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Sunday 28 February 2010

The Maze of Cadiz Audiobook Review

Another review of The Maze of Cadiz, this time for the audiobook, appeared in Saturday's Guardian.
Very nice to get. My thanks to Jonathan Keeble for allowing audiobook listeners to enjoy it.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Siege Mentality - Open and Shut Genres

Recently I wrote two blog posts on Javier Marías, a writer for whom words are (almost) everything.

This one involves Arturo Pérez Reverte, another Spanish writer, for whom, to round this out in a shorthand way, plot is (almost) everything. Although his historical research, particularly in technical matters, is extraordinarily thorough, and he has a great love of the Spanish language in the Golden Age, Pérez Reverte’s priority in his books is to move the story on, and the writing can skate on cliché and sometimes mangled syntax.

The two writers are about the same age, both are usually based in or near Madrid and, naturally, they are very good friends and have been so for a long time. Pérez Reverte is the Duke of Corso in Marías’ imaginary Kingdom of Redonda.

Presumably because they are such different writers, this mutual regard upsets certain commentators who get their limitations and principles mixed up and forget there is life outside books.

As a result, Marías is sometimes accused of writing in English though using Spanish, and Pérez Reverte often gets called ‘a good bad writer’. Both charges are beside any worthwhile point.

Many years ago, when I was studying for English Literature O' level, Professor Christopher Ricks brought out a book with a number of points for students to consider. One of these was that if a student were to write about Hamlet and Hitchock’s Vertigo as if they were strictly comparable, he or she might get into difficulties, most of them absurd.

He was right, of course. It may seem simple stuff, but it is often forgotten. Vertigo fails hopelessly as a verse play. That may be because it isn’t one and it had never crossed Hitchcock’s mind it should be. As Professor Ricks put it – the student has to have some grasp of the author’s intentions, priorities and aims.

Or again, one of my greatest difficulties in Spain was persuading students that the term ‘tragedy’ did not exclude humour in Hamlet. They knew ‘tragedy’ was grim. They found it difficult that a great writer like Shakespeare should have ignored Aristotle’s take on genre.

Recently a book of mine was reviewed with eight others by a Professor of Creative Writing. This very large bundle was very loosely tied with some generalizations about social concerns and the literary quality or otherwise of the books. Washington Shadow got away quite lightly – one of the cuter kittens in the sack about to be tossed off the bridge and into the river. None of the review struck me as an advert for the Professor’s Creative Writing advice because not one of the writers had signed up for the social concerns school; each one had begun with a different intention and none of us had foreseen that we would all meet up in the Professor’s airy overview.

Now, as it happens, I am not a big fan of Arturo Pérez Reverte’s books, but we read for all kinds of reasons – and the reason I will read his new book is Cádiz, where I once lived and where my first book is set.

For a time during the War of Independence or Napoleonic Wars, Cádiz was Spain. While the rest of the country was under French rule, Cádiz remained independent, if under siege. In March, Pérez Reverte will publish his new book El Asedio (The Siege) in Spain – seven hundred pages about this remarkable time.

In 1812, a new constitution was drawn up for Spain and for those countries that had been colonies. This constitution – colloquially called La Pepa – was a product of the Ilustración – or Enlightenment. It did away with an Absolute Monarch, feudal land laws and the Inquisition, and replaced the Old Regime with a new liberal arrangement without slavery, with education for women and with a form of international democracy.

Naturally, it didn’t have a chance of success but, just for a while, Cádiz looked like a dream of the future. Apparently this is the background rather than the subject of the book. There is a murder story, but I take Pérez Reverte at his word that it also involves a plot like a chess problem, artillery, and shifts in the wind, real and political.

I don’t know when the English translation will appear - but look out for it.

Saturday 13 February 2010

E-books and Musings on the Future

Elliott Hall, author of the innovative and very well reviewed ("a knock-out debut") The First Stone (part of the Strange Trilogy), which is just out in paperback, has written an excellent account of the recent Amazon- Macmillan dispute, an appraisal of the whole E-book issue and possible implications for us all, in a series of three blog posts.

Interesting reading for all authors, editors and agents and anyone interested in the future of publishing and the book business in general.

Take a look:

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Home Cooking

When I first lived in Cadiz, people would invite me to their homes and, very often, I would find that they had gone out of their way to serve me something ‘from your country’ - to remind me of home. This was really very kind and touching, but the results were often unfortunate. I remember smiling gratefully as, at a New Year celebration, after a delicious meal of fish and seafood, I dutifully consumed yet another, very dry and unappetising version of what my hostess - really an excellent cook - imagined was ‘English’ apple pie. And then, instead of the delicious smelling coffee on the tray, I was proudly presented with a silver holder containing a glass of very pale brown, almost curdling warm milk - ‘English tea’. I included this rather disgusting liquid in The Maze of Cadiz, when Peter Cotton goes to visit Antoňita, the prostitute. Remembering something she has heard about strange English tea rituals, she serves it to him with slices of cucumber, which she holds up and places on his tongue ‘like a naughty communion wafer’.

But the results of these kind culinary efforts were not always unfortunate.

I was contacted one day by the president of the law courts and asked to stand in at short notice to interpret at a hearing for two rather silly and very frightened young American girls who had been taking a starry-eyed trip to Morocco, and allowed themselves to be charmed by two men into taking their van to Spain, where they would meet up with them a few days later. When they got off the ferry, the sniffer dogs did their stuff and the van was found to be packed with drugs - secreted in the roof, the doors and under the floor. Questioned by the investigating judge, the girls protested their innocence and said that they had been used. I remember them saying that their only previous brush with the police was when they had stolen a string of sausages from a butcher. Descriptions of the villains were taken down.

After the hearing, the President instructed someone to hand over my fee, and then, rather surprisingly, invited me and my husband to have dinner at his home to meet his family. We arrived on the appointed evening and were told that we would be served ‘rosbif’, because we were English. I’ve never been that fond of beef anyway, and my initial thought was ‘here we go again’ - but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we sat down at the table together with his wife and very clever young daughter (now a lawyer herself), the smells wafting through the house were decidedly encouraging. The dinner, which had been prepared by their excellent cook, began with consommé and fino sherry. It was followed by hake in a delicate lemon sauce, and then the ‘rosbif’ - quite unlike any roast beef I had ever eaten in Britain. Sirloin or tenderloin, I can’t remember now, it had been rubbed with garlic, olive oil, fresh thyme and rosemary, then browned on a skillet and finished off in the oven. It was absolutely delicious - rare and melt- in-the mouth tender, with a wonderful aroma and flavour.

I was reminded of these things recently when reading Carolyn Burke’s biography of Lee Miller (Lee Miller: On Both Sides of the Camera). She had an altogether different way of catering for guests from other countries.

I was already familiar with many aspects of her life - surrealist muse, war correspondent, photographer - most famous for her Second World War photographs and those wonderful portraits of writers and artists in off-guard moments, like Picasso, of whom she made over a thousand portraits.

But one aspect of her life with which I was less familiar was her cooking. In later life, when she was married to Roland Penrose, she entertained an enviable procession of guests at Farley Farm in East Sussex, including Picasso, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Man Ray, and Antoni Tàpies, and she became something of a gourmet - and compulsive - cook. When Vogue published her piece entitled ‘The Most Unusual Recipes You Have Ever Seen’, she was hailed as having invented culinary surrealism. Her Mack Sennett cream pies were, apparently, cinematic and Dadaesque - ‘delicious to eat and fun to throw’, while her food paintings, such as ‘veal scallops encased in gold foil valentines, relish- stuffed lychees beside cherry tomatoes full of dark green mayonnaise’ were ‘as amusing to look at as they are delightful to eat.’

Joan Miró was a frequent visitor. But he was not served Spanish dishes to make him feel at home. Instead, Lee Miller served him her creation ‘Sesame Chicken for Miró’ - because 'I wanted to amuse him by giving him dishes unknown in Spain.’

I feel rather the same about that fabulous Rosbif.