Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nelly Kaprielian / A Week in Culture

A Week in Culture: Nelly Kaprielian, Critic

September 15, 2010 | by Nelly Kaprielian


10:00 A.M. How can you tell when a novel is great? When, even on a second reading, you keep discovering new things, you keep being amazed, impressed, amused, when the text keeps making you think about the world and your own life. That's how it is with Michel Houellebecq's new novel, La Carte et le Territoire. I just finished rereading it this morning in preparation for my interview with him tonight. The book comes out September 8 and already—ever since August 20—the press has been full of raves.
Every Houellebecq novel is an event. The only real phenomenon in French letters, and the only French author known abroad, Houellebecq has certainly paid a price: to be idolized like a rock star, yes, but also hated, scorned, dragged through the mud by his idolators. Since The Elementary Particles came out in 1998, Les Inrockuptibles has stood by Houellebecq, defending him against the unfounded attacks that greeted one of his best books, The Possibility of an Island, in 2005. Out of loyalty, Houellebecq has granted us the first in-depth interview about the book, and the only long interview in a serious weekly. Needless to say, such loyalty is rare in the literary world. Ironically, thanks to the new book, Houellebecq finds himself lionized yet again by the press. Whenever a book of his appears, the media’s reaction tells you as much about them as about the book itself.
11:00 A.M. It hasn’t got any sex in it, no swingers’ clubs, no Thai whores. The novel, which is less angry and less polemical than his previous work, will be read on its own terms, simply as a great book: a total novel, a metaphysical labyrinth of dizzying complexity, a vision of the world that we once knew and have lost to globalization. No, it isn’t exactly funny. And yet Houellebecq manages to combine his despair with an irony that draws you helplessly in. It strikes me that this is why I do my job—why all critics do—for the intense feeling, for the adrenaline rush, of discovering a work of genius. If it wasn’t eleven in the morning, I’d pour myself a shot of vodka.
12:00 P.M.. At the office, in Bastille. I have other people’s reviews to edit, headlines to write (trying to be witty, to think up puns … a nightmare), etc. But first I can’t resist going straight to the editor of the TV section and begging him—on bended knees, with clasped and trembling hands—to let me borrow season three of Mad Men. That’s one advantage of working for a culture journal. You can get all 13 episodes at once, and watch five in one night. Ecstasy.
5:40 P.M. Houellebecq’s novel features a misanthropic alcoholic named Michel Houellebecq, who says at one point: “You know, it’s the journalists who’ve given me the reputation of a drunk: what’s odd is that none of them ever realized that, if I drink a lot in their presence, it’s only so I can stand them.”
I pick up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
6:07 P.M. Houellebecq is … Houellebecquian. The Ritz? The Meurice? The Plaza? No. While in Paris he stays at a completely crummy chain hotel—in the 13th Arrondissement, no less, the same neighborhood where his main character, the artist Jed Martin, lives. The room is depressing enough to make you want to jump out the window. Pajamas balled up on the unmade bed, electric toothbrush recharging on the table. The usual slow delivery, the usual long silence before every sentence, the usual cigarette in the corner of his mouth. And yet he has changed: he’s thinner, his face is more deeply lined, his eyes seem washed out, he seems exhausted. It worries me. “Thank you for the champagne, but I already picked up a bottle. We’ll drink them both.” And so we do.
10:30 P.M. Michel orders a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape at the Moroccan restaurant where he has taken me to dinner.
11:35 P.M. He has fallen fast asleep on the table. What to do? The kind waitress hails a taxi, I shake Michel by the shoulders to wake him up, help him to his feet and put him in the car. “Where are we?” he asks, still half asleep. In the taxi he finally recognizes the 13th Arrondissement and seems reassured. I tell him that the most worrying thing, for me, is that I seem able to hold my liquor better than … Michel Houellebecq himself. “Yes, but you have practice, what with all those literary cocktail parties they make you attend.” All is well: he has got back his sense of humor.
11:55 P.M. In front of his hotel we smoke a few more cigarettes while the taxi waits to take me home. “Alcohol, you know, is a thing of my youth. I don’t drink the way I used to. I’m old now, and I don’t think I have much longer to go. La Carte et le Territoire may be my last book … “ Touching, moving, sincere, brilliant, funny, utterly down-to-earth … An interview with Michel Houellebecq is not like an interview with anybody else. No doubt about it, I love the guy.


9:30 A.M. Not even a hangover! I call my head editor, who is dying to know how things went with Michel H. He’s thrilled when I told him the whole story: “Write all of that in your article, starting in the taxi on the way there.” He's right, naturally, only I hate articles that start with some cut-rate gonzo cliché about being in the taxi before an interview. Above all, I hate the kind of journalism that reduces a great writer to his biography for the sake of a profile. I recently read an article in a British paper about Bret Easton Ellis’s new book—and all it talked about was his bad relationship with his father. (While we’re at it, what about his dog?)
10:30 A.M. Starting to write my article about another great book: Summertime, by J. M. Coetzee. A fictional autobiography told by five narrators (mostly women) who mattered in Coetzee’s life (he is dead when the book begins). To hear the women tell it, he’s cold, shy, repressed, a bad lover, and they didn’t fall in love with him. He’s ridiculous and pathetic. Coetzee dwells on the distance between life and literature, the difference between the writer as his readers imagine him and as he, disappointingly, is. I have interviewed billions of writers. I’ve dated some. And of course Coetzee’s point amuses me deeply. He’s so right!
12:00 P.M. There is a funny similarity between Coetzee’s and Houellebecq’s books. Each writes about himself, presenting himself as pathetic—and, sooner or later, as dead. Each kills himself through fiction. Houellebecq describes himself as lonely, depressed, dirty, drunk all the time, eating junk food, spending his days watching cartoons on TV. Yesterday he was telling me that he took an intense masochistic pleasure in writing about himself that way. Also, he has turned up as a character in other people’s novels, and he likes showing all of these writers who used him that they could have done a better job. Indeed!
In his own way, Coetzee is making it impossible to write a biography after his death. No one, in speaking of those two, can do worse than they have done. Each novel is a sort of master class.
2:30 P.M. At the office. Not much going on, to tell the truth. Can’t wait to go home and watch Mad Men.
7:30 P.M. Oh, no ! I forgot I have a dinner party to go to. So much for Mad Men. Fortunately, Élodie, who works for a publishing house, lives just up the street. There are two other book critics there. Each manages the culture or book section of a weekly magazine. Each of us has brought someone from outside the business, so we do our best not to talk about literature. But it’s like asking junkies not to talk about drugs. After lots of champagne (in France, a good book critic is a critic who drinks, I wouldn’t trust a sober one…), we crack. “What did you think of X?” “Did you read Y?” blah blah blah. I pity our friends, who seem to be standing on the sidelines of a game whose rules nobody’s bothered to explain.
3:20 A.M. I notice my watch on the floor—what is my watch doing on the floor? I never, ever lose that watch. Or almost never. Pick it up and realize it’s after three. Standing up to leave, I also realize we’re all drunk.


9:00 A.M. Hungover. And wouldn't you know it, this morning I have to go on national TV (and not just national: France 24 is broadcast in other countries too) to talk about that typically French phenomenon known as the "rentrée littéraire." Every year, at the end of August, French publishers bring out about 700 books, all at once, hoping for a shot at one of the literary prizes that get awarded in October and November—most famously (and always most controversially) the Prix Goncourt.
10:45 A.M. I begged the makeup woman to camouflage my Elephant Man eyes, whatever it took. Now I have the eyes of an Elephant Man who tried really hard to look pretty.
11:00 A.M. Why are the offices of a TV station always spacious, neat, futuristic, beautiful--when the offices of a print journal are always a pigsty? The program starts. The interviewer asks the ritual question, the same one they asked last year and will ask again a year from now: "Seven hundred books—isn't that too many?"
It's funny, in June or July, while I'm trying to select the best novels for our special rentrée issue, I hate that figure, 700. I spend every night all summer reading while normal people are out on some café terrace having fun. But by late August, when it's all over, and when they ask me the question, I always answer, "Would you prefer to live in a country that published only three books a year?"
Choice is freedom. And if some of the books don't get read, too bad. A good book will always find readers.
11:30 A.M. The preordained question about the new Michel Houllebecq: "Everyone says it's a masterpiece. True or false?" No question about it, he's the star of the rentrée.
Forgive me. How can I help writing about him every day?
1:00 P.M. Back to work. Meetings, tension, soul-searching. All par for the course, since the magazine is being completely redesigned and relaunched on September 15. I'm happy because we managed to keep our book section long, with real reviews and not just advertorial capsules. Nowadays you can't take a thing like that for granted.
8:30 P.M. Mad Men and herbal tea. Everyone has a theory about Mad Men. Mine is that our era has reduced women to two choices about their bodies—puritanical guilt (the burka, the chador, anorexia) and pornography (fake boobs, fake blonds, muscles, tramp stamps, etc.)—and we're nostalgic for a time when a woman could dare to have a woman's body, when a woman could be comfortable with her sensuality, her breasts, her dress size, her legs. The dresses on Mad Men show everything, even as they hide everything, and that's what makes them so provocative in 2010.
Today Christina Hendricks's breasts are a thousand times more subversive than any tatooed lower back.

 Nelly Kaprielian is a critic and editor in Paris, France.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mad Men's Jon Hamm is the talk of The Town

Mad Men's Jon Hamm is the talk of The Town

Star of award-winning US drama takes a break from his day job playing an ad man to promote new Ben Affleck movie at the Venice film festival
Xan Brooks in Venice
Thursday 9 September 2010 15.51 BST

 Jon Hamm as FBI special agent Adam Frawley in The Town, directed by Ben Affleck

It seemed significant that the biggest cheers at the Venice press conference for The Town were not for Ben Affleck, the film's director and star. Nor were they for the British actor Rebecca Hall or for Jeremy Renner, the Oscar-nominated star of The Hurt Locker. Instead they went to Mad Men mainstay Jon Hamm, a small-screen actor who has come to eclipse his big-screen counterparts.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hilary Mantel / Comma






 by Hilary Mantel

    • The Guardian, 
'It was a summer that had bleached adults of their purpose'. Photograph: Regine Petersen
I can see Mary Joplin now, in the bushes crouching with her knees apart, her cotton frock stretched across her thighs. In the hottest summer (and this was it) Mary had a sniffle, and she would rub the tip of her upturned nose, meditatively, with the back of her hand, and inspect the glistening snail-trail that was left. We squatted, both of us, up to our ears in tickly grass: grass which, as midsummer passed, turned from tickly to scratchy and etched white lines, like the art of a primitive tribe, across our bare legs. Sometimes we would rise together, as if pulled up by invisible strings. Parting the rough grass in swaths, we would push a little closer to where we knew we were going, and where we knew we should not go. Then, as if by some predetermined signal, we would flounce down again, so we would be half-invisible if God looked over the fields.
Buried in the grass we talked: myself monosyllabic, guarded, eight years old, wearing too-small shorts of black-and-white check, that had fitted me last year: Mary with her scrawny arms, her kneecaps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort. Some unknown hand, her own perhaps, had placed on her rat-tails a twisted white ribbon; by afternoon it had skewed itself around to the side, so that her head looked like a badly tied parcel. Mary Joplin put questions to me: "Are you rich?"

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My hero / Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz

My hero Charles Schulz 

by Jenny Colgan

'He combined artistic talent, a huge sense of being the underdog, a wry, bittersweet sense of humour, and an extraordinary work ethic' 

Jenny Colgan
Saturday 17 July 2010 00.04 BST

Charl Schulz first noticed there was something unusual about his son Charles when he noticed him, aged two, drawing everything he passed with his finger in the condensation of the trolleybus window. Some gifts you're just born with. Charles "Sparky" Schulz combined artistic talent, a huge sense of being the underdog (which he retained well into his first $100m), a wry, bittersweet sense of humour, and an extraordinary work ethic.
Like many others I was raised on Peanuts and adored it. I grew up on Lucy never letting Charlie Brown get a kick of that ball; on kite-eating trees; Great Pumpkins; horrible summer camps; and dogs who get a lot of publishing rejection letters (a concept with which I was to become familiar). It gave me a vision of America – as pleasant and convivial, but with sharp undercurrents – that I am convinced remains accurate.
I didn't know then that Schulz had, in the face of threats and criticism, quietly integrated Charlie Brown's black friend Franklin into school. I didn't know he was one of the first people to mark VE Day (Snoopy always has a root beer with his army friend, Bill). I didn't even appreciate Schulz's mastery of line until much later – just look at his beautifully articulated raindrops. But I knew it was brilliant.
There was only onheir comic strips that day.
His work is touching, funny and sad. Like many overachievers, Schulz lost a parent early – his mother, just as he received his call-up papers; he was 17. She was from a stern Scandinavian family with whom he never felt at home and rarely saw in later life. In fact, he took just one thing from his European roots: the Norwegian term of endearment his mother used for him as a child – Snupie Charles Schulz. When he died in 2000, more than 100 cartoonists paid tribute to him in t


Saturday, June 26, 2010

My hero / Patti Smith by Joseph O'Connor

Patti Smith

Patti Smith by Joseph O'Connor

'She has been a poet, an acclaimed photographer, a memoirist, a mother, perhaps the last truly uncompromised artist in rock music'

Joseph O'Connor
Saturday June 2010

n my 14th birthday, I bought a record that changed my life. I had never heard of the artist. It was the album sleeve that captivated me. It showed a woman of mournfully beautiful gauntness, jacket draped over her shoulder. It was like a still from a French movie too cool to be made. The record was Horses by Patti Smith.

I had never seen anyone who looked quite like her. A lovesick Yeats wrote that Maude Gonne had "beauty like a tightened bow", and the old priest who taught us English (and who had once seen Gonne on a Dublin street) would spend eternities explaining the simile. But when I saw that photograph, I knew what it meant.

The first time I heard Smith singing is one of the defining moments of my life. It was East Village garage meets the sulphur of the blues. And that voice like a whip-crack: impish, transgressive, swooping from a mutter to a scream. She'd snarl like an angry Dylan or croon with tenderness, punctuating Lenny Kaye's guitar work with murmured incantations.
The rebels of culture haunted her work. Rimbaud, Jimi Hendrix, Virginia Woolf and The Who, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Baudelaire, John Lennon: they loomed behind her vision. Maddening, gorgeous, insolent, unique, she has been a poet, an acclaimed photographer, a memoirist, a mother, perhaps the last truly uncompromised artist in rock music. At 63, she's still making work of importance and beauty. She's been my hero for three decades. I don't know what I'd have done without her.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bret Easton Ellis / Imperial Bedrooms / The Excerpt

May 19, 2010, 10:15 AM

Exclusive Excerpt: Read the Beginning of Bret Easton Ellis's New Book

In Imperial Bedrooms, the author reintroduces the same characters from his classic, Less than Zero. A quarter-century later, the same drug-addled despair.
It's been 25 years since Bret Easton Ellis wrote Less Than Zero,and in that time absolutely nothing has changed. Or that's the feeling you get when reading Ellis's long-awaited sequel, Imperial Bedrooms. You may also feel as though you need cooler sunglasses. And you may experience the desire to get a blowjob while you chop lines on the dash of your BMW.

Oh, you felt that way already? This is Ellis's career-making insight: Fame and money and ass and murder make the world go round. True in 1985. True today. —Benjamin Alsup

The Excerpt

They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part was an accurate portrayal. It was labeled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren't changed and there was nothing in it that hadn't happened. For example, there actually had been a screening of a snuff film in that bedroom in Malibu on a January afternoon, and yes, I had walked out onto the deck overlooking the Pacific where the author tried to console me, assuring me that the screams of the children being tortured were faked, but he was smiling as he said this and I had to turn away. Other examples: my girlfriend had in fact run over a coyote in the canyons below Mulholland, and a Christmas Eve dinner at Chasen's with my family that I had casually complained about to the author was faithfully rendered. And a twelve-year-old girl really had been gang-raped — I was in that room in West Hollywood with the writer, who in the book noted just a vague reluctance on my part and failed to accurately describe how I had actually felt that night — the desire, the shock, how afraid I was of the writer, a blond and isolated boy whom the girl I was dating had halfway fallen in love with. But the writer would never fully return her love because he was too lost in his own passivity to make the connection she needed from him, and so she had turned to me, but by then it was too late, and because the writer resented that she had turned to me I became the handsome and dazed narrator, incapable of love or kindness. That's how I became the damaged party boy who wandered through the wreckage, blood streaming from his nose, asking questions that never required answers. That's how I became the boy who never understood how anything worked. That's how I became the boy who wouldn't save a friend. That's how I became the boy who couldn't love the girl.
The scenes from the novel that hurt the most chronicled my relationship with Blair, especially in a scene near the novel's end when I broke it off with her on a restaurant patio overlooking Sunset Boulevard and where a billboard that read disappear here kept distracting me (the author added that I was wearing sunglasses when I told Blair that I never loved her). I hadn't mentioned that painful afternoon to the author but it appeared verbatim in the book and that's when I stopped talking to Blair and couldn't listen to the Elvis Costello songs we knew by heart ("You Little Fool," "Man Out of Time," "Watch Your Step") and yes, she had given me a scarf at a Christmas party, and yes, she had danced over to me mouthing Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?"and yes, she had called me "a fox," and yes, she found out I had slept with a girl I picked up on a rainy night at the Whisky, and yes, the author had informed her of that. He wasn't, I realized when I read those scenes concerning Blair and myself, close to any of us — except of course to Blair, and really not even to her. He was simply someone who floated through our lives and didn't seem to care how flatly he perceived everyone or that he'd shared our secret failures with the world, showcasing the youthful indifference, the gleaming nihilism, glamorizing the horror of it all.
But there was no point in being angry with him. When the book was published in the spring of 1985, the author had already left Los Angeles. In 1982 he attended the same small college in New Hampshire that I'd tried to disappear into, and where we had little or no contact. (There's a chapter in his second novel, which takes place at Camden, where he parodies Clay — just another gesture, another cruel reminder of how he felt about me. Careless and not particularly biting, it was easier to shrug off than anything in the first book which depicted me as an inarticulate zombie confused by the irony of Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.") Because of his presence I stayed at Camden only one year and then transferred to Brown in 1983 though in the second novel I'm still in New Hampshire during the fall term of 1985. I told myself it shouldn't bother me, but the success of the first book hovered within my sight lines for an uncomfortably long time. This partly had to do with my wanting to become a writer as well, and that I had wanted to write that first novel the author had written after I finished reading it — it was my life and he had hijacked it. But I quickly had to accept that I didn't have the talent or the drive. I didn't have the patience. I just wanted to be able to do it. I made a few lame, slashing attempts and realized after graduating from Brown in 1986 that it was never going to happen.
The only person who expressed any embarrassment or disdain about the novel was Julian Wells — Blair was still in love with the author and didn't care, nor did much of the supporting cast — but Julian did so in a gleefully arrogant manner that verged on excitement, even though the author had exposed not only Julian's heroin addiction but also the fact that he was basically a hustler in debt to a drug dealer (Finn Delaney) and pimped out to men visiting from Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco in the hotels that lined Sunset from Beverly Hills to Silver Lake. Julian, wasted and self-pitying, had told the author everything, and there was something about the book being widely read and costarring Julian that seemed to give Julian some kind of focus that bordered on hope and I think he was secretly pleased with it because Julian had no shame — he only pretended that he did. And Julian was even more excited when the movie version opened in the fall of 1987, just two years after the novel was published.
I remember my trepidation about the movie began on a warm October night three weeks prior to its theatrical release, in a screening room on the 20th Century Fox lot. I was sitting between Trent Burroughs and Julian, who wasn't clean yet and kept biting his nails, squirming in the plush black chair with anticipation. (I saw Blair walk in with Alana and Kim and trailing Rip Millar. I ignored her.) The movie was very different from the book in that there was nothing from the book in the movie. Despite everything — all the pain I felt, the betrayal — I couldn't help but recognize a truth while sitting in that screening room. In the book everything about me had happened. The book was something I simply couldn't disavow. The book was blunt and had an honesty about it, whereas the movie was just a beautiful lie. (It was also a bummer: very colorful and busy but also grim and expensive, and it didn't recoup its cost when released that November.) In the movie I was played by an actor who actually looked more like me than the character the author portrayed in the book: I wasn't blond, I wasn't tan, and neither was the actor. I also suddenly became the movie's moral compass, spouting AA jargon, castigating everyone's drug use and trying to save Julian. ("I'll sell my car," I warn the actor playing Julian's dealer. "Whatever it takes.") This was slightly less true of the adaptation of Blair's character, played by a girl who actually seemed like she belonged in our group — jittery, sexually available, easily wounded. Julian became the sentimentalized version of himself, acted by a talented, sad-faced clown, who has an affair with Blair and then realizes he has to let her go because I was his best bud. "Be good to her," Julian tells Clay. "She really deserves it." The sheer hypocrisy of this scene must have made the author blanch. Smiling secretly to myself with perverse satisfaction when the actor delivered that line, I then glanced at Blair in the darkness of the screening room.
As the movie glided across the giant screen, restlessness began to reverberate in the hushed auditorium. The audience — the book's actual cast — quickly realized what had happened. The reason the movie dropped everything that made the novel real was because there was no way the parents who ran the studio would ever expose their children in the same black light the book did. The movie was begging for our sympathy whereas the book didn't give a shit. And attitudes about drugs and sex had shifted quickly from 1985 to 1987 (and a regime change at the studio didn't help) so the source material — surprisingly conservative despite its surface immorality — had to be reshaped. The best way to look at the movie was as modern eighties noir — the cinematography was breathtaking — and I sighed as it kept streaming forward, interested in only a few things: the new and gentle details of my parents mildly amused me, as did Blair finding her divorced father with his girlfriend on Christmas Eve instead of with a boy named Jared (Blair's father died of AIDS in 1992 while still married to Blair's mother). But the thing I remember most about that screening in October twenty years ago was the moment Julian grasped my hand that had gone numb on the armrest separating our seats. He did this because in the book Julian Wells lived but in the movie's new scenario he had to die. He had to be punished for all of his sins. That's what the movie demanded. (Later, as a screenwriter, I learned it's what all movies demanded.) When this scene occurred, in the last ten minutes, Julian looked at me in the darkness, stunned. "I died," he whispered. "They killed me off." I waited a beat before sighing, "But you're still here." Julian turned back to the screen and soon the movie ended, the credits rolling over the palm trees as I (improbably) take Blair back to my college while Roy Orbison wails a song about how life fades away.
The real Julian Wells didn't die in a cherry-red convertible, overdosing on a highway in Joshua Tree while a choir soared over the sound track. The real Julian Wells was murdered over twenty years later, his body dumped behind an abandoned apartment buildingin Los Feliz after he had been tortured to death at another location. His head was crushed — his face struck with such force that it had partly folded in on itself — and he had been stabbed so brutally that the L.A. coroner's office counted one hundred fifty-nine wounds from three different knives, many of them overlapping. His body was discovered by a group of kids who went to CalArts and were cruising through the streets off of Hillhurst in a convertible BMW looking for a parking space. When they saw the body they thought the "thing" lying by a trash bin was — and I'm quoting the first Los Angeles Times article on the front page of the California section about the Julian Wells murder — "a flag." I had to stop when I hit upon that word and start reading the article again from the beginning. The students who found Julian thought this because Julian was wearing a white Tom Ford suit (it had belonged to him but it wasn't something he was wearing the night he was abducted) and their immediate reaction seemed halfway logical since the jacket and pants were streaked with red. (Julian had been stripped before he was killed and then re-dressed.) But if they thought it was a "flag" my immediate question was: then where was the blue? If the body resembled a flag, I kept wondering, then where was the blue? And then I realized: it was his head. The students thought it was a flag because Julian had lost so much blood that his crumpled face was a blue so dark it was almost black.
But then I should have realized this sooner because, in my own way, I had put Julian there, and I'd seen what had happened to him in another — and very different — movie.
The blue Jeep starts following us on the 405 somewhere between LAX and the Wilshire exit. I notice it only because the driver's eyes have been glancing into the rearview mirror above the windshield I've been gazing out of, at the lanes of red taillights streaming toward the hills, drunk, in the backseat, ominous hip-hop playing softly through the speakers, my phone glowing in my lap with texts I can't read coming in from an actress I was hitting on earlier that afternoon in the American Airlines first-class lounge at JFK (she had been reading my palm and we were both giggling), other messages from Laurie in New York a total blur. The Jeep follows the sedan across Sunset, passing the mansions draped with Christmas lights while I'm nervously chewing mints from a tin of Altoids, failing to mask my gin-soaked breath, and then the blue Jeep makes the same right and rolls toward the Doheny Plaza, tailing us as if it were a lost child. But as the sedan swerves into the driveway where the valet and a security guard look up from smoking cigarettes beneath a towering palm, the Jeep hesitates before it keeps rolling down Doheny toward Santa Monica Boulevard. The hesitation makes it clear that we were guiding it somewhere. I stumble out of the car and watch as the Jeep slowly brakes before turning onto Elevado Street. It's warm but I'm shivering in a pair of frayed sweats and a torn Nike hoodie, everything loose because of the weight I dropped that fall, the sleeves damp from a drink I spilled during the flight. It's midnight in December and I've been away for four months.
"I thought that car was following us," the driver says, opening the trunk. "It kept moving lanes with us. It tailed us all the way here."
"What do you think it wanted?" I ask.
The night doorman, whom I don't recognize, walks down the ramp leading from the lobby to the driveway to help me with my bags. I overtip the driver and he gets back into the sedan and pulls out onto Doheny to pick up his next passenger at LAX, an arrival from Dallas. The valet and the security guard nod silently as I walk past them, following the doorman into the lobby. The doorman places the bags in the elevator and says before the doors close, cutting him off, "Welcome back."
From IMPERIAL BEDROOMS by Bret Easton Ellis (Knopf). Copyright 2010 by Bret Easton Ellis.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Jeanette Winterson pays tribute to Rose Gray


Jeanette Winterson pays tribute to Rose Gray

With their emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce the River Café cookbooks revolutionised British cooking every bit as much as Elizabeth David

Jeanette Winterson
Saturday 6 March 2010 00.05 GMT

ating Italian street food and reading Elizabeth David" is how Rose Gray described her early excitement for cooking. Those present participles "eating" and "reading" are the clue. The best food writing makes you want to get cooking – so that you can eat. Eating fabulous food makes you want to read about its history, its geography, its alchemy.

The British are bad at food, but good at turning out self-invented cooks. Our amateurism, which became a defining national characteristic in the 19th century as a practical protest against the "professionalism" of commerce and trade, has long disappeared from sport, but has produced most of what is valuable in the arts – and cooking is an art.
By art I mean a lot of creativity and some necessary chaos. Food is a natural product – or should be – and whatever is natural comes with unruly and surprising elements. Our culture has endeavoured to make food as artificial and synthetic as possible – then it is predictable and can be controlled. No real cooks really follow a recipe – the recipe is just the beginning, after that we make it our own, adding or taking away, using what is in the garden or the larder, not only what is on the page. Such inventiveness is at the heart of cooking, along with a happiness, not just a willingness, to use foods as nature provides them – fresh and in season.
At the River Café in London, opened by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers in 1987, the signature style was not crenellated haute cuisine expensively marketed for an ignorant English palate. It was family Italian, robust, joyful, plentiful, distinct in its flavours and, above all, fresh and seasonal.
It was more than seasonal, it was daily. What is to be had in the market? What is the weather like? The creativity of the menus, like any other kind of creativity, was a response, not an imposition. But you can only respond when you are sure of your skills, and knowledgeable at a level far deeper than swotting up or showing off. The natural ease and simple delight of the River Café response to Italian food came out of love and understanding. The River Café cookbooks are about teaching you to cook by teaching you how to love food – not by rote or method.
The British first experienced this with Elizabeth David. The Dictionary of National Biography calls David "the best writer on food and drink that this country has ever produced". It is 60 years since her first book, Mediterranean Cookery, was published, and it's no surprise that Gray thought of her as a lifelong inspiration. That book, revelatory in its elegance and passion, appeared only a year after Fanny Cradock's frightening The Practical Cook (1949) – a recipe book as far away from love of food as Sweeney Todd should have been from meat pies.
The Sweeney Todd approach to cooking – brutal but efficient – stained generations of housewives, and they were housewives, for whom food from Mrs Beeton onwards became both a daily anxiety and a sign of success, or not, as a woman. Long before women were punished by the diet industry for what they ate, they were punished by the food formulas – I don't want to call them recipes – of what they cooked. For nearly a hundred years, all those writing from Beeton (1861) to Cradock (1949) gave women a How To without a Why. Food was duty, like having sex to produce children and not because you might enjoy it for its own sake. David said that if Mrs Beeton had been given to her as her first cookbook, she would likely not have cooked again.
For the second world war generation, Marguerite Patten was the guide appointed by the Ministry of Food to help the Dig for Victory housewives make marvellous meals out of dried egg and condensed milk. Monty Python had a sketch where the demonstration involved an elastic band and a paper bag – and something to do with a whisk. Patten could cook and she had enormous enthusiasm, but for the housewife, enjoyment was low down the list – unsurprising on a diet of austerity measures followed by rationing.
Food, far from being an art, came under the headings of domestic science or home economics. Yet the British have always liked their cookbooks, and Patten's 174 volumes have sold around 17m copies. Delia Smith, in the TV age, has sold around 21m books.
It may be because we are so bad at food that we love reading about it. Smith began by finding a corner in the British Library and reading all the cookbooks in the stacks. David talks movingly about long rainy days in Paris when she was studying at the Sorbonne, secretly reading cookbooks on the side, and finding that austerity France was not nearly as gastronomically impoverished as austerity Britain. She delved to find out why this should be so, and found the simple answer – either you love food or you don't, and from that love or its lack will follow your entire approach to cooking and eating.
The self-punishing Brits just didn't love food. In a way, austerity and poverty were more of an excuse than a reason. We couldn't enjoy ourselves, could we? Bring on the sausage and sultana casserole followed by sad cake (it doesn't rise). The awfulness of English food became a one-woman crusade for David. Although she became passionate about food in France, her 1954 Italian Food is a beautiful book that tried to convince the British that there was more to life than steak and kidney pie and salad cream. Olive oil was so exotic that David advised her readers to get it from the chemist, where it was sold as a cure for earache.
The British and food make an odd combination. Even while David was doing her best to re-educate the nation, Cradock was wearing evening dress and showing us how to slide mushrooms underneath the skin of a turkey. Lest we imagine that our changing attitudes to food have been one long march of progress, remember that fearsome Fanny invented prawn cocktail not in the 1950s but in the 1970s. The Brits were as thrilled with this marvel as they had been at the sight of her wrapping half a cabbage in tin foil and using it to serve sausages on sticks, like a hedgehog in a spacesuit.
As late as 1987, when Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers were sourcing food for the River Café, good fresh seasonal ingredients, the staples of Italian cooking, were hard to come by even in London. That this changed had a lot to do with their energy and determination. The River Café ethos was that everyone should be able to cook at home easily and well, and that this depended on what could be got in our food shops.
My favourite of the River Café cookbooks – River Café Green – is a month-by-month cornucopia of what nature supplies. In the winter it is right that we should eat darker, heavier food – compare for instance a winter and a spring minestrone, the one slow-cooked and dark-leafed, the other light and clear and quick. The pleasure of cooking and eating what our bodies can sense – the change of season – brings a deep satisfaction that is more than the food on the plate. River Café Greenmoves you through purple sprouting broccoli and artichokes in March towards the first rocket and spinach of spring.
The pictures in RCG are particularly good – Gray and Rogers, both of whom had backgrounds in art and design, turned the cookbook into a thing of beauty. This is not food pornography – the pictures have a real-life feel that Nigella Lawson has taken forward in her own books, so that food is not some strange concoction or unattainable piece of styling, but a lovely celebration of life that, with a bit of care, most of us can manage at home.
There is a nice introduction in the original River Café Cookbook in which Rose and Ruthie talk about bringing Italian home cooking into their restaurant, with a view to taking it back to the domestic kitchen in their cookbooks. Food belongs at home. Eating is what we do every day, alone and together. If it isn't pleasurable, we might as well switch to the little pink pills predicted in the 1960s. In a way that's what commercial fast food and processed food is – a way of eating that avoids all the pleasure of ingredients and of cooking.
I believe that in so much as we all need to eat, we all need to learn to cook – men and women alike – and the best way to start is not by sweating over a stove but by curling up with a glass of wine and a cookbook. River Café Easy is the Italian version of Elizabeth David's 1984 classic, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. Both books offer a refreshing, stress-free love affair with food.
Making your own fast food from raw ingredients is to me more satisfying than dinner party cooking. Try toasted ciabatta salad, or fresh baked sardines – so cheap and so pleasing. Fancy food is often fake food, and that is why the River Café approach is never the kind of cooking that can lead to a nervous breakdown.
Pleasure is the key, and Gray – who was 50 when she opened River Café with Rogers, and closer to 60 when she wrote her first cookbook – had a direct and uncomplicated approach to what makes our lives better. Spending all day cooking is never a waste of time, but it can be daunting. Spending 15 minutes cooking fresh fish with herbs and a salad offers a sense of competence that can transform your relationship to cooking.
Read the recipe you like the look of once, cook it once, and then cook it again without the book. It will become yours, and so the confidence of being able to cook creatively increases, and with it, much joy in life. That is what Rose Gray wanted and what she has left behind.


Jeanette Winterson pays tribute to Rose Gray