage from 'Memory for Forgetfulness' was well very written and long savoured after consumption. He described so adeptly how our feelings toward individuals, gained through the experience of coffee, can be influenced through nuances in the elixir consumed. As a closing comment, in North America, I don't believe many folks actually prepare "real" coffee. Most reflect their personality in the choice of coffee shop they visit, be it Tim Horton's, Starbucks, Second Cup, or Timothy's or an independent.



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