12 July 2011

RED MUG, BLUE LINEN: reading families, book obsessions


When I asked friend and fellow blog writer of Red Mug, Blue Linen to tell me what he was reading this Summer a flurry of emails and calls ensued. His blog under the moniker 'Laurent' is one I have read religiously since its inception. He writes: “I wonder if red mug, blue linen will be that terrible thing, a postulate without a particle - that a gentleman is only that creature whose nourishment occupies no space. But whether that is true, is less urgent to know than where it comes from.”

In answer---his page is exquisitely crafted and it is occupying space many writers would not attempt to inhabit. It is longing- but it is promise too. In the blog world of picture scrolling- his page ask of the reader more.
Red Mug, Blue Linen is written from Life- it can be beautiful, it can be strident-it is to be savored- but not without its price. As Simone Weil wrote “Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his own blood.” 

I put these two simple questions to him- and received in abundance a collection of extraordinary books. Of course- I'm not surprised-I will have to make room on the already groaning tables for two of them- and have marked one for giving.

What Books are on your Summer reading list?

A Summer list is slightly incongruous to me, San Francisco having weaned one away from acute seasonal sensations, and Virginia inclining one to banish at least the thought of Summer. Mine is a continuous list, then, with a shifting balance favouring a solid ratio of deferments from the past alongside the most promising of the new. In the simultaneous way that we read several things, which is so convenient with non-fiction, I find that this Summer has me reading 3 fairly current memoirs on family relationships -- John Darnton's Almost a Family, Sylvie Weil's At Home with André and Simone Weil, and Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter.  

Darnton, the longtime reporter for The New York Times, especially in the field of education, is the brother of the man who taught me the Revolution in France, and revolutionised the study of the French Enlightenment, Robert Darnton, who has now gone on to be a leading voice for reason in the digital transformation of the way we conserve publications. Their project in the South Pacific, in search of the truth of their father's death in the Second World War, is a wonderful study of sibling relations and paternal influence, even in absentia.

Professor Weil's is certainly the most intimate and privileged book we shall ever have on two of the most intellectually gorgeous siblings of the previous century, one of whom was her parent. A sad and beautiful book of more than one great surprise, it is a wonderful writer's emergence from a generation of elegant but burdensome precedence. She got away, keeping what counts and doing it very admirably. 

I have gratitude to Simone Weil, for her great essay on the Iliad, that I've felt only for my most revered teachers. About 10 years ago Francine du Plessix Gray (whose book on her own family, Them, was thought something of a scandal) contributed a very fine portrait of Simone to Penguin's intelligent series of "Lives." But in Sylvie Weil's telling we read not only of real complexity of affection but the challenge, frankly, of renown to one's left and to one's right, with the effect of reinforcing admiration for the family in the present generation.

Hamilton, the chef-founder of New York's Prune restaurant, is not joining the cult of deity chefs (she's ensconced in it whether she wants to be or not) with her memoir of two families and their creative influence. A 'survivor', I guess we'd say in today's terms, of several alternative experiments in pleasure and growth, her book has the ring of complete authenticity within a frame of very becoming discretion. She dissolves the mold of the culinary hero with a melting rain of humility, which eventually must influence her profession to recapture that virtue. 

She gives us an image of that, which no gastronome will ever forget, of the late André Surmain (Lutèce) in her sister's kitchen, consenting to receive, rather than to show off, the birth of a perfect omelette. This is simply an enthralling book of triumph against many grains of distraction at once, and contains some of the most beautiful descriptive writing I've seen in several years. As a college boy I would often weekend along the Delaware in New Hope, across the river where she would grow up in Lambertville, the daughter of the small town's butcher. Her gift for capturing that rustic, quiet place, and of the appetites it nourished in many directions beyond cuisine, is a perfect overlay of one's own memory, enriched by imagery I was never privy to. Her narrative of a morning walk on a Greek island is as good as anything to come from that setting in Durrell, Miller, Keeley, Fermor. But she trained as a writer, as a grad student at Ann Arbor, where she fell into catering for the neighborhood swells, and found she had to project her artistry in that way. No doubt, therefore, Prune must be her truest text, which I would suppose must find its place on 'any gentleman's reading list'.

'Laurent,' Who is your Latest Obsession Author?

A writer who publishes as seldom as Australia's Peter Robb - once every 4 to 6 years - makes for an inconvenient obsession, but for any reader of his first book, he is a fount of recurring bedtime readings as we wait. One can open any of his books, anywhere, and immediately be drawn into an energetic, cultivated and coherent flux of constantly alert observation. His strategy for presenting his work in the United States seems very sound. He will first appear in every other English-speaking country, and be on the cusp of translation on the Continent, for approbation of his uncategorisable writing to precede him here. He is doing it now, with the new Street Fight in Naples: A Book of Art and Insurrection, which I've just ordered urgently from London. In Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel, and La Cosa Nostra (1996), he laid out his range but scarcely gave hint of his voice, in the book's subtitle. Over time it has risen pretty universally into the 'favourites' range in every one of the categories listed, which are excitingly, impressively integrated with a persistent note of danger, hunger, tragedy, and exuberant delectation. I place it with Durrell's Sicilian Carousel, enriched by nuances of more than one 'discipline'. There can be no surprise that these elements abound in illuminating, positively thrilling originality in M: The Man who Became Caravaggio (2000), openly courting controversy but giving vastly greater context to the painter's life than had ever been assembled in one place, and some of the most memorable discussions of his canvases I have found. 

In particular his lengthy study of A Basket of Fruit portrays its radicalism with such unforgettable persuasiveness as to embed it permanently in the heart. Four years later, A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions - subtitled by way of Machado de Assis - restored him to the mode of Midnight in a masterpiece of cultural anthropology with a narrative line of pure verve. We are told that the new Street Fight will conclude what he has planned as a trilogy, but I would beg him to come to Washington to achieve his analogue of Durrell's quartet. The Brazilian study shows him to be an indisputable heir of Joseph Conrad, whose Nostromo he cites for its famous fundamentalist Christian vow, We shall run the world's business whether the world likes it or not -- citing "the torturers and the radical priests, the devotées of progress, the devastated environment." His most natural peer today, in my thinking, of the post-Cold War Graham Greene of our time, is John Le Carré.  This is drop-dead gorgeous non-fiction, with the yearnings of late-night college conversations making it some of the most vivacious, genuinely lovable reading I know.



  1. How I envy you to write such a beautiful text about this "Laurent" !!

    1. And my envy of your lens making

  2. G...a wonderful list. I've just managed to start "Cleopatra" (Stacy Schiff)...I definitely recommend it...k

  3. Valery, it comes quite easy -as you can imagine!

    Kathy- I think so too-I am going to read the Weil book and the Peter Robb book-I think. I may start with something older of his. I have the Cleo-and am having starts and stops with it. pgt

  4. Well, now you tell me, how to compose a blog entry, where I had thought the woodshed would have combined compassion with discretion. But here we are, grateful for the compliment of your asking, for the space of your tasking, and comparatively reconciled to our unmasking. It's a gorgeous entry, Gaye, and I'm happy to be a part of it. It's appropriate to hint at the courtesies you've extended outside the frame; I will not forget them.

  5. I love my visits to Red Mug, Blue Linen and here, Laurent's summer reading list. I will relate to Almost a Family and parental influence, in absentia. Gabrielle Hamilton sounds like a gem, and non-fiction that stirs the yearnings of late-night college conversations... delightful. I'm in.

  6. Laurent, I am honored that you have graced my pages here with this wonderful list.

    Barbara-I have loved your own post about your family and its influences. I of course am a devoted fan of this blog. pgt



Related Posts with Thumbnails