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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

sanatorium under the sign of the hourglass

I was eager to start reading Bruno Schulz’s ‘Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass’ after the introduction promised me pages ‘crowded with verbal brilliance’. I was apparently about to experience ‘ecstatic reaches of simile’ and ‘metamorphic fantasies’ that at times would succeed in reaching depths that neither Kafka nor Proust (to which Schulz has been compared to) ever accomplished. 

Having recently read an article denouncing the superfluous use of the adjective, criticising the excessive use of the thesaurus, and favouring instead skilful direct prose, I was keen to read something flying the flag for the opposition.

“Right, well, here goes…” I thought, as I prepared myself for a literary awakening like no other.
And my, was I surprised. This book was a challenge. I have never encountered writing that requires quite the same form of focus. For example, Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground’ was a challenge for me, largely due to my lack of understanding of its key themes (existentialism not exactly being a specialist subject of mine). But my struggle with that book was largely down to ignorance of its subject, which resulted in me persistently repeating sections of text until they began to make sense.

But with Schulz’s novel it was not a case of ‘understanding’ the text. Instead, it was his leaps and bounds of fantastical imagination that stumped me as a reader. Schulz’s use of language was not complicated, nor academic. Simply dense with detail; sumptuous and rich.

“Down below, the quick and silent work of night now begins in earnest. Greedy ants swarm everywhere, decomposing into atoms the substance of things, eating them down to their white bones...White papers, in tatters on the rubbish heap, survive longest, like undigested rays of brightness in the worm-ridden darkness, and cannot completely dissolve…And then thin veins of breezes rise from the bottom of the courtyard, hesitant and uncertain, streaks of freshness, which line like silk the folds of summer nights. And while the first shimmering stars appear in the sky, the summer night emerges with a sigh – deep, full of starry dust and the distant croaking of frogs.” 

I became lost in the world Schulz presented to me; for it was not the world as I had previously known it. Descriptions were detailed and vivid, as though magnifying each minute aspect of life to the extreme. Through each word, sentence or paragraph re-read, Schulz’s stories strengthened into magical marvels of descriptive prose. The pages throbbed with life and beauty, found in both the ordinary and extraordinary.

“The person sitting at the box office was only a wraith, an illusory phantom looking tired…fluttering her lashes thoughtlessly to disperse the golden dust of drowsiness scattered by the electric bulbs.”

I will admit that there were times when I found myself utterly lost, questioning the point of my reading this apparently nonsensical book; for often it felt as though flights of fancy were simply being patch-worked together. But when I did regain my way I was repeatedly amazed. I felt as though I was forging my way through a forest, beams of light occasionally piercing through the treetops, every so often stumbling upon clearings of glorious sunshine.

There is certainly something to be said for concise yet evocative prose. And there is nothing worse than wading your way through wordy text. However, when you take it to the other extreme - and combine it with an acute imagination - you can also understand why people are in such awe of Schulz’s brief yet mind-bending literary career.   

It is a book I would recommend with trepidation though, as it requires you to commit yourself to its reading. On the other hand, I am sure that it is something one could go back to time and time again, with greater delights being revealed upon each reading.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

round, dark, and dangerous

WARNING: I have made a devilishly delicious discovery. 

Presenting to you the fiendish friend of the Ferrero Rocher... 

Ferrero Rondnoir.

This version of the widely known Ferrero Rocher is not only encased in dark (but not bitter) chocolate, but also has a sumptuously rich filling that has foregone its hazelnut centre for a small ball of extra indulgent chocolate. 

The luxurious cocoa flavour of this addition to the Ferrero family makes for a dangerously scrumptious treat. I defy even the dark chocolate haters out there to be able to stop themselves from reaching for another as they polish off the last crumbs of their first bite.

For me this was a last minute purchase in Fiumicino Airport, an attempt to use up the last of my Euros. They hadn't appeared on my radar until now, but apparently Rondnoirs are available in the UK. Oh dear...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

on my plate: black pepper tofu

THIS was the deal: I provide two home cooked dinners, one pizza supper in Rome and the cleaning of one bathroom, in exchange for one absolutely gorgeous, pure wool chunky-knit jumper, from Aquascutum. My heart just skipped a beat typing the word 'Aquascutum'.

Fair deal in my opinion considering I will enjoy / benefit from all of the above. (Excluding the bathroom bit, but luckily it’s a very small bathroom.)

So, this week’s 'on my plate' is home cooked dinner number one. Following a long weekend of over indulgence in Rome – of which I will tell you all about in a forthcoming post – both my mum (aforementioned deal maker) and I were in the mood for a change of scene when it came to food. In amongst my stash of 'recipes to try' I found the perfect solution: Yotam Ottolenghi's black pepper tofu. Conveniently we had a tub of the good quality fresh tofu that Ottolenghi calls for already sitting in the fridge.

And what a delightful feast it made. Following a day of delirium at work due to exhaustion from said weekend in Rome I muddled my way through the initial stages of cooking. I will admit that juggling the making of the rice (which I always seem to find stressful), the fine slicing of the ingredients and the frying of the tofu (spewing cornflour along the way) was a struggle; but I emerged from the chaos serenely happy as the meal came together and I could see that all would be good.

The flavours dazzled in this dish. Fiery chilli combined with distinctive peppery notes; lightly caramelised shallots balanced salty depths of various soy sauces; pungent garlic complimented tangy, aromatic ginger. And all of these tastes enveloped succulent chunks of tofu with crunchy spring onion.

I served this on a bed of jasmine rice, to which I had added half a teaspoon of Chinese 5 spice; the touch of cinnamon within this mix came through subtly but with effect, enhancing the sweet and sour aspect of the tofu and its sauce.

Steamed choi sum topped with toasted sesame seeds was presented on the side. And the final accompaniment was a pot of jasmine tea. It was a delicious simple supper that awoke me (and my senses) from my daze, and which I will no doubt make again.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

final destination: atlantic ocean

WHO would have thought that what many consider to be the bain of all commuter misery may actually end it's life as a vision of majestic beauty?

At first glance I recoiled slightly at the apparent 'dumping' of these disused vehicles, but upon learning of their purpose I was pleasantly surprised.

Stephen Mallon has spent three years documenting the final journey of the NYC decommissioned subway car, which sees it being re-appropriated for use as refuge to many species of fish and crustaceans as part of a an artificial reef building program on the East Coast of the US. Mallon's documentation of the final stage of the project is now being presented in an exhibition at Calumet Photographic in Florida.

The dramatic images of individual carriages plunging into the ocean  are strangely haunting, the water gushing into their empty hulls. However what I quite like with these striking pictures is the contradiction; for on the one hand it seems to jar observing the rusty old cars sinking into deep dark depths, but on the other, it must be remembered that they are in fact embarking on a journey that is of great benefit.

As I have said before, I am not usually the first in line to actively champion environmental matters. But I will always take note - as I'm sure many other people do too - when the work of projects like this one are presented to the public in such a beautiful manner. To echo the words of Above Magazine: 'beauty will save the world'.