The Birdcage Archives

Sunday 25 February 2024

– XXV –

Loss is a private affair, overcrowded with cooing good intentions and superficial sympathies.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Transparent Life: Regarding Mr. Bleaney

 Hello Gentle Reader,

Few poets carve through the niceties of window-dressing in a manner as eloquent and straightforward as Philip Larkin. The poem, “This Be The Verse,” opens with the line: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Curiosity, be it from shock or agreeance, compels readers to continue through the poem, while Larkin in his usual no-nonsense and forthright manner continued to provide his assessment of the condition of parental failings, as not a singular event but one of routine fatalistic inheritance. Each generation adding its own signature complex, imprint and fuckery into the lives of unsuspecting children, as Larkin put it: “Man hands on misery to man.” Finally concluding with the most logical answer, which runs contrary to our economic systems and primal urge to reproduce, “Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have kids yourself.” Philip Larkin is that staunchly English postwar generation poet. One stripped of all delicate constitutions and sensibilities. A complete tonic and bitter pill to the romantics of old, channeling the palpable sense of loss and devastation left behind in a postwar world. A world whose foundations had forever shifted by unquantifiable destruction, desolation, and disregard for any previous precedence of possibility. Girded with an impenetrable sense of the ironic, and with a cynic’s edge, Larkin surveyed the hardboiled landscape and its people adrift within ruin, reduced further by rations, and with little in regards to prospects to look forward to. Philip Larkin rose to prominence with the others of his generation, who collectively were referred to as: “Angry young men,” a collective of young British writers from working class and middle-class backgrounds, who began publishing in the 1950’s. Included in their ranks was John Osborne, whose play, “Look Back in Anger,” is credited for sparking the movements prominence and denominating the term; Kingsley Amis, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe; while Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, and Iris Murdoch are regarded as associates. Each of them balked and raddled their chains and struck their ire out against the morally bankrupt sociopolitical system of the era. Philip Larkin much like Kingsley Amis, proved to move beyond what would become a diminutive product of its time, much as all movements are. Larkin’s poetry retained both breadth and depth to maneuver beyond the immediate and ruminate on the eternal. Larkin retained a palpable quality to his work, to the point it veered on prosaic. Speakers and voices are provided further shape and form. Not concealed in image or metaphor. Where other poets plucked and planted from flowerbeds and fields of flowers, Larkin carved his out of concrete.

Often caricaturized and parodied as a toad, in a tongue and check homage to the poem: “Toads,” were Philip Larkin takes aim at the misery induced by the drudgery of work, masterfully captured in the second stanza:

            “Six days of the week it soils
            With its sickening poison –
            Just for paying a few bills!
            That’s out of proportion.” 

And while the poem rollicks to a crescendo of rebellion; Larkin deflates and brings the speaker back down to reality:

            “Ah, were I courageous enough
            To shout Stuff your pension!
            But I know, all to well, that’s the stuff
            That dreams are made on:”

As the practicalities of life in all their prudent measures, inevitably means suffrage in the hardscrabble monotony of work and no fortune. Whereby one lives within their means. Those always imperfect means. It brings to mind that quote from Herta Müller’s novel “The Appointment,”:

“From here to there it’s all just the farty sputter of a lantern. And they call that having lived. It’s not worth the bother of putting on your shoes.”

Philip Larkin’s professional life as a librarian ran in parallel to his work as a poet, jazz critic, and casual novelist. There are competing theories of whether or not Larkin held his professional life in serious contempt. Private correspondence reveals a curmudgeonly tone regarding the nature of work. Larkin’s poetry provides further evidence to his dismissive opinion on the nature of work. This theory has of course won out, being cast and certified in bronzed truth: Larkin viewed the mundane as a chore to endure, not enjoy. Contrary, however, further records and transactional documents from his librarianship days, showcase Larkin in a completely different context, one who enjoyed the routines, structures, and orderliness of daily work. Neither poem or letter will provide any enlightenment into Larkin’s own personal views of his professional life and literary endeavours. Its easy to speculate that without the repetitive schedule of his professional obligations, Larkin’s authority on observing the quotidian components of a normal life and subsequent goals of elevating the everyday, would be significantly cheapened and disingenuous. This echoes the weary complaints of Horace Engdahl, who in an interview with La Croix in 2014, criticized the professionalization of writing. Now days, writers are manufactured and fabricated through graduate degrees and masters of fine arts programs, then entering into a symbiotic waltz with literary institutions, universities, and write. Gone, Engdahl laments, are writers engaged with the actual business of life, referencing T.S. Eliots career as a bank clerk.

The poem “Mr. Bleaney,” is one of elegiac observation of a life of mediocrity which amounts to nothing, but a bare room in a third-rate bordering house. The cost-of-living has its economic principles and aesthetics are ranked lower on the list or concern and approval. Mr. Bleaney’s world is contained within such meager borders. The inventory of the room leaves little to the imagination, all the while the current occupant of the room attempts to summon Mr. Bleaney, or at least come to understand his predecessor’s routine, inner thoughts, and life, which includes summer holidaying at Frinton-on-sea, and Christmases at his sisters in Stoke. It becomes apparent that the former resident, Mr. Bleaney’s life was one so lacking in any sense of life it had been reduced to seasonal routines and cycles. There is no significant occurrence or growth within the titular characters life. Nothing remarked as being exceptional or extraordinary or out of place. Mr. Bleaney’s attempts at gardening are observed at being equally futile, showcasing a lack of ability to instill the proper conditions for growth and development. Philip Larkin ends the poem with the final two stanzas:

            “But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
            Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
            Telling himself that this was home, and grinned
            And shivered, without shaking off the dread

            That how we live measures our own nature,
            And at his age having no more to show
            Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
            He warranted no better, I don’t know.”

The metrics to measure life are clearly applied to Mr. Bleaney, who lived a transparent life. A complete ghost, who became interred to the structures and routines of his orderly existence. A man neither in the way or out of the way, but merely apart of it. Adrift in current. Much like the speaker of “Toads,” who fantasies about telling his employer to ‘Shove,’ the pension, Mr. Bleaney is winningly reduced by circumstance and expectation. Those prudent provisions of life, all the accountancy of what one needs and the transactional exchange of service or labour to acquire those requirements. The current occupant questions the lack of material and accomplishments that decorate Mr. Bleaney’s life, and wonders in turn if this constitutes to a life at all? At no point in time is Mr. Bleaney remarked as to having any sense of enjoyment or distraction to partake in. He exists within a complete grey zone. deprived of colour and void of form. This is Philip Larkin at his most poignant, questioning the fates and meanings of one’s own life, and the entrapments of living a mediocre life. Mr. Bleaney cuts a haunting figure, who in Larkins vision removes the contemplation of the meaning of life away from the ostentatious heights of philosophical ponderings and theological edicts, and anchors it into the world through an otherwise shapeless and characterless everyday man, whose entire life slipped him by, and in its place was an ordered routine and distracted with the squatting toad work, and obliged in the lack of agency in his life, never confirming or denying his contentment in his solitary existence.

Philip Larkin’s poetry can become moored in the mire of cynical pessimism as the defining doctrine and only authority regarding the notion of realism. Regardless, Larkin’s poetry does retain a concern for the quotidian details, those otherwise palpable concerns of life, with all of its daily struggles, established ruttish routine, immovable social structure, and often soul crushing realities. Whether or not daily life (or life in general) was but an exercise in enduring task and chore, or a middlebrow drama in which each of us were presented with our own scenes and episodes within its never-ending soap operatic cycles; Larkin proved to be a poet who thought deeply and cared greatly for the concerns of an existential questioning regarding the meaning to life; human beings inherent freedom; the physical manifestation of time as both experience and governing factor; and the ever present reality of death; all the while lamenting on individuals fated inability to find it, while resigning themselves to a state of mediocrity. Reading the poem “Mr. Bleaney,” one particularly mackerel day in February was enough to solicit chills, looking out into a landscape of varying shades of grey and white with streaks of blue and clotted cream, accompanied by tuffs of exposed brown freeze-dried grass and wonder to what extent are you finding yourself neatly wrapped up within the confines of a mediocre existence, further marked with milestones to signify the holiday or Christmas dinners with obliging siblings. The case of Mr. Bleaney is Larkin’s elegy for the nameless, faceless, and shapeless individuals who go through life in a structured daze; all the while remaining an ominous forewarning to others to recognize their own life passing them by into a state of transparency, where the inconsequential, the mediocre, and limited expectancy becomes the death sentence of good enough and as good as it gets. 

Thank you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

Thursday 15 February 2024

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Hello Gentle Reader,

Translations of Ogawa Yōko’s work into English are slim when compared to other languages. What has been translated, however, has created a sustainable growing interest. Ogawa’s most recent translated novel “The Memory Police,” became an unintentional relevant metaphor for the pandemic. A period where the slogan “the new normal,” and “return to normal,” infiltrated everyday nomenclature, framing individuals’ linguistic relationship with the events unfolding around them. This of course was a period of public health measures, mandates, and restrictions; following a cycle of lock downs and easing of restrictions, then abrupt return to point zero. Throughout the pandemic there was a continued sense of the world being reduced, redacted, or amputated. Gradually the concept of normalcy and the individuals own attachment or relationship to it, was being hollowed out. Inch by inch.  Component by component. It was reduced to a point where the whole was no longer available, let alone recognizable. In “The Memory Police,” everyday events, objects, sensations, seasons—an entire catalogue of reference points—is wormed away by the titular memory police, who through metaphysical and physical Kafkaesque edicts, reduced the island world. Birds disappear. Roses become contraband. Perfume evaporates into nothing. The inhabitants of this world accept the gradual reduction of their lives with complacent subservience, all the while acknowledging their own self is being erased in the process. “The Memory Police,” was originally published thirty years ago, and framed as an allegorical depiction of an authoritarian society subjected to absurd physical redactions of their world. The novel examined the nature of memory, the art of reminiscence, the responsibility to remember, and the dangers of forgetting. Ogawa’s “The Memory Police,” is often juxtaposed against Orwell’s classic “1984,” because its narrative revolved around a totalitarian state attempting to subjugate an entire populace to its will, exercising complete control over their lives and reality.

The two narratives diverge significantly, however, in both literary intention and execution. Orwell’s novel explores unchecked political power and the inhumane measures in which authoritarian governments will take to retain it. The threat of independent thought and language in “1984,” is the foundation of the novels premise. Big Brother, dominates through a variety of soft practices, administrative procedures, and physical controls. For example, the Thought Police manufacture and maintain a cult of personality; while mass surveillance ensures abject compliance; the Ministry of Truth, disseminates propaganda, curates historical negation, and destroys any to all information that runs counter to the states positions or party lines; while the Ministry of Love takes more physical approach in compliance, through torturing, brainwashing, interrogating, and if necessary, exterminating dissidence. Orwell’s novel journeys through the dehumanizing hellscape, proposing the question what does it mean to live in this kind of society and what are the associated costs and consequences to resist it? Ogawa Yōko’s “The Memory Police,” never traced or examined the evils of authoritarian government regimes. The bureaucratic absurdity of the memory police existed in the periphery a component of the landscape and menacing shadow circling. Ogawa, fixated the narrative on a small collective of individuals, who preserve within the oppression of their circumstance. The atmosphere is intimate and suffocating. A world completely closed off.

Self-contained worlds, liminal spaces, private interiors, and intimate narratives, is one of the defining features of Ogawa’s work. In “The Memory Police,” the unnamed island remains severed and cut off from the rest of the world. In addition to this, the narrator conceals her editor R in a small room in her house, which is described as being suspended in space. These otherwise, normal landscapes or scenes, however, are always tilted off kilter. An atmosphere of dread or menace infiltrates the narratives. A vacant lot is littered with old appliances, where a boy suffocated to death. An abandoned post office is full of kiwis. A bakery’s confectionary kingdom is tainted by a shadow of a woman buying a birthday cake for her dead son. In Ogawa’s fiction the clean uniform surface of modern conformity society is a superficial façade, one in which pulled back reveals a grotesque and unacknowledged shadow. The grotesque does not translate into extreme violence or gore. A turner of subtle, Ogawa Yōko crafts and curates disquieting inflections tainting or revealing a shift in a character’s positioning and their interactions with the world that is slowly growing incomprehensible. Ogawa’s crystalline and placid prose is devoid of sensationalism and melodramatics, which maintains that Ogawa remains fixated on the characters perspective and their interaction with a world slowly sinking into the visceral.

Before the critically acclaimed publication of “The Memory Police,” in 2019, ten years prior a slim novel, “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” was published and warmly received by critics and readers alike. However, “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” found itself suffering from a poor marketing campaign. The late 2000’s was peak Murakami Mania with the publication of his long awaited: “1Q84,”, and publishers have (and remain) eager to capitalize on the next big Japanese literary export. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” was adored by the reading public and critics alike. Yet, the novel was marketed with a lighthearted air, playing up a narrative that could quite easily become entrapped in kitschy sentimentality and coated in sweetened saccharine sensibilities. As the novel was marketed as heartwarming and hallmark oriented, void of more serious literary concerns. Personally, I kept a safe distance from “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” viewing it suspicion and disinterest. Similarly, the short story collection “Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales,” was equally poorly marketed, attempting to pawn off the interconnected set of short stories as horror stories, which would disappoint any reader looking for gore, dismemberment, and splattering entertainment. “Revenge,” instead explored the unacknowledged viscera beneath the complacent surface of polite society. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is not a narrative that has been excessively sweetened. This is not a novel that could be deemed bubblegum for the mind. Just as in the “The Memory police,” Ogawa has designed a surrogate family unite for three characters, who held together by a common thread. In “The Memory Police,” it’s the subtle resistance to the authorities, by concealing R who’s capable of retaining and recalling memories, attachments, and sensations that have since been obliviated. Whereas in “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” it’s the patterns and subtle intricate beauty of mathematics.   

“The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is narrated by the Housekeeper, a single mother whose past and personal life is blanched to the point of transparency. An only child raised by a single mother, her profession is more circumstance and vocation then passionate interest. A single mother herself, the birth of her son initially caused a fallout between mother and daughter. The Housekeeper reflects on her own mother’s perseverance at a casual job, became a venue and event manager. This work ethic and ability to transfigure difficult circumstances are key survival tactics for a single mother living in a society where single parenthood is considered a moral failing where mothers endure relentless discrimination resulting in poverty and social disenfranchisement. Regardless, the Housekeeper is renowned with her agency for being amicable, agreeable, and professional, which is why she is dispatched to a client with nine blue stars listed on their card—any star is a note of a difficult client with particular needs. The Housekeeper interviews with a woman, who is hiring a housekeeper for her brother-in-law a brilliant mathematician, who lives in the cottage in the garden. The catch? Due to an automobile accident, the Professors memory stops in 1975, and his short-term memory only lasts for eighty minutes:

“It’s as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. 

Aware of his lacking short-term memory, the Professor has clipped and pinned a variety of notes to his suit, one specifically reminds him of his lacking memory. Conventional pleasantries are quickly dismissed. The Professor immediately begins to ask questions regarding shoe size and telephone number, and showcases his mathematical aptitude for not only computing but also explaining the theories and equations in practice. When the Professor learns of that the Housekeeper has a son, he grows insistently concerned for the boy’s welfare, as he’s provided great autonomy and agency, left at home while his mother works. The Professor becomes insistent that the Housekeeper bring her son moving forward, which is in violation of the agencies code of conduct. The Professor becomes smitten with Housekeeper’s son calling him ‘Root,’ due to the flatness of his head. The three become a surrogate family, which is woven through with an appreciation of mathematics and a love of baseball. The remainder of the novel recounts the episodic encounters, challenges, and trials the family encounters throughout their daily lives and interactions. Math, however, is elevated not just as a quirk for the Professor to understand and retreat into, but becomes the focal point of how he interacts and engages with the world. His memory may fail him like clockwork, but numbers and equations, their logic is never changing, remaining a constant point of comfort and security.

It’s an extortionary feat for a writer to incorporate mathematics with such restrained, grace, and elegant beauty. The Professor finds comfort in the predictability and pattern recognition of mathematics. They are natural riddles which are solved, if only to heighten our understanding of the world. Mathematics and numbers are the foundations and the scaffolding of the universe and the natural world. Yet, their treatment by the professor is one akin to a musical or symphonic composition reaching a harmonic crescendo. Numbers are free from the follies and failures of people, and in their ordered realm they provide the Professor the means and the escape to understand the world.

“Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort.”

As a teacher, the Professor is the kind of mathematics mentor everyone who has grown up to hate and avoid math (including myself) has needed. He is a complete 180 to the typical mathematics teacher who is more interested in sounding off equations and drilling quick computation. To this day a timed math drill is enough to make me panic. Yet, the Professor is not interested in the end result or the amount of time it takes one to linger over a problem, but instead to appreciate the process of contemplation, understanding the theorem in question, and how mathematics brings order to a universe which on its surface roils and boils in sustained chaos. He is far more delighted when the question produces another tangent and another question. Math becomes a sustained reaction of more questions and possible answers, but moving ceaselessly forward to heightened levels.  

There is good reason why readers fall in love with Ogawa Yōko’s “The Housekeeper and the Professor.” Ogawa ensnared a trio of mundane characters brought together by chance and circumstance, and allow their confined space to blossom into an intimate universe. A simple story of love and friendship transformed and defied the expectations that it was a novel dripping in sugared mawkish second-hand exaggerated emotion, when instead it moved beyond the immediate and into the infinite, contemplating the nature of memory but also the underappreciated poetry and aesthetic beauty of mathematics and numbers. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is a delicate and sophisticated novel, one which never lingers over the details but continually expands within the possibilities. Airy would be a marvelous way to describe this novel, not because of its length or to insinuate its lacking robust depth or character, but because the language and style is free of ostentatious posturing. Other writers who might incorporate mathematics as metaphor or point of interest in their work, would certainly ensure it was a method to cement and confirm their own cleverness, by shrouding it further in esoteric complexity. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” may not convert any to all suffers of mathematical anxiety to open a math textbook, but it does provide the context to math’s ability to provide harmony and order to a world, especially one in which an individual no longer finds themselves instep or in time with. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is a masterclass in understatement that assembles a surprisingly compelling narrative about three individuals adrift in the world, finding comfort and solace within the infinite symphonic composition of numbers and the interplay within each other.

Thank you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Food Studies

Hello Gentle Reader,

Food is a subject that is often conceived and viewed through a utilitarian lens. Food is purposeful. It is a requirement. Common knowledge dictates that basic principles of a survivable existence consist of: clothing, shelter, and food—water is addendum or partner to food. Please note, this is a survivable existence, alluding to an existence of austerity, deprived of comforts and pleasures. The history of food is in turn a history of the human race. From hunting, gathering, and forging, to rustic agricultural settlements, to prevailing feudal systems, and industrialization and so on, food and its production, has been a continual feature of human society. Now more than ever, thanks to international trade, globalization, supply chains and logistical efforts, exotic spices, fruits, and vegetables can be shared around the world. The human palate and plate are no longer segregated into regional and seasonal options, instead its spoiled for choice. Despite this, food insecurity is a rising concern. More and more people are placed in socioeconomic conditions where the basic necessities can no longer be afforded in a hyperinflated world. Shelter has become unaffordable; food is outpricing; while wages are not keeping up to meet the base standards of living. Food, from its production, distribution, consumption and unaffordability, is a key narrative component and metric to the human condition and living conditions throughout history. Despite this, food has never been a subject that I’ve lingered or ruminated over. To reiterate the point, food in my perspective is a subject of utility.

Growing up, food was never described or categorized as a cuisine or having culinary allegiances. It was—and I directly quote—fashioned as: “good homestyle cooking.” No frills. Nothing fancy. No fuss. No exceptions. No forays or detours into new territory. The food stayed true to established precedence. My mothers cooking adhered to the cooking of her own childhood, though she made several additions over the years, becoming hallmarks of the menu. Regardless, food was guided by flavour and sustenance. Soups that would chase off the chill. Hearty meals that embraced egalitarian principles and of a good-will welcoming nature. A hallmark of my childhood home dinner table was Sunday roast beef, accompanied by mashed potatoes and gravy, and glazed carrots or mixed vegetables. Other common meals included country fried steak with milk gravy, veal or pork cutlets, perogies and farmers sausage with fried cabbage, macaroni tomatoes and burger (imitation goulash), picnic ham with baked macaroni and cheese, cabbage rolls, and a variety of other casseroles; while chilies and stews were winter hallmarks. Of course, my mother’s signature homemade buns and cinnamon buns, were a well-earned delight everyone looked forward to. Other notable dishes in the repertoire, included Japanese sticky chicken, which consists flour battered drumsticks, pan fried and then backed in a sweet and sour sauce. The meat is absolutely tender melting off the bone. Serve with white rice and a mixed vegetable or fried cabbage and sautéed peppers and onions. You can also substitute the drumsticks for chicken breasts. My mother was also famous for her fried rice, an alchemical rice like goulash, happily incorporating leftover ham, chicken (or turkey), followed by fried bacon and onions, and stir-fried mushrooms, before being mixed together with rice to make a filling one plate dinner. Popular condiments include soy sauce of course, but also a few sprinkles of vinegar.

Despite growing up in a household where food was a permanent and abundant fixture, I had no interest or desire or inclination to participate or be a part of the kitchen. Cooking and baking and all other associated synonyms, was viewed as a chore, work, or labour-oriented exercise. No different then vacuuming, sweeping or washing the dishes. Its inherent relation to what was then considered ‘domesticity,’ did not enamor me to it either. I also disagreed with the notion of “good homestyle cooking,” my mother propagated, as her mother had. Homestyle cooking, became the anthem and the slogan which continually signified a small or reduced world. One of limited culture, perspectives, and more frightening, hostile attitudes towards curiosity, cultural interest, or any appreciation for artistic achievements. Homestyle cooking became representational of the otherwise small, narrow, and closed off world that I grew up in. It was a world of limited palate, no taste, and no interest in expansion. The food was routine and repetitive, with a complete lack of interest or sense of culinary theatrics. My mothers’ cookbooks were full of recipes that were routinely overlooked. Some for very good reason, such as tomato aspic. While others carried enchanting curious names such as bubble and squeak or toad in the hole—which were never even glanced at. They were dismissed right from the start based on name alone. I have since personally made bubble and squeak, and have delighted in its simple spiced pleasure, a hodgepodge pancake of mashed potatoes, blanched cabbage, roasted carrots, and onions mixed and fried as one, and served it forth as a side dish with toad in the hole, accompanied by mushroom and onion gravy. My mother praised both; all the while defending her early veto of never cooking either of them.

Recipe books may be part of the reason why food is framed within a serviceable context. Afterall recipe books are grimoires of instructions. They lay out the ingredients and subsequent quantities and measurements; provide instructions regarding preparation, mixing, and assembly; then at last cooking requirements, which included temperatures to bake and length of time. Some recipes included recommendations for side dishes or plating for presentation. Not a very exciting read. Nothing that could be called literary. If a new recipe was being tried out, they would be cracked open and referenced. The kitchen in turn would be transformed into a state of chaos, which eventually gave way to a meal. I do not, however, consider writing a recipe or a cookbook the same as food writing. If only, because I perceive cookbook authors and chefs as being more concerned with providing instructional material, not going in lengths regarding historical developments or concerned with introducing literary license or embellishments. This inevitably left me perplexed, wondering what food writing is as a literary mode of expression and exploration.

There are of course very famous literary scenes involving food. Marcel Proust’s hallmark madeleine moment, where in lush modernist gilded baroque prose, Proust recounts the act of dipping the pastry into a cup of lime tea, cascades into an overture of memory. The great Scottish poet, Robert ‘Rabbie,’ Burns, wrote a poem: “Address to a Haggis,” and is a famous Scottish poem; which now has its own ceremony commemorated and recited at a Burns Supper on Burns Night (celebrating and honouring the poet’s birthday). There are the poisonous mushroom recipes included in Olga Tokarczuk’s “House of Day, House of Night,” which publishers legally sought to mitigate by advising readers not to indulge in or attempt to cook. Cooking and food also made a subsequent appearance in Doris Lessing’s groundbreaking interior explorative novel, “The Golden Notebook,” where the material acts of life are infused with the psychological complexities of one’s personhood and emotional state:

“And now the cooking for Michael. I unroll the veal that I remembered to batter out flat this morning; and I roll the pieces in the yellow egg, and the crumbs. I baked crumbs yesterday, and they still smell fresh and dry, in spite of the dampness in the air. I slice mushrooms into cream. I have a pan full of bone-jelly in the ice-box, which I melt and season. And the extra apples I cooked when doing Janet’s lunch, I scoop out of the still warm crackling skin, and sieve the pulp and mix it with thin vanilla’d cream, and beat it until it goes thick; and I pile the mixture back into the apple skins and set them to brown in the oven. All the kitchen is full of good cooking smells; and all at once I am happy, so happy I can feel the warmth of it through my whole body. Then there is a cold feeling in my stomach, and I think: Being happy is a lie, it’s a habit of happiness from moments like these during the last four years. And the happiness vanishes, and I am desperately tired. With the tiredness comes guilt. I know all the forms and variations of this guilt so well that they even bore me. But I have to fight them nevertheless.”

I am also reminded of the peculiar nature of food in Ogawa Yōko’s work, as in the story “Afternoon at the Bakery.” Where in placid prose, Ogawa sketches the complexities of grief a mother feels over her son’s death, while observing a cake decay:

“First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. The strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, and finally a layer of mold appeared.”

Food takes on a variety of visceral and grotesque forms and appearances throughout Ogawa Yōko’s work. From a woman gorging herself on kiwis, to carrots pulled from the earthen womb in the shape of hands. While in another novella “Pregnancy Diary,” food becomes both obsession and repulsion. In Ogawa’s hands, food is never quite savoury or sweet, but a metaphor and image of the otherwise mundane horrors of domesticity, the torments of feminine expectation, the delirium and break down of existence, and the gradual collapse of one’s psyche, much like the strawberry shortcake rotting on the counter. All wrapped up in prose styled in white confectionary frosting of surrealism, completely deprived of sensationalism.

This is still not food writing. Food in these scenes is either mode of narration, metaphor, image, or actionable movement. The concern and nature of the prose is not the subject of food. Food as a subject, however, has occupied the public imagination and adoration for decades now. Especially in the format of television series and competitions. As an individual who views food as a subject of utility, I subscribe to Fran Lebowitz’s perplexed viewpoint regarding the fascination with these shows. Cooking and baking competitions are confounding to me. While I appreciate their ability to showcase a chef or confectioners’ creativity, I do fail to grasp the nuanced points of the matter. Growing up, Julia Child (for instance) was a marvel to watch. But Child’s programing was not competitive in nature. The entire show (The French Chef) was bolstered by the charm and charisma of Julia Child, who invaded the homes of many, usurping TV dinners and prepackaged instant cooking, and changed how food and cooking was to be viewed, not just as a chore, but as a pleasure from conception to creation, and finally to sharing and being amongst great company. I suspect in large part, thanks to Julia Child, fine French cuisine has occupied my thoughts with almost fantasy like quality. Afterall, Child was the one who demystified the legendary complexities of French cuisine for the North American public. The legendary fickle gourmet food became accessible and approachable. Not that it ever found itself served on the kitchen table of my childhood. Still, Julia Child was a chef and cook book author, not necessarily a practitioner of food writing.

Dining out is one of those bewildering experiences. Both theatre of the gourmand and the spectacle hell of public ingesting. Dining is best done with good company. Good company and conversation will make a hell of a difference. Not only on the ambience of the establishment but on the food. All minor infractions and disappointments can be overlooked when experienced in good company. Food writing as a literary topic, began to occupy my thoughts in the late summer of last year. I was meeting up with friends at a new local restaurant for a meal and to catch up. The place itself was uninspiring. Another place that could be defined as generic or a devotee of “good homestyle cooking.” The menu consisted of the stalwart staples: a variety of burgers, from typical cheese, to bacon, to mushroom, to the loaded option; sandwiches such as ham and Swiss, club house, turkey bacon, BLT, and brisket (I believe quesadilla was included); followed by the signature entrees such as liver and onions, veal cutlet, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken alfredo; a myriad selection of salads, and then a small menu for dessert which included chocolate cake, cheese cake, and a pie (I believe apple). This menu could easily have been repeated at any other eatery across town. I recalled having the brisket sandwich with a side of fries, and thinking to myself: this is all otherwise rather uninspired. The food is repetitive no matter where you went. Diners will routinely and without fail continually find the same menu options, regardless if they were, be it at this greasy spoon or the one three blocks away. I found the state of food in turn sad and underwhelming. It seems I am trapped in a hell styling itself “good homestyle cooking,” and I want to scream. From what I recall of the sandwich in question was what one expected. It was slices of brisket, topped with cheddar cheese, contained between two thick toasted slices of bread topped with a pickle. The waitress recommended dipping into barbeque sauce for extra flavour. The French fries were regular run of the mill deep fried fries. Though I do recall the unsettling feeling of greasiness being attributed to the meal. A sentiment shared by my company, which livened the occasion up, at which point the meal could be overlooked in favour of the conversations facilitated at the table.

After this incident I contemplated food as a literary subject. From reminiscing about Julia Child and her legendary editor Judith Jones (who wrote her own cookbook: “The Pleasures of Cooking for One: A Cookbook,”) to discovering essayists who topics of interest were food, which included the poet of the appetites herself, M.F.K Fisher and her British compatriot Elizabeth David. In their hands, food was not a subject of utility and sustenance—fulfillment and nourishment were of course intricate components to their writings, both in a physical sense but also nurturing the metaphysical soul of oneself—it also included ruminations on food within cultural and historical context, via travels, and their own perspectives on food. M.F.K Fisher remains renowned for her book: “How to Cook a Wolf,” which is often described as a survivalist guide to cookery during hardship, rations, and scarcity of resources. “How to Cook a Wolf,” remains a complex piece of work, one which completely refuses to be cook book, war protest, essay, or novel, it remains established as a book of pure literary concern and not necessarily one of cooking concern, one which routine renewed interest is reinspired with when disaster, catastrophe, and tragedy strikes. If anything, “How to Cook a Wolf,” is a testament to the necessity to live, be it purely, sincerely, or simply, the end resolve must be to live. Elizabeth David helped elevate English cooking (often mocked for its own chastising prudish Englishness) beyond the grey austerity, and postwar rationing and become enlivened with herbs and spice of foreign abodes and locales. Both M.F.K Fisher and Elizabeth David, reviewing food within a context beyond practical concerns. Food, dining, and eating was a journey not only in culinary composition, but of personal growth, an expansion of palate and perspective, and an appreciation of other cultures, histories, and people. For M.F.K Fisher, French cuisine was the catalyst that changed her world and understanding of food, far from the milquetoast food that was currently on offer in her childhood California home. Whereas Elizabeth David embraced French provincial cooking and Mediterranean cooking, introducing them to English reading public in turn.

As for myself, I’ve picked up the wooden spoon and done battle against the prevailing “good homestyle cooking,” that is the prevailing cooking philosophy of not only today, but of yesterday, and quite possibly tomorrow. I want frills. I want fancy. I want fuss. I want to enjoy good food, food that is different, pleasurable, and completely deprived of the continued philosophy of homestyle cooking. In that regard, the internet is the great equalizer. Recipes galore—though ingredients might be more difficult to come by. Regardless, I’ve expanded my culinary palate and stopped looking at cooking as a bothersome chore. However, make no mistake Gentle Reader, I would not call it a pleasure either. Before cooking came out of necessity. Lately, its more out of interest. Recent conquests included ratatouille, which I had no interest in trying due to a bad experience with aubergine (eggplants), they are bitter and tough. Turns out you just need to understand their preparation. I’ve mastered a Japanese curry, which is a hearty, sweet and extremely flavourful stew that is best served with fluffy white rice. I’ve indulged in quiche Lorraine and a marvelous fresh mustard vinaigrette salad during the summer. Perhaps my most laborious accomplishment though is my tourtière, a truly masterful meat pie, savoury and perfectly spiced. Despite its work, its a decadent dish, whose rewards cannot be overstated. In turn, I’ve also found myself enjoying the company of M.F.K Fisher and Elizabeth David, who were adamant that one should eat well without apology. To them, food is not just a matter of sustenance to be served forth, eaten, digested, rinse and repeat, it’s an act of indulgence, appreciating seasonal ingredients and the transformative power of spices and aromatics, to create lasting dishes and formative relationships. In their regard, food was best enjoyed either as a private affair or with great company. Fisher and David, are enjoyable in their treatment of food, elevating it beyond the didactic, and embracing the lyrical and the contemplative within the culinary, domestic, and kitchen-oriented hemisphere, where one doesn’t just eat what is placed in front of them without comment, thought, or any interest, but instead takes consideration regarding what it is they are consuming, and evaluating the enjoyment of it.

Understanding food within a context not just reduced to mere utility has been a delight. Its literary depictions are often imagistic and metaphorical; a springboard in purpose; or actionable material leading to further digressions and explorations. Recipe books are marvelous, but again instructional in nature. They are the grimoires to any kitchen, the necessary workbooks and study material to fashion a dinner or dessert. While, enjoying the food orientated writings of writers such as M.F.K Fisher and Elizabeth David, embrace the nuanced study of food as a subject of the individual and the societal collective. In turn beneath splendid tables spread out with a service of banquet and meal, there lurks a shadow that dodges, follows, and haunts. M.F.K Fisher in particular wrote about appetite’s, from hunger to fulfilment. The act of eating is in turn the act of taking away. The trade off, if you will. The cow is butchered to provide stewing meat; the potato is wretched from the earth to be peeled and boiled; while the oyster be it alive or stewed goes down the throat. Death is the end for us all, so you might as well eat well before the inevitable happens.

Thank you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

—Post Script—

For readers a little more curious about literary food and recipes pulled from the works of literature, I would recommend the “Eat Your Words,” column archive by Valerie Stivers via The Paris Review. It’s a delightful read.