9 April 2016
Click a link on Twitter to a 1986 Paris Review interview of Robertson Davies. Interviewer, the editor & publisher Elisabeth Sifton, says by way of warming up to a question:
“Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said.”
You jot down the last bit, which has a nice ring to it, you think to yourself, this way—
Mary McCarthy: “You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina“
—and then you wonder what she actually wrote, because you have a brain disease contracted via freelance fact-checking work, and all of that yields the following quick dive into a rabbit-hole:
First comes from Mary McCarthy’s “Fact in Fiction”, published as an essay in the Partisan Review as a “paraphrase of a talk or talks given to Polish, Yugoslav, and British audiences” in early 1960. (Later collected in On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961). It goes like this:
“And the novel, like newspaper boiler plate, contains not only a miscellany of odd facts but household hints and how-to-do-it instructions (you can learn how to make strawberry jam from Anna Karenina, and how to reap a field and hunt ducks).”
This is the punchline, kind of, to a loping series of examples of the way novels fold in fact, turning from papermaking in Balzac and tuberculosis in The Magic Mountain to the hotel business in Dreiser, whaling in Moby-Dick, etc.
“In newspaper jargon, you might call all this the boiler plate of the novel —durable informative matter set up in stereotype and sold to country newspapers as filler to eke out a scarcity of local news, i.e. of ‘plot.'”
People in the early ’60s had a tendency to use it in the ledes of book reviews (here’s Joan Didion who I think? is reviewing John O’Hara’s debut novel in 1960 for the National Review):
“Mary McCarthy observed not long ago that it is possible to learn from Anna Karenina a recipe for strawberry jam. It is possible to learn from Appointment in Samarra not only the details of a method of suicide but the name of a good hatter (Julian English wore none but Herbert Johnson hats); it is possible to learn from Miss McCarthy’s own stories any number of interesting and useful things, such as how to get free lemonade in an Automat or why it is unwise to go about on trains with safety pins in one’s underwear.”
McCarthy publishes The Group, the novel that would make her career and undo her, three years later, in 1963, and as you’d imagine a few reviewers trot it out unkindly (also, note the prim editorializing: “love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term” oh wicked burn Thomas Rogers of Commentary—
In “Fact and Fiction,” one of her recent essays, Miss McCarthy points out that there are large chunks of informative matter in most great novels; for example, one can learn how to reap a field and make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Perhaps one can. But in Anna Karenina, when Levin reaps wheat with his peasants, what is uppermost is the moral meaning of the action. […] In contrast, Miss McCarthy’s technical and informative matter exists more or less for its own sake. She gathers her facts from domestic life, but the facts often become denatured in the process, so that when she describes such matters as nursing or love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term—she is very clear and specific, but discouraging.
Misattribution takes a while but is, in the end, inevitable. Julian Mitchell, the English playwright, turns it into a floating piece of folk wisdom in a 1976 issue of Radio Times:
“It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.”
This is the one that tends to pop up on food blogs.
That eventually mutates into this cameo at the end of a 2013 essay about memoirs in the LA Review of Books:
“The playwright and critic Julian Marks once quipped, “It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.”
(As far as I can tell, Julian Marks doesn’t exist—at least not in the conventional sense of writing plays & literary criticism, or of making quips. But, and I mean this at least twenty-percent seriously, maybe misremembering the name of someone else quoting from memory is appropriate in an essay about memoir?)
Forty-six years after her review of John O’Hara, Joan Didion’s recalls to The Guardian:
“I remember reading a Mary McCarthy essay on how novels were bourgeois learning experiences,” she says, “and how you could learn to make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Well, I’m not sure you can, but somehow I found that a very arresting thing to say. It kind of stuck in my head when I was learning to write.”
As it turns out, finally, you can’t learn how to make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina, because the scene itself is about making raspberry jam:
“…jam was being made there according to a method new to Agafya Mikhailovna, without the addition of water. Kitty was introducing this new method which they used at home. Agafya Mikhailovna, who had been in charge of it before, and who considered that nothing done in the Levins’ hose could be bad, had put water in the strawberry and wild strawberry jam all the same, insisting that it could not be done otherwise; she had been caught at it, and now raspberry jam was being made in front of everyone, and Agafya Mikhailovna had to be brought to believe that jam without water could turn out well.
“Agafya Mikhailovna, with a flushed and upset face, her hair tousled, her thin arms bared to the elbows, rocked the basin in circular movements over the rbazier and stared gloomily at the raspberry jam, wishing with all her heart that it would thicken before it was cooked through.”
This goes on for a little while.
Does it work? Elizabeth Bishop says so. From a letter, dated June 15th, 1961 from Rio de Janeiro, she writes to Robert Lowell:
“I think Mary’s novels are awfully good, too, don’t you? It’s funny. Before I saw the first one I was telling Lota how wonderful Anna Karenina is—how it even tells you how to make raspberry jam, and I went and made raspberry jam from our wild raspberries just that way—excellent—and then Mary makes the same remark.”
One last thing. The Paris Review interviewer finishes the question she started:
“Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said. Do you like the idea of instructing your readers on all that lore about gypsies or cellos or art forgery or Houdini, to name a few subjects quite randomly?”
“Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t.”
25 October 2014
“The sheer profusion of qualities that Americans discovered in the apple during its seedling heyday is something to marvel at, especially since so many of those qualities have been lost in the years since. I found apples that tasted like bananas, others like pears. Spicy apples and sticky-sweet ones, apples sprightly as lemons & others rich as nuts. I picked apples that weighed more than a pound, others compact enough to fit into a child’s pocket. Here were yellow apples, green apples, spotted apples, russet apples, striped apples, purple apples, even a near-blue apple. There were apples that looked prepolished & apples that wore a dusty bloom on their cheeks. Some of these apples had qualities that were completely lost on me but had meant the world to people once: apples that tasted sweeter in March than October, apples that made especially good cider or preserves or butter, apples that held their own in storage for half a year, apples that ripened gradually to avoid a surfeit or all at once for an easier harvest, apples with long stem or short, thin skin or thick, apples that tasted sublime only in Virginia and others that needed a hard New England frost to reach perfection, apples that reddened in August, others that held off til winter, even apples that could sit at the bottom of a barrel for the six weeks it took a ship to get to Europe, then emerge bright and crisp enough to command a top price in London.”
— The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan (p. 48–49) touring the Lake Geneva Plant Genetic Resources Unit.
2 December 2013
Fact-checking detritus from various freelance assignments last month, culled from a lifetime in service to the truth.
From Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing: “Raised in a Kauai geodesic dome by two surfing parents, Keala Kennelly has an untouchable reputation as the sport’s most fearless tuberider. […] Breaking rank from the girlish ‘surfette’ look that all but defined women’s surfing in the ’90s and early ’00s, Kennelly was a leather-clad and tongue-studded nightclubber who moonlighted as a DJ and often looked, as surf journalist Alison Berkeley put it, like ‘a sinister Disney cartoon character.’”
29 August 2013
WALTER BURNS. “Because it happened to be a colored policeman—and you know what that means, Hildy.”
HILDY JOHNSON. “Mm. (to Bruce) The colored vote’s very important in this town.”
I love His Girl Friday (1940) and always will, but every rewatch there’s that uncomfortable moment at lunch. It’s when we’re made to sit through the premise, right after the hilariously unfamiliar line reading Rosalind Russell gives the word “lowdown”: A black Chicago policeman has been shot by a mentally unbalanced white man; he’s going to be hanged as a sop to the city’s African-American vote; the Morning Post is taking the shooter’s side.
The movie, bless its heart, doesn’t really care about the case. It just has to sound like Chicago dirty politics-as-usual, something that will let Hildy and Walter be world-weary and knowing and on each other’s wavelength. Just texture, as they say. And if you’d like to forget all about it, the movie will let you. But it’s precisely the film’s genial indifference that makes the thing so perverse and unsettling: we’re meant to sympathize with Earl Williams, the “poor little dope,” to delight in the craven political hackery of the mayor and the sheriff—but what about the person who just got shot? The invisible dead black policeman is never mentioned again. He doesn’t even merit a name. Does a single black character appear on screen?
13 July 2013
Today I found notes for something I was going to write about Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Looking at unfinished pieces is terrifying: you start to wonder whether you’ll finish anything; you don’t recognize this stranger who’s writing; you begin to worry about the continuity of the self, mortality, etc.; worst of all you usually wind up deciding that even if you’d finished it when you still remembered what you were thinking the idea wasn’t all that great to begin with. So. I’m going to try to write this one. It’s more for my benefit than for yours.
The third time I saw Volver (2006) I checked it out from the Casco Viejo branch of the municipal library in Bilbao. This would have been three years ago, sometime in the spring: the fifth floor of an apartment with a balcony overlooking the river, grey-green light, lots of vermouth. There was a director’s commentary. Almodóvar, kind of using Penelope Cruz as a sounding board, started to talk about patios: “En La Mancha,” he said, “los patios son esenciales. Un gran parte de la vida se lleva a cabo en estos patios. … Son patios mucho menos alegres que los andaluzes, mucho más austeros, porque la vida de allí es una de interiores. Las calles … son calles vacios.” And a little later he repeats himself: “Otra vez: Esto es la típica que lleva manchega. No tiene nada que ver con la andaluza: blanca, con zócanos, aspiras en flores, sin ningún adorno.”
Back when it was in theaters Stateside I’d enjoyed the film in the same way as, I imagine, most cinephile international audiences: as another archetypical extrusion from Mundo Almodóvar, all eyepopping reds and darkhaired women with wild eyes and gazpacho and Madrid Madrid Madrid, the same kind of aesthetic place as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988). You know, Spain. (Here’s A.O. Scott for the Times: “The action in Volver moves back and forth between a workaday neighborhood in Madrid and a windswept village in the Spanish countryside. Really, though, the movie takes place in a familiar, enchanted land—Almodóvaria, you might call it, or maybe Pedrostan—where every room and street corner is saturated with bright color and vivid feeling…”)
And while I don’t want to suggest that this was a misreading, exactly, it occurred to me that day that Almodóvar was talking about a film that was much more particular and regional than the one I’d watched, full of signals that I wasn’t equipped to decode.
Pedro Almodóvar Caballero was born in 1949 in Calzada de Calatrava, Ciudad Real, “un pueblo de pocos ricos y muchos pobres.”  His mother wrote poems and read to him at night. She made extra money by writing letters for her illiterate neighbors. His father was an arreiro, a mule driver; he made wine at home and would haul barrels of it to market. Trucks and highways put an end to mules, and the family moved to a town outside of Cáceres, one of the two provincial capitals in Extremadura. None of these are places you want to be from: goats, high arid plains, hot as shit in the summer, cold as fuck in the winter, at the edge of all things. They call places like this (and places like Jaén) España profunda: “deep Spain.” But Cáceres had a cinema. Pedro watched movies, remade them in his head. When he was 18 he left for Madrid and never looked back.
Penelope Cruz’s Raimundo is, in fact, a kind of biographical stand-in for Almodóvar— she grows up in a baroquely-named pueblito in La Mancha, flees it for Madrid, severs ties with her past, estranges herself from her mother, who is literally a living ghost. Her escape from it mirrors his; so, too, her eventual reconciliation with her origins. The film basically dramatizes Almodóvar’s coming to terms with his own past. (Also it’s a Technicolor domestic pulp, a multigenerational family saga played for laughs, and a ghost story.) Almodóvar, as it happens, makes this explicit in interview after interview: “He vuelto a mis propias raíces y a la memoria de mi madre. Me baso absolutamente en mi vida, mis recuerdos, y los de mi familia.” And: “Este película me reconcilió con mi infancia.” [2,3]
This autobiographical trajectory, La Mancha to Extremadura to Madrid, intersects with no Spain I ever became fluent in. The center is a blank page; I lived in peripheries. When Volver travels from Madrid to Alcanfor de las Infantas, fictional wind-scoured pueblo with the highest rate of insanity in the country (literally: ‘mothballs of the princesses’) the dialogue suddenly starts picking up manchego inflections. I can just about perceive it, but I don’t actually understand. At one point in the commentary Almodóvar starts laughing with Cruz about how typical of La Mancha something Sole has just said is—está en mala cojónada— which is so colloquially rural I can’t even find an internet reference. It’s something like watching Fargo with no sense of Minnesota as a discrete place, a setting where regionalisms are being faithfully rendered and occasionally parodied. This film isn’t set in Spain, because Spain doesn’t exist; it’s set in La Mancha. What’s La Mancha? I have no idea.
When you’re foreign—and n.b., maybe this is only true or surprising if you’re in your early twenties and abroad for the first time in your life, maybe I’m naïvely stating the obvious, but this is how it was for me, back then—you’re suddenly blind to a thousand internal signifiers, coded images meant to be apprehended in an instant. They’re too obvious to articulate. (Here’s Barthes, in Mythologies: “For the Blue Guide, men only exist as ‘types.’ In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a light-hearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a highlander.”) Stereotypes are characters in the stories that cultures tell.
And it becomes important to be fluent in your local stereotypes—quick, show me Cantabria on a map—even if there’s a turtles-all-the-way-down quality to how typologies, more and more specifically-targeted, end up demonstrating their own incoherence. (Spaniards are like this, sure, but then Basques are like that and Andalucíans like the other, and then in Andalucía of course nothing could be more different than the sevillanos, who are all pijos riding like white stallions to the fería and swilling manzanilla and never leaving the capital, and the jiennenses, who are bent over backwards from spending all day in the olive groves and drink beer and…)
Accents display class and status: On mainstream Spanish sitcoms Andalucíans are country bumpkins, the comic relief. To speak in andaluz dialect is actually to already be setting up the joke. And because it’s (surprisingly?) tricky to hear accents in a language you’re learning—certainly almost impossible to notice, in a film with subtitles in a language you don’t speak at all, the different ways that characters sound—you’re blind to this signaling, to the joke being set up. You wonder why everyone in the audience is laughing. Which opacity can be interesting, in and of itself—you know something’s being communicated, but can’t see quite what it is…
(I’m reminded, though no good example comes to mind, of novels of a certain age or cultural remove—you get what’s clearly meant to be a telling detail, but have to kind of guess at what it’s supposed to signify.)
Almodóvar filmed in a pueblo in Ciudad Real fifteen miles from the one he’d grown up in. I’ve gone back to my roots, he said, and to the memory of my mother. And: In La Mancha, the patios are essential. Most of life takes place in them. They’re much less joyful than those of Andalucía, much more austere, because life there is one of interiors. The streets are deserted. Again, he said: This is typical of La Mancha. Nothing to do with Andalucía: white, with zócanos, you breath in flowers, without a single decoration.
When he was a child he’d sit with the women of his family in the patio—really more of a enclosed courtyard? is that the better translation?—of their home, like the Fellini alter-ego in 8 1/2. Pueblos in La Mancha seem as closed as fists. The film opens in a graveyard on Día de Todos los Santos, dozens of women shrouded in black frantically cleaning gravestones while the insane-making wind blows and the dust settles everywhere—something there, I suppose, about the nature of women’s work: domestic, undervalued, endless, like so many of the details of the murder of Penelope Cruz’s abusive rapist husband, which have to do with once again cleaning up after him. I don’t know, and haven’t been able to find, what on earth a zócano is— some kind of stock or wooden stand for a loom, I think.
This film reconciled me with my childhood, he said.
How much do you miss? How much does it matter? All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the me who watched this in college & liked it & ended up going to Spain & had to reconcile the actual country with the myth of that country he’d built in his head, he was getting a very different enjoyment out of it, seeing very different things, than a Madrid theater audience, or again the audience Almodóvar screened it for in his former hometown, or indeed Almodóvar himself, the resonance of language & gesture, the nostalgia, the reasons he’d made it in the first place. Perfect transmission is of course a fantasy. I like the bit in Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text where he asks rhetorically whether anyone has ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word. “Proust’s good fortune,” he adds in parenthesis: “from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages.”
19 April 2012
A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. It means something only in conjunction with the buildings and other uses that border it, or border other sidewalks very near it. The same might be said of streets, in the sense that they serve other purposes besides carrying wheeled traffic in their middles. Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.
Todd Solondz: Sure. You know, when I was young and growing up in the suburbs, where there was nothing to excite me, no real culture or stimulation, no real adventure, I thought all the time about how one day I’d move here and my life would be like this. I’d live and work in Manhattan, and there’d always be something happening. And in the end, for me, it’s not so much about the theatre and the museums and galleries and so on. It’s about the streets, and the life of the streets, and the endless parade of different kinds of people, and how you can never get enough of it. It’s always there and you never grow tired of it, just going out and walking or sitting and watching it all.
Churchill, on a visit to a poor neighborhood in Manchester, saying, with his odd and signature mixture of real empathy and inherited condescension, “Fancy living in one of these streets—never seeing anything beautiful—never eating anything savoury—never saying anything clever!”
The streets, despite the artillery strikes, were full of life: at the antitank barricades, children with paper helmets, perched on top of the obstacles, were waving wooden swords; I passed an old woman pushing strollers full of bricks and even, crossing the Tiergarten toward the zoo bunker, soldiers chasing a herd of mooing cows. At night it rained again; and the Reds, in turn, celebrated Lenin’s birthday with a brutal riot of artillery.
The children invented a game for themselves that involved hurling a stocking, which has been tightly packed with dust, through the air like a rocket, and as it falls it creates an entire cloud of dust. The youngsters play this game a lot, although it has been forbidden by the management. —Anonymous, Memorandum to Dep. Chairman of Moscow City Children’s Commission, re: Children’s Command, Barybino (1936)
In Paris all was still turmoil. That very night, my father would hear artillery trains passing along the outer boulevards. No one could know if the explosions meant victory or defeat. “From the towers of Notre Dame you could see the heads of the Russian columns appearing, like the first undulations of a tidal wave on the beach.” So writes Chateaubriand and it is likely true, or most of it.
They were now entering the centre of the city, an off-white grid of frozen canals and deserted avenues, lined with impressive Neoclassical & Art Nouveau buildings. In the twilight, their incongruous stuccoed, statue-haunted silhouettes, rising darker against the darkening horizon, gave the eerie impression that they had been cast down from the sky like palaces from another planet. You could not, by any stretch of the mind, imagine an architecture less adapted to its surroundings. An Ideal City punished and banished to the Far North for its marble hubris, it loomed titanic and mad . . .
Luanda was not dying the way our Polish cities died in the last war. There were no air raids, there was no “pacification,” no destruction of district after district. There were no cemeteries in the streets of the squares. The city was dying the way an oasis dies when the well runs dry . . . . Thanks to the abundance of wood that has collected here in Luanda, this dusty desert city nearly devoid of trees now smells like a flourishing forest. It’s as if the forest had suddenly taken root in the streets, the squares, and the plazas. […] The building of the wooden city, the city of crates, goes on day after day, from dawn to twilight. Everyone works, soaked with rain, burned by the sun; even the millionaires, if they are physically fit, turn to the task.
Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapusciński
Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Voltat
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
Europe Central, William T. Vollmann
“Interview with Todd Solondz,” Sigrid Nunez, The Believer
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell
“The making of Winston Churchill,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey
12 April 2012
Certain I am, however, that a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad. Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery? . . . In common life we esteem but measly and contemptibly a fellow who anoints his hair, and palpably smells of that anointing. In truth, a mature man who uses hair-oil, unless medicinally, that man has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule he can’t amount to much in his totality.
— Chapter 25