Saturday, 5 September 2009

Greedy for Summer to last (and Summertime with JM Coetzee) - Dianne Hofmeyr

After Meg’s really superb piece yesterday and all the responses, this seems frivolous but it’s the week-end!
In a recent SAS newsletter there was some good advice on what to do when rejected. For me it’s cooking. Banging pots and pans about, rocking a sharp mezzaluna blade against a tender stalk of celery, stabbing a tomato, hissing through a fennel bulb with a Japanese Global knife, are little acts of retribution. Cooking is something I turn to in all times of writing crises – at the first sign of a deadline or the smallest glitch in a plot.

But I have to confess to cooking because basically I’m greedy. And right now with the leaves swirling down, I’m greedy for summer to last.

I’ve taken Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle quite literally this summer and without the hassle of Ryanair have been living a life of the Italian countryside… in London. I’ve shopped at my local Farmers Market in Bute Street every Saturday (even taking back egg-boxes) and have come home laden with enough produce to feed the Titanic.
It was the sight of the zucchini fiori that got me started… those furled globes waiting to be filled with ricotta and basil. Somewhere in the 70’s Shirley Conran wrote in Superwoman that life’s too short to stuff a mushroom. Well life’s too short, NOT to stuff a zucchini fiori and dip it in egg and Japanese breadcrumbs and fry till golden. And then there are the heaps of different sized and shaped tomatoes… some for roasting, some for salad, some for gazpacho… that fill my basket because we all know the same tomato can't be used for everything!

Right now it’s the turn of tiny plums straight from English orchards tasting of almonds and the late summer figs, still holding their sweetness. Except figs aren’t too eco-friendly because of airmiles. But I’ve marked the fig trees around the streets of Kensington and Chelsea. They’re laden with tiny, green goblets and I’m watching them just as possessively as I’m watching the olives on my single olive tree growing in a pot on my terrace. Figs on hot toast is not far off!

I have ‘wood-fire oven’ envy of anyone who’s built their own…Lucy Coats. There’s nothing better than slow-roasted chicken done on a bed of red peppers and vegetables in a wood-fired oven. Perhaps I might be converting a corner of my tiny terrace?

Now I’m heading off to the kitchen to bake biscotti. But I do on occasion write and even read, so on a bookish endnote, taking Anne Cassidy’s (sorry Anne couldn't find your exact blog on this) remark to heart that we should be physically putting books into the hands of others, here are some I’ve read this summer:
For some summer reading light enough to travel with - here's a book list of my recommendations on


Lee said...

What did you think about the Coetzee? He's a favourite writer of mine - I lived in Zimbabwe for eighteen years, with numerous visits to SA - so his work always resonates doubly.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Lee I didn't realise you lived in Zimbabwe. There's a novel about Zimbabwe that I still can't read... even though I know its brilliant... When a Crocodile Eats the Sun... because of my sister's death there. Reading realities about 'home' is always tough. I too love JM Coetzee but find his books quite confrontational and often brutal. For me Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K are his best. In Summertime I'm amazed at his ability to fictionalize himself and carry it off. Did you read the other 2 of the Trilogy? I see Disgrace which won the Booker in 1999, has been made into a movie with Jonathan Malkovitch. I think this was the novel that created the controversary between Coetzee and the ANC and is what prompted Coetzee's move to Australia. I wanted to put in a Utube film clip here but seem to have lost it... will add later.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This is the link to the Utube trailer of Disgrace which looks superb... Malkovitch has the uncanny ability to epitomize threat. Maybe its easier to Google it directly.

Natasha Mostert said...

I realise I probably will be a lone voice in this discussion but I've lost faith in JM Coetzee. I no longer read him after Disgrace. I found this book unacceptably didactic, despite Coetzee trying to hide the "message" behind that lovely sparse prose of his. But the symbolism just about pokes you in the eye. Lurie = archetypal white South African male adrift in post-apartheid South Africa. White man's dilemma = Lucy. Petrus = symbol of the transition between democracy and apartheid. Lucy's child = the future. But where it all falls flat is in Coetzee's attempt to sell the idea of a raped woman accepting the possibility of getting raped again but accepting her lot because this is the only way she'll survive. Lucy's situation obviously serves as a metaphor to describe the dilemma faced by former oppressors but it is a forced metaphor. Please show me the woman who'll make peace with the idea of getting violated again and again with such bovine docility!

From diseased dogs to glorious meals. Di -- what gorgeous descriptions of food and what fabulous pictures! Even I -- who blanch at going into the kitchen -- feel inspired to grab a knife.

And yes, I too am clinging to Summer, although, in the UK, Summer is a state of mind -- it certainly has nothing to do with the weather:)

Charlie Butler said...

Greedy for the summer to last? I keep forgetting that in London you *had* a summer... [mutters damply from the West Country leaf mould]

Yunaleska said...

Summer...happened in the Springtime :) We've got Winter now, (Hampshire/Berkshire border), and true Winter = Ice Age.

Book suggestions always good! Thank you.

Yunaleska said...

Summer...happened in the Springtime :) We've got Winter now, (Hampshire/Berkshire border), and true Winter = Ice Age.

Book suggestions always good! Thank you.

adele geras said...

I'm afraid Coetzee is a bit of a closed book for me. I read Disgrace and couldn't bear it, even though I did admire it in many ways. Haven't been prompted to go and find other stuff by him. I am, though a HUGE WGSebald fan and loved Rings of Saturn. And what did you think of the AS Byatt? I loved it, though I do think it's two books put together.
As for your food, that sounds divine!

Lee said...

Hi Dianne,

And I didn't realise you were born in South Africa! My younger daughter is planning to spend her gap year in Cape Town; my elder daughter is thinking of doing some film work there.

Godwin's books stand proudly on our shelves, of course, but I'm quite keen to read Petina Gappah's volume of short stories soon.

I've read Youth, but not Boyhood. Do you think I should read the latter before Summertime?

I don't entirely agree with Natasha's assessment of the the symbolism of Disgrace. Yes, you can make a case for such a schema, but I find it a bit too oversimplified in light of the book's richness. And I have no problem accepting Lucy's docility, which I'd probably prefer to describe as resignation. I wonder what you think, Dianne - or anyone else with South African experience.

catdownunder said...

JM Coetzee is now living here in South Australia and working at the University of Adelaide. There was a tremendous rush of publicity when he arrived but I feel, that here ins Adelaide, it may be a case of "It is African. It must be good" as much as the ability to write.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Some really interesting comments and all I set out to write about, was zucchini!!!

I didn't enjoy Disgrace either because of its brutality. But in answer to Natasha (who writes Gothic so knows more than I do) I wonder if one can't consider it a modern Gothic novel in that it generates fear and deals in excesses that aren't alien but rather reflect an uncanny resemblance to the real. I liked Nick Green's comment on Meg's blog... 'A book that just showed a violent reality (as it exists on our streets, for instance) would be worthless. But fiction does more than show; it also comments, however obliquely. It selects, it spins, it finds the unexpected good and the lurking evil.' And I wonder if Lucy's dilemma isn't Coetzee's oblique comment on the rape crisis in South Africa where a woman gets raped every 17 seconds? (this figure is for 2006 so probably higher now) When the Vice Chancellor of the university of Cape Town, Dr Mamphela Ramphele confronted the male students on the rape issue, their rational was it was their cultural entitlement. Perhaps Coetzee is commenting on the fact that many women in South Africa understand the truth of this... so I agree with Lee using the word resignation. No one resigns themselves to being raped, but we resign ourselves to the inevitablity of it happening.
It's interesting that this should come up so soon after Meg and Gillian's blog on reality in teenage novels. Rape and knife crime are equally abhorrent but if they reflect a reality that turns us into more conscious human beings then there is a need.

As to Summertime, I'm glad I read it but more for its technique than its content. In it, Coetzee has a researcher interview 4 people on... guess who... JM Coetzee! So it's a fictionlization of himself... which is rather weird and intrigueing. He doesn't come out of it squeaky clean. In fact he portrays himself as a rather aloof, edgy person not unlike the person we saw being interviewed after he won the Booker in 1999!

Adele both the Byatt and the Sebold (which I read simultaneously because the one was lighter to carry around on buses/tubes etc... oddly enough they worked in tandem) were wonderful!

And to 'Catdownunder' don't know about the Africa thing but its been a very good week-end for Australia against England in cricket!!! Friday and today!

Penny Dolan said...

"Cultural entitlement", Dianne? Words fail me on this. So absolutely depressing. And what was the Vice Chancellor's response, I wonder???

Ignoring the Coetzee inspired comments,I loved your foodie descriptions and wonderful pictures of tomatoes and zuchini and cooking and local fig collecting. Your posts always read as if they are written in the most glorious technicolour!