Thunder mountain

11 November 2017

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[Ok. A month ago, I tried to write a short joke post about a wine list that was entirely Thunder Mountain Chardonnay. Then I tried to write a more thoughtful introduction to it, which is below. Then everything got out of hand. The introduction is still down there, being swiftly overtaken by events. The link to the list in progress is at the bottom.]

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Strawberry jam

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?”

Davies responds:

“Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t.”

Tigritude

5 August 2013

Fact-checking a story is getting lost in rabbit-holes of one kind or another. After a while you start to take amusements of a very particular kind: dry, pedantic, maybe totally incomprehensible. In this case, I was looking for the most accurate possible version of a quotation attributed to Wole Soyinka. There is no reason for you to find this  interesting, but I find endless minor variations on a theme kind of relaxing. You see the phrase, originally specific and tied to history, get polished down into a maxim that’s portable and casually deployed, you see every writer wear out the word “famous.”  Was it a quip or statement, criticism or aphorism? 1976, or 1967, or 1962? Did the tiger pounce or leap or jump or strike? Eventually, tragically, hilariously, it ends up credited, in three different books of quotations, as “an African proverb.”

Here we go:

The reaction of the first generation of Anglophone writers in the 1960s to the older tradition of French Négritude theory is usefully, if crudely, summed up by the often quoted remark of Wole Soyinka that ‘a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.’

…and it is hard not to sympathize with Wole Soyinka’s famous criticism that ‘a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.’

Hence Wole Soyinka’s now famous maxim: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude.”

Soyinka expressed this in his famous statement that ‘a tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.’

I am reminded of Wole Soyinka who points out that in a free environment a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude, a tiger jumps on its prey.

The future Nobel laureate from Nigeria proclaimed, “The tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It leaps on its prey.”

“A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude before it strikes.” These words, coined by Nigerian playwright and activist Wole Soyinka …

Wole Soyinka (1934–), Nigerian writer. “Does a tiger feel its tigritude?” on the use of the word ‘negritude’; often quoted in the form ‘A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude—he pounces’ in Time magazine, 17 November 1967

This is the meaning of Soyinka’s well-known aphorism that the Tiger does not need to proclaim its Tigritude, it just pounces. A Tiger, we note, has an immutable identity rooted in genetics.

One should also note that Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian dramatist, and Mphahlele, the South African writer-scholar, once vocal anti-négritude voices, have moved away from a narrow reading of the notion. Soyinka’s statement, that a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude but jumps, became the play word of the anti-negritude school.

“A tiger does not shout its tigritude,” Soyinka argued, “it acts.”

“Négritude? A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.” — Wole Soyinka, 1976

Soyinka’s disagreement with the Négritude tenets was summed up by his famous remark made in 1964 at a conference in Berlin: A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.

The quip graduated into the celebrated adage about tiger and tigritude at the African Writers Conference at Kampala (Uganda) in 1962.

As Wole Soyinka would say, a tiger does not have to proclaim its tigritude. Neither does Mandela.

Nigerian proverb: A tiger does not have to proclaim its tigritude.

There is an African proverb that says, the “Tiger does not have to proclaim its Tigritude.”

…whose criticism of the movement is summarised in Soyinka’s famous aphorism that Le tigre ne proclâme pas sa tigritude; il saute sur sa proie. (A tiger doesn’t proclaim its ‘tigerness’; it jumps on its prey.) The problem this paper sees in this assertion is that if a tiger has been tamed over the years not to be conscious of its natural instincts or capacities, then it would lose its ability to feed itself.

Soyinka: “un tigre ne proclame pas sa tigritude— il bondit” (a tiger doesn’t proclaim his ‘tigerness’—he springs!).

And I remember too Soyinka’s smile when I asked him last year in Hanover, in what terms exactly had he put his phrase about the tiger, about how it does not proclaim its tigritude; I remember what he told me—after repeating his phrase and throwing in another reference to the eagle that does not proclaim its eagletude—that such preoccupations are known only to Francophone Africans.

It turns out, by the way, that the earliest recorded instance I can find of Soyinka taking this phrase out for a spin is a 1960 essay for the Horn, “The Future of West African Writing,”: “And if we would speak of ‘negritude’ in a more acceptable broader sense, Chinua Achebe is a more ‘African’ writer than Senghor. The duiker will not paint ‘duiker’ on his beautiful back to proclaim his duikeritude; you’ll know him by his elegant leap.” Or to put it another way:

Soyinka’s famous put-down of Negritude (“a tiger does not have to proclaim his tigritude”) apparently originated in this remark on the duiker and duikeritude, of which it must have been a perversion, tigers being no more indigenous to Africa than surrealist French poetry.

_____________________

Some sources:

Being Black, Being Human: More Essays on Black Culture, Femi Ojo Ade
Black Odysseys: The Homeric Odyssey in the African Diaspora Since 1939, Justine McConnell
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin
Marxism and African Literature, ed. Georg M. Gugelberger
National Consciousness in Russian Literature, Gamel Nasser Adam
“Negritude: New and Old Perspectives,” Lewis Nkosi
Research on Wole Soyinka, ed. James Gibbs, Bernth Lindfors
The Routledge Book of World Proverbs
“The Senghor Complex,” Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, Patrice Nganang
Toward a Critical Realist Reading of African and African Diaspora Literatures, Dokubo M. Goodhead
The World Contracted to Recognizable Images, Edrik Joel Lopez
World Musics in Context, Peter Fletcher