Sunday, 27 June 2010

Nigel is my Inspiration

The idea behind this blog is Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries. It's first and foremost a wonderfully useful cookery book - the sort that helps you learn to cook almost as if you're watching someone whose taste and skill you trust implicitly do it in front of you, hearing their internal monologue about what they're choosing, how they're cooking it, how long for, with what. Somehow much better than actually watching them, or even him, on telly, and almost as good as watching someone you love cook for you.

It's also a complete delight to read, so sensual, so compellingly intimate, that it's entirely possible to pick it up off the shelf looking for something to make for supper - opening it, say, in mid-June - and find yourself still there, half an hour later, deep in October, anticipating autumn and cool enough weather to eat Nigel's 'sweet, slightly hot and absurdly sticky' pork ribs with honey and anise or macaroni with fontina and mustard, followed by a spinach salad and chilled Conference pears. It's a wonderful insight to the mind of someone who's extraordinarily knowledgeable about his subject and completely enthusiastic about it: just his daily thoughts on something that he knows a lot about and thinks a lot about.

What I particularly like about the way Slater writes in this book (I know he's written more personally in others) is how he writes with such immediacy and passion about food (and the weather, intimately connected to what he's eating, as well as his garden) and yet reveals almost nothing about the rest of his life and preoccupations. You feel you know him, and you like him enormously for what's shown on the pages - humour, self-deprecation, warmth, greed (but also austerity; he's no Nigella), a wonderfully distractable quality, great and detailed powers of observation - and yet despite the intimacy of his writing you really know nothing more about him than that he likes to cook and eat. There's no glimpse of a lover, or parents or children, or of anything more than how many people's he's cooking for on any given day (usually one or 2; sometimes 6; very rarely more than that); no hints about movies he likes or books he reads or holidays he takes or stresses at work.

So I was flicking through The Kitchen Diaries the other week, as I often do, idly searching for something I thought I remembered seeing, some kind of pasta with mint and lemon zest, and admiring Nigel's writing. That made me wish I could write a book that gave as much pleasure as this one does for me, and that made me think that an author's passion, combined with knowledge, is usually a large contributor to what makes their books pleasurable for a reader.

And then I realised that the only thing I could possibly write about with which I have a similar relationship to Nigel's with food is reading. Not just books - though they have their own delights - but the act of reading. Which in its own way is as pleasurable as eating and just as vital. How can I explain the worlds it opens up for me, the thrills it makes me feel? It's strange that a mostly sedentary and solitary activity can make you feel so alive, so connected, so human. Anyway. Here's to Nigel.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Butterfly Notebook

It is a notebook - I write longhand before putting it online; writing non-fiction I always wrote straight onto the screen but for fiction writing longhand first seems to make a huge amount of difference - but it doesn't have a butterfly on it. It's more the idea of a butterfly that appealed to me: supping on nectar; moving lightly and freely, but not purposelessly, from one flower to the next. I like the thought that it's a creature of sunshine, too.

It wasn't until my sister pointed it out to me, though, that I remembered the butterfly's transformative quality. How could I forget, since one of the books I read very regularly at the moment is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, who gorges himself for a week before unfurling his beautiful wings? The bit I've always loved is the opening scene, where the egg lies serenely on a leaf in the moonlight, waiting for life to begin.

Butterflies have proper grown-up literary associations, of course, too, most notably the great Nabokov, as distiguished a lepidopterist as he was a novelist. At the end of his life he wrote that he had 'hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts', and this poem he wrote in 1922 sums up all the magic of hunting moths by night:
And I go out into the garden, to its mists and wonders,
and I smear the damp oak trunk
with sticky gold, and juice drips from the brush,
trickles down into the cracks, gleaming and heady...
The saffron globe of the moon sails out from behind the cloud,
and the oak, my accomplice, looms tall and ample.
It has soaked up many an earthly dream;
I wait in the lilac gloom, and it waits with me.

I had promised myself that I would try not to just quote writing that I love, but it's impossible not to with Nabokov.

As far as real notebooks go, I prefer them plain. This one is A4 sized, covered with wine-coloured - wine-dark, even - card with a black cloth spine and ruled paper inside. I bought lots ten years ago when I was living in Kilburn, from the local newsagent, and I've never seen them since; this is the last of my supply.

I have used other notebooks, so I'm sure I'll find another kind I like. I flirted with Moleskines, but somehow the sizes they come in don't suit. For a while I kept my commonplace notes in a small, lipstick-red leather notebook, quotations and comments at the front, and lists of books to read and places to go, perhaps to live for a little while (I was free as a butterfly, then, childless and unencumbered, and couldn't imagine not being), at the back: Sicily, Istanbul, Phnom Penh. I only made it to Aix and Oaxaca, but I suppose there's still plenty of time left for the others. Come to think of it, I only read some of the books, but there's time enough for those too.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Reading as Consolation

I suppose it's not surprising that the less time I have to read the more urgent my thirst for it becomes. Reading really does feed the soul; it provides escape, perspective, mystery, consolation. At the moment I feel in desperate need of all those things.

After fifteen years making a living as a writer I'm stuck for the first time, and I feel like an insect trapped on its back. Everything's difficult: the industry's in turmoil, my agent - my guide through the publishing netherworld, my Virgil - has quit, and I'm flailing around trying to write a novel in the few hours a week I can steal from my boys and wondering if I'll ever manage it.

I'm scared about the future of books as a whole and books in particular, the books I still hope to write. I'm worried that in my first attempt at fiction (will I one day blithely refer to it as 'my first novel', or will be it a gallant effort that never sees the light of day, or will it be the first and last, the alpha and omega?) I was so intent on writing that I neglected the thinking - the planning, the day-dreaming, the made-up conversations and imagined scene-setting; all the stuff that gets left out of the final draft. I feel as though I'm trying to make a sculpture, slapping on more and more papier-mache which however hard I try doesn't quite cover up the fact that I forgot to make a coat-hanger structure inside first.

I picture myself physically stuck in my novel, standing at the centre of a bustling courtyard of an inn on the road north from Paris, in my jeans and old trainers, unnoticed by the people all around me: coachmen leading sweaty horses away to be rubbed down and fed; the landlady standing at the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron and assessing her new guests to see who will sleep where; revolutionary officials draped self-importantly in tricolour sashes, accosting travellers and demanding to se their papers. I see my heroine step cautiously down out of the coach, the basket that contains all her belongings in her hand. She's wearing a greyish cotton dress, once white but long-unbleached, with a knitted blue shawl over her shoulders, and I can tell by the slightly pinched expression on her thin face that she's nervous and hungry, in that order.

And then I lose impetus. Perhaps I've been doing it too long, without knowing whether it will work. Perhaps it's just not worth doing at all. The words and my worries spin around and around in my head. There's nothing for it but to find somewhere quiet and read someone else's words for a little while.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

More Mueenuddin

I've finished In Other Rooms, Other Wonders - raced through it on friday afternoon when I was meant to be working. Mueenuddin seemed to go up a gear in the stories which are - must be - more autobiographical, the ones about privileged Pakistani exiles feeling at home neither in Pakistan nor anywhere else.

Putting the book down I was saddened by how impossible it was for any of his characters - not a single one - to achieve any kind of contentment. Perhaps true contentment is almost impossible. Does exquisite writing make up for that? Perhaps in trying to describe things as they really are - not as we have settled with ourselves that they are, in order to steal peace with the world and our place in it - we can never be satisfied, never be happy except for an instant, never not remember others' suffering. Never not hear the squirrel's heart beat that George Eliot described. But it seemed to me that every one of his characters would die not just alone but unhappy. Maybe understanding that is the sliver of ice in the heart that every writer needs. If that is true I'm not sure it's a bargain worth making.

Friday, 11 June 2010


I wake in the middle of the night, and toss and turn for an hour before giving in, getting up, and going downstairs to have a cup of tea and read my book without waking my husband. Just past 4 it's already getting light, and though inside it's utterly peaceful outside the birds are singing their hearts out. Although part of me's worried about how tired I'll be later if I don't go back to sleep, another part's relishing the unfamiliar peace. I can't do anything constructive; there's nothing for it but to dive into my book. It's so good that I can almost believe I woke up just to read it - my subconscious mind rebelling against the mere three pages I managed before sleep overtook me.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin is a series of interlinking stories, glimpses of lives that meet in the household of a single Pakistani landowner. It's a deceptively simple way of constructing a world - I've often imagined writing variants on this theme, as have many people I guess - but here it's done with such skill and subtlety that I'm reminded anew of how complex good fiction has to be - the complexity hidden from the reader like invisible mending. Mueenuddin will have constructed family trees, timelines, maybe even drawn floorplans of his houses and maps of his characters' movements. Every detail is perfectly conceived, revealing the truth about a character with a word or an image that has the delicate accuracy of an Indian miniaturist's thinnest squirrel-hair brush.

Reading it makes me nostalgic for India. I fantasize about taking the boys there, travelling round for a few months, getting them used to eating curry rather than fish fingers. Eating runny curry with their fingers! I want to show them streets where the houses are painted pale blues and greens and pinks and violets, with bony oxen meadering around, munching aimlessly while they ignore the rickshaws screeching past them; take them to have their hair cut in roadside shacks, watch their faces as they see painted elephants leading wedding processions or try syrup-sweet jalabis cooked over fires by the side of the road.

But this is only the tourists' India, and what strikes me more than anything else is the bleakness of Mueenuddin's Pakistan. It's always a feature of modern sub-Continental fiction - I could hardly finish A Fine Balance because it was so sad. That sense of the inevitability of the individual's surrender to forces infinitely greater than himself - forces that will crush him utterly - is all-pervasive. Women are particularly vulnerable, especially in this book. I'm moved to tears by the story of Saleema, a maid who lives for a moment in her love for the household driver, almost allows herself to hope that she might be different, and is then cast relentlessly back into her preordained future: drug addiction, prostitution, tragedy.

I know some people think that the very act of writing about characters like these is somehow redemptive, that just writing about them implicitly carries a message of hope, of trust in humanity, but I'm not sure I agree. All I know is that as I sit here safely with my cup of tea cooling at my elbow, listening to my husband's footsteps as he gets into the shower and the gurgles of my waking boys, I feel undeservedly lucky.