Sunday, September 4, 2011
That title tickled others too.
Pota cherished the giggly warmth with which it was embraced each time he disclosed it in conversation. Dolores howled with laughter. Even Fred, her husband, still writing critically in academic publications and reviewing books there critically too, unbent a bit and chortled audibly from the rear of the car on the drive to the seafood restaurant in Montauk harbor for a standard Sunday lunch in summer.
Nelsa was gleefully curious. And her husband Jordan, glowed and grinned in silent relish at the hundreds of salacious jokes he envisioned unrolling from a bottomless cornucopia of lascivious humor. There were occasional puzzled exceptions, mainly demure women, but only for the first instant of unbelieving surprise. And his wife Polly too, of course. Each time the subject came up, Pota was cheered by the quizzical stares that darted inevitably and almost furtively to Polly’s reddening face, seeking to divine how the idea of such a book was sitting with her. Polly, as foreseen by him now whenever the subject did come up, fidgeted always in the same mute manner of embarrassed discomfort and said nothing and laughed along quietly.
“It’s not about me,” she might argue almost peevishly, but only when directly asked. “At least I don’t think so. And adding with a strained titter: “He doesn’t know enough.”
“It’s a novel, for Christ’s sake, not a history book,” Pota would insist with a jocular absence of sincerity, trying deliberately to appear unconvincing. “Don’t look at Polly. After all, I’ve had three wives, not just her. And frankly, I don’t think I’d want to write a book about any of them, or about me. I don’t think that all our sexual experiences combined are worth a book. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend three or four years about any one of us, or any of you either. I have to invent, you know. I don’t think any real person I ever met has been phenomenal enough for the subject of a whole novel. Do any of you think you are? Let me know about your extraordinary sex life.”
The topic certainly proved a merry one for lively table conversation, calling forth unexpected admissions surprising even to the husbands and wives of those making them in follow-up discussions to questions Pota posed devilishly in the innocent guise of objective research. He had only to touch on masturbation in a mixed group to see women squirm as though compromised and the men perk up waggishly in buccaneering remembrances. Between Pota and Polly the badinage about this sex book had become something of a teasing practical joke.
Judging from the reactions of his small audiences, it did seem to be a sure winner. Edith and Alan asked to see the pages as soon as he’d written them. So did Ken and Ken’s wife, Marissa, who without admitting anything about herself, volunteered to poll her female childhood friends about all their earlier sex events if Pota wanted her to. Just about everyone who knew of it foresaw felicitous prospects. A best-seller of large dimensions- the kind he’s all his professional life secretly pined and pined for.
Certainty, the subject matter suggested by the title encircled an ocean of recognizable material to which every reader in the world of all ages and both sexes could in one way or another relate from some degree of personal experience, conjectural or actual. Even Paul, Pota’s favorite editor, responded with an untypical guffaw when Pota, with solemn mien, first made known the title of his new book to him. And Paul did not laugh easily.
“Are you serious?”
Paul always turned solemn in the presence of a book or an idea he thought much of. Having worked as a conscientious editor all his life, he had suffered too many disappointments not to feel always in dread from the start in anticipation of the jumbled configuration of pitfalls that might lie ahead.
“Yes, I am, I think I am,” said Eugene Pota. “Fred Karl loves the idea too.”
“How does Polly feel about it?”
“Guess,” said Pota. “But she also agree it might be a sure thing for a novel, and she never interferes.”
Tell me,” asked Paul. “If you want to now. What’s the plot, the main story? How does it go?”
“That” said Pota, “is just the problem.” And now Pota was chuckling. “I guess I’ll have to put some work on that part, won’t I? I’ve no idea yet.”
In truth Pota had not yet one distinct idea who or what it was to be about. The title was all he’d been able to get. To an author who took pride in, and had received praise from textual critics for, his keen openings and endings in even his less successful volumes, it was almost horrifying to find himself unable to think of even one good sentence with which to begin.
Exasperating to him also was that the one ideal sentence that did keep popping back relentlessly into his head had already been conceived by the English novelist Julian Barnes for the starting words in his first novel Metroland. The words, Pota recalled with a kind of pouting admiration, were something like these, also by a first person male narrator: “The first time I watch my wife committing adultery was in a large movie theatre at…" and so forth along that course. The clarification that followed was equal to the anticipation evoked: his wife had been a movie actress playing an adulterous role in the film on view.
Could Pota be blessed with a line like that one, he felt, he would be off in a flash. He yearned for one as good, an opening sentence commensurate with the unspoken promises implied in his godsend of a book title. Each time he sat staring in the unremitting futility at the words already printed by him on a sheet of paper purporting to resemble a title page, “A Sexual Biography of My Wife, A New Novel, by Eugene Pota,” the line by Julian Barnes reappeared to haunt him, and he regretted each time as though in mourning that it had not been his own.
“What would Flaubert do if he had a title like that one” Can you imagine Madame Bovary from the point of view of the husband? Do you think we really have to have anything printed inside between the book covers? Paul, couldn’t we just have blank pages?”
“Sure,” said Paul “Or,” he added, with a broad smile, “we can cut production costs and just publish the book jacket. We can forget the pages.”
“Would it sell?”
“It would sell, I think. At the beginning. But not for twenty-five dollars. Maybe for ten cents. Then word of mouth would kill us. What would your author’s royalty on a book jacket price of ten cents?”
“Then I will have to think of something to write, won’t I?”
“Start thinking of something.”
“It shouldn’t be hard. There’s so much sex around.”
“Something good, “ said Paul, who was no longer treating the thought as a practical one requiring immediate decision. “Are you really serious about writing that particular sex book?”
“No, of course not,” admitted Pota. “But let’s not tell any one yet.”
“So? And meanwhile?
Meanwhile, I next put into Pota’s head a dynamic, resonating, taunting opening sentence for something different I knew he’s pounce upon and then would not know what to do with:
“The kid, they say, was born in a manger, but frankly I have my doubts.”
Pota as predicted soon had his doubts too and resumed thinking about Hera again and the humorous character he had started to give her, the handsome homemaker goddess in female rivalry with the saucy Aphrodite, her husband the randy Zeus, the big cheese on Mount Olympus – there might be more opportunity in that one, after all. And then, as he was already thinking about god’s and goddesses, I had him turn aside, unfruitfully as it proved, in a wasteful digression of several weeks, to: God’s Wife.
- Joseph Heller -
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Cook-books have always intrigued me and seduced me. When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein.
When he first began reading Dashiell Hammett, Gertrude Stein remarked that it was his modern note to have disposed of his victims before the story commenced. Goodness knows how many were required to follow as the result of the first crime. And so it is in the kitchen. Murder and sudden death seems as unnatural there as they should be anywhere else. Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking. This doesn’t of course apply to the food that emerges from the deep freeze. But the marketing and cooking I know are French and it was in France, where freezing units are unknown, that in due course I graduated at the stove.
In earlier days, memories of which are scattered among my chapters, if indulgent friends on this or that Sunday evening or party occasion said that the cooking I produced wasn’t bad, it neither beguiled nor flattered me into liking or wanting to do it. The only way to learn to cook is to cook, and for me, as for so many others, it suddenly and unexpectedly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. It was in those conditions of rationing and shortage that I learned not only to cook seriously but to buy food in a restricted market and not take too much time in doing it, since there were so many important and more amusing things to do. It was at this time, then, that murder in the kitchen began.
The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it, nor would he tell me with which of these horrible necessities one began. It wasn’t difficult to know which was the most repellent. So quickly to the murder and have it over with.
On the docks of Puget Sound I had seen fishermen grasp the tail of a huge salmon and lifting it high bring it down on the dock with enough force to kill it. Obviously I was not a fisherman nor was the kitchen table a dock. Should I not dispatch my first victim with a blow on the head from a heavy mallet? After an appraising glance at the lively fish it was evident he would escape attempts aimed at his head. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so grasping, with my left hand well covered with a dishcloth, for the teeth might be sharp, the lower jaw of the carp, and the knife in my right, I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in.
I let go my grasp and looked to see what had happened. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table. I scraped off the scales, cut off the fins, cut open the underside and emptied out a great deal of what I did not care to look at, thoroughly washed and dried the fish and put it aside while I prepared CARP STUFFED WITH CHESTNUTS…
It was in the market of Palma de Mallorca that our French cook tried to teach me murder by smothering. There was no reason why this crime should have been committed publicly or that I should have been expected to participate. Jeanne was just showing off. When the crows of market women who had gathered around her began screaming and gesticulating, I retreated. When we met later to drive back in the carry-all filled with our marketing to Terreno where we had a villa I refused to sympathize with Jeanne. She said the Mallorcans were bloodthirsty, didn’t they go to the bullfights and pay an advanced price for the meat of the beasts they had seen killed in the ring, didn’t they prefer to chop off the heads of innocent pigeons instead of humanely smothering them which was the way to prevent all fowl from bleeding to death and so make them fuller and tastier. Had she not tried to explain this to them, to teach them, to show them how an intelligent humane person went about killing pigeons, but no they didn’t want to learn, they preferred their own brutal ways. Discussing food which she enjoyed above everything had been discouraged at table. But her fine black eyes were eloquent. If the small-size pigeons the island produced had not achieved jumbo size, squabs they unquestionably were, and larger and more succulent squabs than those we had eaten at the excellent restaurant at Palma.
Later we went back to Paris and then there was war and after a time there was peace. One day passing the concierge’s loge he called me and said he had something someone had left for us. He said he would bring it to me, which he did and which I wished he hadn’t when I saw what it was, a crate of six white pigeons and a note from a friend saying she had nothing better to offer us from her home in the country, ending with But as Alice is clever she will make something delicious of them.
It is certainly a mistake to allow a reputation for cleverness to be born and spread by loving friends. It is so cheaply acquired and so dearly paid for. Six white pigeons to be smothered, to be plucked, to be cleaned and all this to be accomplished before Gertrude Stein returned for she didn’t like to see work being done. If only I had the courage the two hours before her return would easily suffice. A large cup of strong black coffee would help. This was before a lovely Brazilian told me that in her country a large cup of black coffee was always served before going to bed to ensure a good night’s rest. Not yet having acquired this knowledge the black coffee made me lively and courageous. I carefully found the spot on poor innocent Dove’s throat where I was to press and pressed. The realization had never come to me before that one saw with one’s fingertips as well as one’s eyes. It was a most unpleasant experience, though as I laid out one by one the sweet young corpses there was no denying one could become accustomed to murdering. So I plucked the pigeons, emptied them and was ready to cook BRAISED PIGEONS ON CROUTONS…
The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook; Harper & Row, 1954