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Author Archive: Eamonn Fitzgerald

Ex-pat Irishman keeping an eye on the world from the Bavarian side of the Alps.

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The second Station: Food

Wednesday, 25 November, 2015 0 Comments

The most treasured of my mother’s many recipe books was published in 1960 and over the years it had doubled in size thanks to countless newspaper clippings interleaved between its pages. Strong, red rubber bands kept the lot in place and prevented the volume from breaking its spine. Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty was aptly titled for the needs of its users and the eight chapters embraced the essentials: Bread; Cakes; Pastry; Fish; Vegetables; Meat, Poultry & Game; Puddings & Desserts, Accompaniments.

When good musicians are presented with a simple melody, they improvise and transform the piece into something delightful, and good cooks are no different. Down through the decades, Maura Laverty’s recipe for currant buns morphed into my mother’s framework for fruit scones, with the margarine being replaced by butter, yeast by baking soda and buttermilk taking over from milk, while the candied peel was dropped entirely. Here is Maura Laverty’s original recipe:

Currant buns

Ingredients: 1 ½ lbs flour, 2 ozs raisins, 2 ozs currants, 2 ozs candied peel, 6 ozs margarine, 6 ozs sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ pint lukewarm milk, I oz yeast

Method: Cream yeast with a little sugar. Sift flour with salt. Melt margarine in lukewarm milk. Add yeast and milk mixture to flour and beat well. Cover and leave in a warm place until mixture doubles its bulk. Turn onto floured board, spread with sugar and fruit and knead well. Cover and leave 30 mins. Shape into buns (these quantities will make 20). Place on greased baking tin, leave in warm place 20 mins, then bake 15 mins at 240 °C / 475 °F / Gas Mark 9. Just before they are cooked, brush with water or egg white and sprinkle with sugar.

No matter how many buns/scones were formed from the ingredients, there was always an extra piece of dough left over after my mother had finished and this would be the first item retrieved from the oven after the 15 minutes had elapsed. This prototype would be assessed for colour, felt for consistency, then be broken in two and spread with butter. “How does it taste?” was the expectant question. It was exquisite every time.

Mother's scones

Writing in the Irish Times at the end of October, historian Diarmaid Ferriter summed up the significance of Full and Plenty in contemporary Irish food preparation. He noted Maura Laverty’s focus on the idea of a balanced diet; praised her advice about everything in moderation and drew readers’ attention to the fact that Laverty’s “minimum daily ration” included egg, cheese, butter, bread, vegetables, fruit and “a serving of meat or fish or bacon.” His conclusion? “Bring it all on.”

That cherished and much-used copy of Full and Plenty was placed on my mother’s coffin on the day she was buried. Its presence was a reminder to the mourners that most of them had benefited greatly from her interpretations of its contents during their lifetimes. The hands that that had lovingly turned its pages had generously and without demur placed before them bread; cakes; pastry; fish; vegetables; meat, poultry & game; puddings & desserts and accompaniments. The best of the lot was those mysterious “accompaniments”. They were the incantations, the acts and the embellishments that made the cooking and the presentation so memorable. Maura Laverty mentions this extra dimension of the kitchen in her introduction to Full and Plenty when she describes the sensation of “rubbing butter into flour scones”. She continues: “The purity of flour, the pure velvety feel of it, the gentle, incessant, calm-giving motion of the finger-tips — no tangle or turmoil could hold out against such homely comforting.” And none did.

Our next station in this series of meditations on 14 photographs is Letters.

The first Station: Work

Tuesday, 24 November, 2015 0 Comments

Look at these faces. What do you see? Life. Health. Energy. Family. Friends. Play. Work. This photo opens a door to the past and reveals a summer glimpse of a lost world. We know now how the story will end for some of the characters in this scene, but that’s hindsight. For the moment let us stay with what was captured on film when the shutter was released on that summer day.

Hay day at home

What’s going on here? The hay that was saved has been transported from the meadow and is being stored in a barn so that the livestock will have food for autumn, winter and spring. It’s an existential moment because that hay is the fuel for the engines of the enterprise: the cows. No hay, no milk; no milk, no money. No money… It’s a knife-edge moment, but there is no sign of anxiety in this image. Instead, there is acceptance. It was hoped that the hay would be saved. It was expected that it would be gathered in to the barn and it was accepted that whatever obstacles emerged along the way the cycle would repeat itself annually for the benefit of all those present and to come.

Yes, there was fatalism in this worldview, but not resignation. “‘Tis the will of God” was how misfortune was explained. There had to be a reason for setbacks, especially those that affected the most vulnerable, but it was assumed that a higher agency was involved and life went on and so did work.

For my mother, work was neither an occupation nor a career. It was an all-encompassing mission. Work secured. Work provided. Work was noble and necessary. “She’s a great worker” was the ultimate praise. “Slavery”, on the other hand, was the word used to dismiss the miserable life of the workaholic. “He’s a pure slave” is how she would describe the farmer bent over double with rheumatism after a lifetime spent in pursuit of money. It was the definitive waste of our brief time on earth.

For my mother, work was an extraordinary series of tasks that began at down and ended, often, after midnight. There was lighting the fire, milking the cows, feeding the calves, baking bread, preparing dinner, washing clothes, making tea, knitting jumpers, darning socks, planting vegetables, pruning flowers, visiting the sick, attending funerals, going to Mass, selling livestock, buying hens, painting, cooking, cleaning, shopping, caring, helping, loving, talking, thinking… This list is not exhaustive, but it is exhausting. Not that she ever used the word. “I’m tired,” she would sometimes say. “I’m exhausted”, never.

Our next station in this series of 14 photographs is Food.

Stations of a life in 14 photographs

Monday, 23 November, 2015 0 Comments

The handbag my mother took with her on the last journey of her life contained a variety of objects that encapsulated her character. Along with the practical — tissues, mints, vital phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper — there was the metaphysical: a rosary beads, a prayer book, holy medals and a memorial card of her late husband. This combination of faith and practicality made her the person that she was. The contents of that handbag reflected a personality conscious of the detail of the everyday and devoted to a traditional Irish spiritualism that is as ancient as the water from sacred wells and as modern as using a mobile phone to find out for whom the latest bell has tolled.

Along with Mass, the Rosary, graveyard visitations and pilgrimages to Knock Shrine and Lough Derg, my mother’s canon of devoutness included the Stations of the Cross, with their depictions of Christ’s sufferings and death. As Piero Marini, Archbishop of Martirano in Calabria, puts it, these 14 images “shed light on the tragic role of the various characters involved, and the struggle between light and darkness, between truth and falsehood, which they embody.” In the spirit of the Stations of the Cross, the coming fortnight here will be given over to meditations on 14 photographs that reflect key aspects of my mother’s life. We begin tomorrow with Work.

The handbag contents

Occupied: Cold horror

Sunday, 22 November, 2015 0 Comments

Present: Norway supplies 30 percent of the European Union’s natural gas imports and 10 percent of its crude oil imports. Future: The US is no longer a member of NATO, fossil fuel reserves are running low and a new Norwegian Prime Minister has decided that his country will switch from oil and gas to alternative energy options. Faced with this crisis, Brussels turns to Moscow for muscle and thus Okkupert (Occupied) begins.

Conceived by Jo Nesbø, the best-selling Oslo-based writer, Occupied is the most expensive TV series ever produced in Norwegian and it is excellent. The scenery is cold, the colours are cold, the occupiers are cold and the horror is cold. With winter at hand, Occupied forces us to ask ourselves what we would tolerate to stay warm. The dismemberment of Ukraine? By the way, Nesbø had the idea long before Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, but the story reveals the unease that many of Russia’s neighbors feel. It’s cold up north. Occupied is now showing on Arte, the Franco-German TV network.

Detroit and Buffalo and beyond

Saturday, 21 November, 2015 0 Comments

Her vocals have been compared to those of Dolly Parton; her songwriting to that of Tom Waits. David Menconi wrote in Spin that she sings “like an earthbound Emmylou Harris.” After her parents divorced, Amanda Shires divided her childhood between the Texas cities of Lubbock and Mineral Wells, and it was in a pawn shop in Mineral Wells that she got her first fiddle at the age of ten. From there on, there was no doubt about where she was going. Since then, she’s been to Detroit and Buffalo and beyond. Her husband, Jason Isbell, is scheduled to play at La Maroquinerie in Paris, France, on 18 January. Memories of the Bataclan will still be vivid, but the music must go on.

Houellebecq: How France’s Leaders Failed

Friday, 20 November, 2015 0 Comments

Just as we end our week of postings about Submission, the important new novel by Michel Houellebecq, the great man himself makes a rare appearance in the public prints to comment on the state of France. In today’s New York Times, under the headline Michel Houellebecq: How France’s Leaders Failed Its People, the writer addresses la Grande Nation in its hour of need.

Soumission Quoting the famous motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for the Second World War, Houellebecq places his faith in the people and says: “Keep calm and carry on.” He regrets that his France does not have a Churchill to lead the nation at this critical moment and despairs of the country’s political class: “It’s unlikely that the insignificant opportunist who passes for our head of state, or the congenital moron who plays the part of our prime minister, or even the ‘stars of the opposition’ (LOL) will emerge from the test looking any brighter.”

He then cites a gap, no, “an abyss”, between the people and their elected representatives. “The discredit that applies to all political parties today isn’t just huge; it is legitimate.” This leads him to formulate four democratic theses and nail them to the door of France in the following order:

  • That the French population has always maintained its trust in and solidarity with its police officers and its armed forces.
  • That it has largely been repelled by the sermonizing airs of the so-called moral left (moral?) concerning how migrants and refugees are to be treated.
  • That it has never viewed without suspicion the foreign military adventures its governments have seen fit to join.
  • That the only solution still available to us now is to move gently toward the only form of real democracy: I mean, direct democracy.

And just to prove that Houellebecq is central to understanding the true nature of the crisis now gripping France, Todd Kliman rows in with The Subtle Despair of Michel Houellebecq in today’s Washington Post. The “d” word is the one that struck him during his second reading of Submission. It “permeates every page, every scene, every observation.” Still, he points out, and this is very true, that “Submission is very funny, easily the funniest of the four Houellebecq books I’ve read.” As regard’s the author’s politics, Kliman concludes that Houellebecq is a man of the right, but a particular kind of right — a right of the long view that is…

“… pessimistic about notions of progress, skeptical of easy answers, or of any answers, a man of measured despair whose immersion in history and literature has taught him that time can’t be measured in election cycles or decades, that technologies exist to distract us and/or give us new means to destroy ourselves, and that people never do change.

Today, in this age, that qualifies as real subversion.”

Submission is, without doubt, the novel of the year. Somewhat plausible, rather worrying, funny, subversive and very, very important.

From left to right: Houellebecq reviewed

Thursday, 19 November, 2015 0 Comments

As we approach the penultimate day of our Submission series, it’s time to take a look at how the book has been received on the left and on the right. First up, Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books. With a nod to the Bethlehem of Yeats in The Second Coming, his review is titled Slouching Toward Mecca. Lilla is at pains to emphasizes that none of the characters in Houellebecq’s novel expresses “hatred or even contempt of Muslims.” Instead, “It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here — no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.”

Submission Douglas Murray takes a more robust approach in Quadrant with A Society Ripe for Submission. Like Lilla, however, he stresses that the novel is not the cartoon that its detractors have claimed it to be: “Of course it is worth stating from the outset — since in these times we seem to have to do such things — that even if Submission were the most anti-Islamic, ‘blasphemous’ and offensive novel ever written Houellebecq would have the right to publish it and do so without being judged by politicians or gunmen who in their different ways fire off over books they don’t read. As it happens, Submission is not a simple provocation. It is a deep, gripping and haunting novel which proves a culmination point of Houellebecq’s work so far and, in my view, a recent high-point for European fiction.”

In his conclusion, Mark Lilla interprets Submission as Houellebecq’s reckoning with a country and a continent that have run out of road in the modern world:

“He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God. Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.”

The “Who” there is echoed in the “whose” at the close of Douglas Murray’s assessment of the novel:

“Houellebecq’s career has included several fateful coincidences of timing. But perhaps the most propitious is that his work has come to artistic maturity at just the moment to capture a society tipping from over-ripeness into something else. What precisely? More decadence, barbarism, or salvation? And if salvation, then what kind, and whose?”

Tomorrow, here, we conclude our week of Submission.

Knausgaard reads Houellebecq

Wednesday, 18 November, 2015 0 Comments

It was a brave decision on the part of the New York Times to ask Karl Ove Knausgård to review Submission by Michel Houellebecq. Brave because the Norwegian author is not known for his brevity. Knausgård is the author of Min Kamp (My Struggle), six controversial autobiographical novels that stretch across 3,600 pages.

“Before I begin this review, I have to make a small confession. I have never read Michel Houellebecq’s books,” writes Knausgård, warming up to his task. Eventually, he picks up the novel and opens it: “I leaned back in my chair under the bright light of the lamp, lit a cigarette, poured myself a coffee and began to read.”

Submission Submission is controversial, he finds, because “anything that has to do with immigration, the nation state, multiculturalism, ethnicity and religion is explosive stuff in Europe these days. Many of its elements are recognizable, like the newspapers omitting to mention, or mentioning only with caution, conflicts arising out of ethnic differences, or the political left’s anti-­racism overriding its feminism, making it wary of criticizing patriarchal structures within immigrant communities.”

Houellebecq’s savaging of political correctness prepares the ground for “a scenario of the future that realistically is less than likely, and yet entirely possible,” notes Knausgård. In this scenario, the French general election of 2022 is won by the Muslim Brotherhood with which the left collaborates to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. Snippet:

“What’s crucial for the novel is that the political events it portrays are psychologically as persuasive as they are credible, for this is what the novel is about, an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith, a culture in which the ties of community are dissolving and which, for want of resilience more than anything else, gives up on its most important values and submits to religious government.

But maybe that isn’t so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter that much? Aren’t people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies? It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs… This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence.”

What does it mean to be a human being without faith? For Knausgård, that’s the key question posed by a novel that closes with the faithless protagonist looking forward in time to his own submission, “to the comedy, eventually converting to Islam in order to continue teaching at the Sorbonne, now a Muslim seat of learning.”

In the end, Knausgård is full of praise for what Houellebecq has written and declares Submission to be a great book: “The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses we concoct to give life meaning, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its own driving force. But what does that matter as long as it creates great literature, quivering with ambivalence, full of longing for meaning, which, if none is found, it creates itself?”

It is 2022 and the votes are being counted in France

Tuesday, 17 November, 2015 0 Comments

On the day that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was published in France, two Islamist terrorists stormed into the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people, including eight journalists. Among the dead was the economist Bernard Maris, one of Houellebecq’s closest friends. The tragedy and the coincidence were interpreted as a portent, but nobody could agree as to its significance. Conspiracy theorists wondered if Houellebecq had not somehow provoked the attack. The fact that the publication date of the book had been signaled long in advance did nothing to deter them.

Submission transports readers to the year 2022 as the votes are being counted after the French general election. Marine Le Pen and her Front National are neck-and-neck with the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a charismatic grocer’s son, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The Socialists, under Manuel Valls, decide to form a coalition with the Brotherhood to keep Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace, but negotiations are tricky. One evening during the talks, François, the narrator, meets a friend whose husband works for the DGSI intelligence service, and the three discuss politics with the aid of port. Snippet:

“But what do they want?”
“They want every French child to have the option of a Muslim education, at every level of schooling. Now, however you look at it, a Muslim education is very different from a secular one. First off, no co-education. And women would be allowed to study only certain things. What the Muslim Brotherhood really wants is for most women to study Home Economics, once they finish junior school, then get married as soon as possible, with a small minority studying art or literature first. Sottomissioni That’s their vision of an ideal society. Also, every teacher would have to be Muslim. No exceptions. Schools would observe Muslim dietary laws and the five daily prayers; above all, the curriculum itself would have to reflect the teachings of the Koran.”
“You think the Socialists will give in?”
“The haven’t got much of a choice. If they don’t reach an agreement, they don’t have a chance against the National Front. Even if they do reach an agreement, the National Front could still win. You’ve seen the polls…”

“Are your sure? That sounds so drastic…”
“Quite sure. It’s all been settled. And it is exactly in line with the theory of minority sharia, which the Muslim Brotherhood has always embraced. So they could something similar with education. Public education would still be available to everyone though with vastly reduced funding. The national budget would be slashed by two-thirds at least, and this time the teachers wouldn’t be able to stop it. In the current economic climate, any budget cut is bound to play well at the polls.”

All of this bores François, who Houellebecq depicts as a caricature of the Western middle class: smug, agnostic, narcissistic, alcohol-addicted and sex-preoccupied. But there’s no smoke without fire. The question at the core of the story is how will he manage when his world is engulfed by the approaching wave of zealotry. Sink or swim? If ever there was a book for our times, Submission is it.

Reading the plausible and important Houellebec

Monday, 16 November, 2015 0 Comments

In Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, the year is 2022 and François is tiring of his career as a lecturer at the Sorbonne. The life of an expert on J.-K. Huysmans, the nineteenth-century author of À rebours, offers decent material rewards but decreasing spiritual benefits and the many hours spent on YouPorn are more satisfying than the day job. In the background, France is preparing for a general election and although François has zero interest in politics, he is vaguely aware that a strategic alliance between the Socialist party and Islamic party may be in the offing. He does notice, however, some subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the academic atmosphere. Snippet from the excellent translation by the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein:

“When I reached my classroom — today I planned to discuss Jean Lorrain — there were three guys in their twenties, two of them Arab, one of them black, standing in the doorway. They weren’t armed, not that day. They stood there calmly. Nothing about them was overtly menacing. All the same, they were blocking the entrance. I had to say something. I stopped and faced them. They had to be under orders to avoid provocation and to treat the teachers with respect. At least I hoped so.

Submission “I’m a professor here. My class is about to start,” I said in a firm tone, addressing the group. It was the black guy who answered, with a broad smile. “No problem, monsieur, we’re just here to visit our sisters…” and he tilted his head reassuringly towards the classroom. The only sisters he could mean were two North African girls seated together in the back left row, both in black burkas, their eyes protected by mesh. They looked pretty irreproachable to me. “Well, there you have them,” I said, with bonhomie. Then I insisted: “Now you can go.” “No problem, monsieur,” he said with an even broader smile, then he turned on his heel, followed by the other two, neither of whom had said a word. He took three steps, then turned again. “Peace be with you, monsieur,” he said with a small bow. “That went well,” I told myself, closing the classroom door. “This time.” I don’t know just what I’d expected. Supposedly, teachers had been attacked in Mulhouse, Strasbourg, Aix-Marseille and Saint-Denis, but I had never met a colleague who’d been attacked, and I didn’t believe the rumours. According to Steve, an agreement had been struck between the young Salafists and the administration. All of a sudden, two years ago, the hoodlums and dealers had all vanished from the neighbourhood. Supposedly that was the proof. Had this agreement included a clause banning Jewish organizations from campus? Again, there was nothing to substantiate the rumour, but the fact was that, as of last autumn, the Jewish Students Union had no representatives on any Paris campus, while the youth division of the Muslim Brotherhood had opened new branches, here and there, across the city.”

As Melanie McDonagh writes in The Spectator: “Plausible? Sort of. Worrying? Yep. Important? Very.”

Waiting for the Barbarians in Paris, Berlin, London

Sunday, 15 November, 2015 0 Comments

«la France sera impitoyable à l’égard des barbares» said French President François Hollande in response to the Islamist terror that left 129 people dead in Paris on Friday night. Hollande’s evocation of “the barbarians” makes Waiting for the Barbarians, written by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1898 and published in Egypt in 1904, seem particularly prescient today.

In a huge square in an unnamed city (Athens? Rome? Constantinople?), the emperor is preparing to present a “scroll” that is “replete with titles” to the designated barbarian leader. Not that the brutal fighter will care. He can take what he wants, anyway, and there will be no negotiations. As Cavafy notes, the barbarians are “bored by rhetoric and public speaking.” Oratory and punditry, laziness and luxury have made the empire cynical and soft and the citizens have lost interest in politics: “What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

Cavafy delays until the last two lines before tossing in the hand grenade. The crowd is, in fact, waiting eagerly for the barbarians: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

One can picture a decadent polis, after a lengthy culture war, longing for a radical solution to the empire’s crisis. Cavafy’s bigger point is that barbarians have been at the gates since the dawn of civilization and their presence always poses an existential test for leaders and nations. When the barbarians arrive, when concert-goers and diners are being slaughtered, action is needed. That’s why the supine appeasement Cavafy brilliantly evokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is so loathsome.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What laws can the senators make now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
     He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
     replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933). Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard