Saturday, 24 September 2016

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker



The premise of this fascinating novel is that Samuel Beckett's wartime experiences in the French resistance had a huge influence on his later work, and most especially on "Waiting for Godot". Baker has taken this idea and created a work of fiction where the young Beckett and his life-long lover Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil experience the war as a series of scenes from Godot and other works, interspersed with other scenes that are Baker's own creation. The result is powerful.

But there is some clunkiness too, particularly in the early chapters. The meetings with Joyce are told awkwardly, perhaps to emphasize Beckett's own awkwardness in front of someone he revered so much, but the result is that the novel lurches unsteadily at the beginning. And the metaphor of Joyce's old  overcoat, given by him to Beckett and worn incessantly by him until he finally leaves it behind in Ireland, seems a bit obvious and contrived - could it be true?

But the middle part soars. Their long wait outside Rousillon is brilliantly told, and encapsulates so much that is wonderful about Godot. The eponymous country road and tree, Beckett and Suzanne (Didi and Gogo) weary and footsore, in hiding from the Gestapo, waiting for someone, an unknown, to bring them to safety in “free” Vichy France.
“This man, this contact,” she says, tugging off her socks. Her feet are patched with red, and blisters have formed, and popped, and been worn clean away again, leaving the skin raw.
“Yes.”
“How will we know that it's him?”
“Who else could it be?”
“But that's the problem! That's what I'm saying, It could be anyone. We'll be sitting here waiting, and we'll watch someone coming down the road and before you know it they're here, and then maybe it turns out they're not the contact, they're the Gestapo.”
“Gestapo travel in packs, like - I don't know, hyenas. They don't ever go anywhere alone. He'll just be alone; just him himself.”
She nods at this, looking across the road towards the wide-open fields, the bare trees, the fading sky.
“I don't like it here,” she says.
 But there's nothing to be done...


Thursday, 8 September 2016

Beethoven pancakes

My wife often says to our boys that she's made their lunches "avec amour". Can they taste that, I wonder? If someone who didn't love them made their lunches would they notice the missing ingredient?

Me, well I usually cook with music. On Saturday mornings I like to prepare a big breakfast to start the weekend. Often it's pancakes, ready in around 40 minutes from tipping the flour to flipping the last pancake. That's also the time needed to listen to Beethoven's violin concerto, a swooping soaring sound-track to my cooking that puts me in great humour - so it's a crucial part of the recipe.

Of course it doesn't have to be that particular piece of music but it's one that I've really been in to recently, ever since I heard Nigel Kennedy playing  it on the CBC. And a benefit of this era of music streaming is that every Saturday I can listen to a different version of the concerto and taste its influence on my cooking!

This is how it works. Start with any basic pancake recipe, such as the stunning oatmeal one below. Then add the Beethoven concerto, at a high volume! Here, for your consideration, are five different versions that I've used in my recipe. These recordings are all brilliant in their own way, but quite distinct.

Anne Sophie Mutter / Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert van Karajan
This makes a very rich pancake, butter and cinnamon are a must, and it has to be served with a lot of maple syrup. That's the van Karajan influence - he doesn't want you to miss a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. Consequently it's a bit slower to finish than the others and I must admit to find it a little bit heavy, but that provides the perfect excuse for sitting back afterwards with a book and a big pot of coffee.

Nigel Kennedy / Polish Chamber Orchestra
This recipe takes less time than the others because the measurements are a bit imprecise and the tempo is rubato'ing all over the place but it's so exciting with flour going everywhere! And Nigel's cadenza just rocks!

Joshua Bell / Camerata Salzburg
Makes flat pancakes that are flat as pancakes. Sorry Joshua, but with all these choices I won't be making these again unless I run out of baking powder...

Isabelle Faust / Orchestra Mozart with Claudio Abbado
The measures are precise and everything is well controlled,  it rises beautifully in the pan and then melts away in your mouth while breaking your heart.  A pancake and a concerto for perfectionists.

Itzhak Perlman / Berlin Philharmonic with Daniel Barenboim
It starts slowly, but it's so bittersweet, sad yet joyful. I don't yet know how to make pancakes to match the tone of Perlman's playing - it's a goal for an upcoming Saturday. Some dark chocolate perhaps? When I made these last Saturday my 8-year-old son helped me, little no-longer-so-little Phil, and I had tears in my eyes. They were beautiful pancakes and they were made with music, and with love too.


Oatmeal pancakes for 5 (i.e. 15 to 18 pancakes)

In the 1st bowl:
600ml of quick cook oatmeal flakes (or around 4 handfuls if you're doing the Kennedy)
750ml of milk

In the 2nd bowl:
375ml of flour (2 handfuls for Kennedy?)
2 tablespoons of sugar (or 29.5ml for the Faust)
3 heaped teaspoons of baking powder (halve if you're doing the Bell)
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of cinnamon (double if you're doing the Mutter)

In the 3rd bowl:
4 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
125ml of olive oil (or half olive oil and half melted butter for the Mutter)

Pour the 3rd bowl in to the 1st bowl and stir (wipe away a tear if it's the Perlman)
Slowly pour the 2nd bowl in to the 1st bowl and stir

Start cooking!
(Hurry the hell up if you're doing the Kennedy, he's already in the third movement by now!)