17 Oct 2013

Light Years, by James Salter

This is the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of James Salter's masterpiece (yes, I can and will call it that), Light Years. It was first published in 1975 and has perhaps had a kind of "slow-burner" career ever since, gaining Salter the often voiced reputation of a "writer"s writer", whatever that may mean. I am not a writer (at least I don't publish litterature), yet I consider this to be one of the very best novels that I have read in a long time. So where does this leave us? Well let's get back to the essence, which is of course the book itself.

James Salter

Light Years, whose French title, "Un Bonheur Parfait" (A Perfect Happiness") is, as so often, a bit offkey and in fact adds an ironical touch that I cannot really detect in the book itself or in its original title, is a book about the gradual decline and dissolution of a relationship, in this case a marital one. It is totally masterly in its incredibly evocative and often slightly allusory descriptions, but it is also quite relentless in the development of its story as the faults, weaknesses and self-delusions of the protagonists wear through the Fitzgerald-like veneer of their apparent happiness. I have read one other book by Salter so far (and I won't be stopping there), which is a cruel tail of an highly erotic but otherwise empty relationship, and is called A Sport and a Pastime. Salter's biographical details as a former US airforce fighter-pilot (in the Korean war) has been well documented and seem to me irrelevant to judgements on his writing, which is simply brilliant.

James Salter as a young man

Salter is a writing craftsman, in the best sense of that term, but is also someone who tackles, head-on but with immense subtlety, the facts of life. Nothing lasts, but, while things do do, life is worth living. Yet one should always beware of appearances that can lull one into taking things for granted. Salter mixes factual descriptions, almost matter-of-fact in their manner, with hugely evocative phrases that just resound inside the reader.I find myself frequently thinking "yes, thats just how it is", whilst discovering a new angle on events, scenes and situations that have a taste of familiarity about them. There is a strange and fascinating mixture of down-to-earth reality and a dream-lile atmosphere through which the protagonists wander and which, in my opinion, is echoed and introduced by the fact that their first names are rather strange. In Light Years, the otherwise fairly ordinary central couple are named Viri (him) and Nedra (her). Not exactly your everyday all-american names for an apparently ordinary middle-class couple (he an architect, she not working) living in a well-to-do suburb north of New York. It is as if their frst names were symbols of their aspirations to something exceptional and unusual, wheras their lives are really quite banal. Viri and Nedra live, in a sense, in a dream world along with their names that come from who-knows-where. The apparent mist of happiness in which they bask gradually dissipates as they age. And yet they continue to dream, and live, and love somehow outside of themselves. To the point where the reader never really knows who they are. They remain absent presences all through the book.

Yes, the story is sad, in a sense. But it is also filled with beauty and the constant reminder that life can be very full, and that emptiness, delusions and missed opportunities are also part of that story.

Read on....  

14 Oct 2013

What makes a wine "great"? Barolo Rocche della Annunziata 1999, from Paolo Scavino

The often used (and much abused) term "great wine" usually makes me hesitate and have doubts. Doubts about what is meant by such a laudatory term, doubts about who is using the expression and why, and doubts about whether it has any real signification. Of course, in the end, it all comes down to one's own perception of a wine and the ensuing emotions which may or may not have quite a lot to do with one's immediate surroundings and the company with which one is sharing the wine so qualified.

I recently tasted a wine that I can only describe as being "great", and so I feel that I should start by qualify the circumstances and describe my personal connection with this bottle to give the full context which inevitably influenced, to some extent, my judgment when I tasted the wine. Yet there is a form of self-evidence about the impact of flavours and all the other physiological interactions that seem to surpass the complex issue of context. When a wine gives you an impression of beauty, harmony, balance and intense flavour sensations, you are simply stunned, and then moved by its impact. This is what happened to me just over a month ago when opening and sampling a bottle prior to serving it to my guests and dinner companions at home. And the initial impression was reinforced by drinking the wine at table.

We had three friends to dinner, one of them Italian and two of whom live in Rome. We had already consumed a very stylish Champagne blanc de blanc from Pierre Monsuit and a solidly earthy and very full-bodied Spanish Catalonian wine from the Emporda region near the French border, called Terra Remota, Clos Adrien. This went fine with a chicken tagine but the bottle was now empty and I was racking my brain to see what I could serve to follow it, given its intensity. I enjoy improvising like this, trying to make the wine fit the circumstances, the people and the moment just as much as the food. I suddenly remembered a bottle that had been lying in my cellar for about 10 years and that had been given to me by a producer from the Piemonte region of Northern Italy with strict instruction to be patient before opening it. The moment seemed just right.

Here is the bottle, which had never been graced with its rightful label (as shown above) as it was given to me by the producer having been recently bottled at the time.

As the picture shows, this bottle just carried two tiny stickers on which I could barely read the following words or abbreviations: "Rocche Annon..." and "Paolo Scavino". The cork, as shown below, revealed a little more, including the vintage.

I can well remember visiting this estate and their tasting room during some research on the twin neighbouring appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco. It must have been back in about 2003. At the end of my tasting of the Scavino range, one of Enrico Scavino's daughters (I think it was Elisa) gave me this bottle saying that she hoped that I wouldn't be in a hurry to open it as it came from their best vineyard in Barolo and was far too young to be drunk. I have been resisting the temptation ever since, but the time had now come!

The colour was still remarkably youthful, in tones of deep reddish purple, hardly affected by 14 years of time and very bright. The nose was totally enticing as I poured the wine into a decanter having checked it first for any foul play. I served it to the guests without saying anything, just to see the spontaneous reactions on their faces, as none were wine professionals and I often find this sort of test very revealing. I could see that they liked it a lot as the conversation dried up for a while. When I revealed its identity, the Italian lady said how pleased she was that I has shown something so beautiful from her country at a time when things were so difficult in Italy.

I found the wine totally harmonious, amazingly still full of youthful fruit flavours, precise and yet smooth and velvet-like to the touch. It was mouth-filling but in no way overbearing, or even very powerful. It had plenty of intensity, but was totally refined. It just hit that perfect point of balance between immediate sensual pleasure and a deeper line of complexity that sent echoes down my spine and all through my brain. Mind and body were fused together. When I think that there are some puritanical lunatics (here in France for example) who would like to see wine banned as part of an absurdly amalgamated and stigmatized mass of "alcoholic beverages"!

Yes, there are some wines which, when tasted at the right moment and in the right circumstances, qualify for the term "great". They have that indescribable capacity to totally satisfy mind and body and produce a special quality of emotion. Such wines can bring tears to my eyes in the way that other aesthetic impressions received form paintings, landscapes, writing or music can also achieve. One wants such moments to last forever, but they are, by essence, fleeting.

The beauty of the wine is echoed by that of the landscape around Falletto

For those curious about this wine and its origins, I have gleaned and presented below some of the information that can be found in more detail on the family's excellent web site.

from left to right:  Signora Scavino, Elisa, Enrica and Enrico Scavino

The Paolo Scavino estate currently includes 23 hectares (almost 56 acres) of vineyards, some of which are owned and the rest rented. The family base is in the village of Castello Falletto, within the Barolo designated region of Piemonte, in North-West Italy. Similarly to the situation in Burgundy, and like many of their Piedmontese colleagues, the Scavino vineyards are divided between numerous separate plots (19 of them in fact), some having designated vineyard names, as is the case for this top-of-the range wine from the Nebbiolo grape that is the sole authorized variety in the Barolo appellation. But the Scavino vineyards also produce several other wines, from other local varieties such as Dolcetto and Barbera. The estate was founded in 1921 by Lorenzo Scavino and his son Paolo. Today it is run by Enrico and his to daughters, Enrica and Elisa. The web site, like that of so many other wine producers, makes the claim that their aim is to produce wines that have purity, complexity and elegance. The Scavinos totally fulfill that contract.

The Scavino family in the vineyard: the younger generation now in the front seat.
Rocche dell’Annunziata is the name of a vineyard site within the boundaries of the village of La Morra. It lies at an altitude of 385 metres above sea-level and faces south, south-west. The soil is of limestone with underlying sandstone. The sand blends with the lime to improve drainage. The vines were planted in 1951 and 1991 at a density of 5400 vines per hectares. Grass is grown between alternate rows, and the soil tilled in the other ones.

So how much does it cost?
As I discovered when I looked this wine up on Wine Searcher, a bottle of the same wine is now very rare as there was not much of it to begin with, but it can be found in the USA at around 175 euros a bottle, which is far more than I would pay for a bottle of wine, so many thanks to the Scavino family for this gift (which, it should be mentioned, was not valued at this price level in Italy back in 2003). But you should know that Paolo Scavino also produces a range of wines at far more accessible prices and they are all beautifully made.

So what is the true price of vinous paradise anyway?

12 Oct 2013

Churchill, a biography by Sebastian Haffner

I must assume that everybody knows who was Winston Churchill, or at least has an image of the public figue and his war-time legend. Sebastian Haffner is far less well-known, but his short and to-the-point biography of a complex personnage whose life spanned almost a century makes fascinating reading that sheds many a light on little known aspects of the recent history of the western world. And which, without indulging in any of the distasteful "intimate details" side of some modern biographies, also reveals the many contradictions and failures in the behaviour and career of Churchill, without taking away from his unique achievements.

Haffner's excellent short (160 pages) biography of Winston Churchill, first published in English in 2003 by Haus Publishing

My first knowledge of the existence of Haffner (whose real name was Raimund Pretzel, but I will explain this later) came through a radio programme in France that spoke in glowing terms of a book of his called, in its French edition, Journal d'un Allemand, but whose rather different English title is Defying Hitler: A Memoir. I read this book some years ago and it is to me the most brilliant and lucid account of the mechanisms, both social, economic, political and psychological, behind the seemingly inevitable rise to power of Hitler and his gang. Haffner (or rather Pretzel) was a civil servant in the German legislature who, seeing and not accepting the rise of nazism, fled his country in the 1930's and came to England. Alhtough not directly threatened (all things are relative of course and political opponents were either imprisoned or physically eliminated) in Germany as he was not Jewish, he decided that he could do more to hinder Hitler outside his country and he became active in England as a writer, translator and expert on matters German, trying to influence British politicians as to the dangers presented by nazism. He was convinced not only that Hitler was unhinged (he referred to him as "the crank"), but saw also that he was extremely dangerous. And we should not forget, in this context, the strong movement in Britain at that time towards pacifism, appeasement and even,, from some quarters, collaboration with the nazis. In order to protect his family that had stayed in Germany, Pretzel changed his name to Sebastian (the second name of J.S. Bach) Haffner (Mozart's 35th symphony).Yes, nobody has yet fully understood quite how so much savagery could come from a culture that has spawned so rich a cultural universe of music, philosophy, art and litterature. His book on this period of German history was not published in his lifetime but was found in his desk by his inheritors who rightly published it.

Raimund Pretzel, better known as Sebastian Haffner

Haffner's biography of Winston Churchill, a worthy descendant of John Churchill who had been elevated to the rank of Duke of Marlborough in the late 17th century for feats of arms and diplomacy against the Franco-Bavarian alliance during the wars of the Spanish succession, is a masterpiece of concision and is written with the swiftness of a good journalist who has the advantage of an external oberserver's eye, yet one who also knows a lot of the background. Among the suprises for me in this book were Churchill's changing political party allegiances. He started as Conservative, then became a radical Liberal and member of one of Lloyd George's governmants before returning, shortly before the Second World War to the Conservative party who had for long hated him as a renegate. Churchill was very much a politcal maverick, often hot-headed, rarely calculating, and fairly oblivious of what others thought of him. Having hated school and been a dunce in just about every subject except for English, he turned to the army for his career, and also discovered the joys of writing. He was, above and before all, a warrior and an opportunist, without a trace of self-interest. And a considerable writer. 

Another surprise to me in Haffner's account was Chuchill's total lucidity about Soviet Russia's intentions and his strategy to prevent these from becoming reality after the war, as well as his total incapacity to realise this strategy due to England's relative weakness when faced with both America and Russia. And his clear will to sell the English economy and Empire in exchange for American aid and thus save the war. It was the only way to resist Hitler, and he took it without hesitation. But then mathematics and monetary calculation were not Chruchill's forte. His stubborness and detremination to prove his point led him to some decisions that were dire for many people. Just ask the Australian and New Zealanders whom he sent to a certain death at Gallipoli in the First World War, or the Polish whom he abandoned in the next edition. Haffner also hints clearly at the variable nature of Churchill's moods. He would possibly be diagnosed these days as a bipolar, as he oscillated between intense high-energy elation and periods when what Churchill himself described as "the black dog" descended on him.

Since Haffner respectfully avoids prying into Churchill's private life, we learn little about his relationship with his wife Clementine, who very likely was responsible for keeping him on the rails at many times. I can well remember being struck and moved by listening to several of their letters, exchanged during the war years, read on French radio (the excellent France Culture) not long ago when they were published. Their extraordinary mixture of tenderness and open discussion of strategic matters as if these were everyday events like walking the dog was very impressive, but Haffner, unfortunately, did not have access to this material when he wrote his book.

I can strongly recommend this book to anyone vaguely interested in the man Churchill, or in world or British politics of the first half of the 20th century.

Read on .....