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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Pisco:  Qollqe Italia

www.piscoqollqe.com

The Books:  Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa and Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

When in Peru, the drink is pisco. When not in Peru, exceptional pisco is often hard to find. But when found, the stories that come to light are well worth the investigations.

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THE PISCO

A see-through sophisticate showing a glint of silver. On the nose a floral aromatic charge plays against alcohol infused with citrus and green apple. And in the mouth that expected alcoholic bite is countered by a fruit-driven sweetness. Polished and well-bred. (abv 43%)

Pisco is made by distilling fermented grape juice. It is brandy of a sort, but with its own distinctive course of production. In Peru it dates from the 1500s and is often thought of as that country’s national drink.

It is best known as the central ingredient in a pisco sour, a cocktail with a long-standing reputation. But many admirers of the newer breed of premium pisco have turned to drinking it neat, or at least closer to what pours from the bottle, as I like to do, adding a thin slice of citrus fruit such as orange or clementine.

Peru and Chile, the other major exporter of pisco, have recently revived interest in the spirit, bringing it to the world stage, at least as far as two South American countries of modest profile are able to do. With the rise of small batch, artisanal pisco, this has been made a whole lot easier, and more pleasurable.

In Peru it has official D.O. (Denomination of Origin) status, and must originate in one of five designated regions of the country. Pisco Qollqe is made in the Ica region by Destilerias del Sur. It is a “pisco aromático”, its character coming from the late harvest of the aromatic grape varietal Italia. It uses 7-8 kg of grapes per litre, with the distillery’s annual output amounting to only 5000 litres.

placing of labelsGreat care is taken with its production. Many of the grapes are organically grown. Harvest is undertaken in the traditional manner, followed by careful separation of the grapes from any the extraneous material. The grapes are then macerated and the best quality central portion is isolated for 10-12 days of fermentation. Much like whisky, distillation takes place in a copper still with only the central “body” of the distillate retained. This is allowed to rest for up to a year before bottling. Silkscreening of iconography from the ancient Paracas culture of the Ica region, together with a silver band of silk cord, make for a distinctive and elegant bottle, gift tag and presentation box.

THE BOOKS

There is much pisco drunk in both these books. But hardly anything refined, appropriate as it were to the brutal nature of the storylines.

Peru’s Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote Death in the Andes, his 11th novel, not long after he plunged into politics, in a 1990 unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Peru. One suspects he makes a much better writer than he would have a South American politician. While he is irrevocably tied to his homeland, he continues to live much of each year in Europe, mostly in Madrid and London. A writer, however, never leaves his homeland far behind.

55b18b1d222aa03a8d9536cafabe794b-w204@1xWhile billed by some eager publicists as a mystery, Death in the Andes is closer to a political thriller, although it doesn’t really fit that bill either. Vargas Llosa is too interested in the intricate, often perplexing workings of Peruvian society to write anything that fits the mode of genre fiction.

The novel’s central characters, Corporal Lituma and his adjutant Tomás, are in the Guardia Civil, sent to the remote mountain outpost of Naccos to guard a highway construction project, and to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of three men. It doesn’t go smoothly for the engaging, diligent pair. (With some relief for the reader, the frustrations of the investigation are offset by Tomás’s amusingly tortuous love life, as recounted to the sexually deprived Lituma.)

The police work leads first to the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the brutal Maoist militants whose savagery struck terror through whole regions of Peru in the 1980s and early 90s. The glaring horrors of recent Peruvian history take hold in a couple of side stories, including that of the ruthless murder of a young French couple backpacking through the mountains.

Vargas Llosa is not satisfied with so straightforward a solution to the crimes. He suggests the underlying causes go much deeper, perhaps as far back as the ancients and their practice of human sacrifice. Perhaps Peru never fully escaped the barbarity of its pre-Columbian past, nor that of the Spanish conquistadors for that matter.

There is much at play here — history, the dark recesses of the human psyche, political corruption. All things which the author has concerned himself with in previous writings. While not as monumental as some of his earlier work, Death in the Andes is as indelible and disturbing as anything he has penned.

Santiago Roncagliolo, who is half the age of Vargas Llosa, set his novel Red April in the Peruvian city of Ayacucho a decade later (in the era, in fact, Vargas Llosa would have been president had he won the vote). It is a more carefully crafted, more controlled novel. A different writer, drawing on different perspectives. Yet the view of Peruvian society is equally unsettling.

red-aprilIt is Holy Week in the year 2000 in a city famous for its intensely Catholic Easter rituals. Alberto Fujimori has served for a decade as Peru’s president. The leader of the Sendero Luminoso has been in jail for years, and, after 70,000 people have died in civil strife, only remnants of the terrorist cult remain. Even so, the workings of the police and government officials are far from democratic. Gruesome murders are overlooked or documented as accidents.

At the novel’s centre is Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, a complex, peculiar innocent, an associate district prosecutor sent from Lima back to Ayacucho, the city of his youth. His marriage has run recently run amok, not surprising since he has never seen past the death of his mother. Since returning to Ayacucho he has set up a replica of the bedroom she once occupied, and constantly carries on imaginary conversation with her. As the reader suspects, once she discovers it, the scenario doesn’t go over at all well with Edith, his potential girlfriend.

Chacaltana takes his job as prosecutor seriously, however, and is determined to get at the truth in his investigations of a series of particularly grisly murders. His efforts are blocked by his corrupt overseers. In a novel where much is not as it first appears, the prosecutor’s moral direction eventually wavers and by the end of the book the reader is at odds to see how Peruvian society will ever rehabilitate itself.

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These two books are among the best novels to come out of Peru in recent years. They advance an unsettling view of the country. No need to search out pisco before breaking open the novels, but if you do uncover some, try taking it chilled and raw.

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The Whisky:  Tomatin  –  14-year-old

www.tomatin.com

The Book:  Autumn by  Ali Smith

The first stop on our trip to Scotland was Inverness, an amiable small city, with an incredible secondhand book shop (the largest in the country), housed in a former church dating from 1793! The city is the childhood home of writer Ali Smith. And a few miles outside is the Tomatin whisky distillery. Aye, right, a potent combination.

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THE WHISKY

An amber glow in the glass, with sweet vanilla and spice on the nose. A gentle warming on the palate, defined by a nutty creaminess. Fine balance of spice and port surrounding a heart of oak. Confident and impressive. (46% abv, non-chill filtered, no added colour)

Tomatin bills itself as “the softer side of the Highlands,” Its ads are a chuckle, especially the portrait of a red rubber-booted Highland steer. The distillery is building an image as a strong player in the competitive world of single malts, even though 80% of its annual production of 5 million litres goes into blended whisky.

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Its history as a whisky distillery dates to 1897. The latter decades of the 20th century saw a wildly optimistic increase in capacity, the number of stills rising to 23, with the potential of 12 million litres annually. For a time it was the largest malt whisky distillery in Scotland.

Then it fell on hard times, perhaps self-inflicted by over-expansion. By 1986 it faced liquidation. A year later two of its customers, conglomerates Takara Shuzo and Okara & Co, bought the distillery, making it the first in Scotland to come under Japanese ownership.

Tomatin downsized, and initiated a new focus on single malts, including the recent addition of a peated line called Cu Bucan.

Tomatin (from the Gaelic “hill of the juniper bush”) takes its water from the Allt-na-Frithe burn. The spirit is matured in 2 dunnages and 13 racked warehouses. Initially its core range included a 12, 15 and 18-year-old. In 2014 the 14-year-old replaced the 15.

For its first dozen years the 14 was matured in ex-bourbon casks, before being transferred to port pipes for its final stretch to bottling.

Tomatin’s star is ascending and what had been a somewhat forgotten distillery is now on the radar of whisky enthusiasts, with several recent accolades boosting its profile.

THE BOOK

When my wife and I added Inverness to our itinerary we arranged a day tour of its surroundings, including visits to the site of the Battle of Culloden, the Clava Cairns, and the Tomatin distillery. But before leaving the city our guide David drove us to the house where Ali Smith had once lived. In the lead-up to our tour we had mentioned an interest in her books and, as fortune should have it, David had been at school with her! When he picked us up he had with him not only homemade shortbread, but school publications from decades before. One, a 1976 yearbook, included a sample of Smith’s early teenage writing, a dialectal take-off on the tale of Cinderella: “A Play in Simple Invernessian: Cinderella, Mun.” A wee, amusing harbinger of a writing wit set to blossom.

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Autumn is the first of Ali Smith‘s four-part Seasonal novel project, the other three books due to follow in short order. A creative quartet, this time a writer’s. There’s Vivaldi, of course. And recently David Hockney. Shortly after reading Autumn, I was in London, at the Tate Britain, immersed in the Hockney video “Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods.” It filled the four walls of an intimate room, a highlight in the retrospective of a constantly innovative artist.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in countries with four distinct seasons know how they can influence our attitudes and perspectives. Interestingly, Ali Smith chose autumn to begin her quartet — after the more carefree summer, before the death and dormancy of winter. The book opens with these lines: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.” Beyond the timeless reference to Dickens, it is a forecast of turmoil. A storm warning. In this autumn of 2016, Brexit has passed, Trump looms, the citizenry is playing games with the truth.

Elizabeth Demand, 32, a junior lecturer in art at a London university, is reading Brave New World, while she waits in a bureaucratic queue to submit a passport application. She is about to face rejection for passport pictures that fail to meet the guidelines of head size within the frame of the photo. The treadmill in the animal cage spins madly.

Yet her life has its moments of pleasure and compassion, especially surrounding Daniel Gluck, now 101, who has been Elizabeth’s friend since she was a child. (Gluck is an interesting name choice; one wonders if it came from the androgynous British artist of the 1930s.) Even then an old man, Gluck nourished the young girl’s thinking, led her to position art within the centre of her life.

28770Theirs are the central connections in a novel that often abandons linear time, where events appear and reappear, where references to the past and the future play with a semi-permanent now. Real-life characters enter the story, most notably the largely forgotten 60s British Pop artist, Pauline Boty, a tragic figure who adds an historical edge to the book.

Ali Smith’s Autumn never fails to churn the reader’s thinking. Her work, too, is grounded in innovation, with three more seasons to look forward to.

I encountered her once. It was the autumn of 2005, the day after watching the televised ceremony for that year’s Man Booker Prize, for which Smith’s novel The Accidental had been nominated. My wife and I were travelling the Underground in London, and who should be standing in the same car. . .  We were forward enough to attempt conversation, a very un-British thing to have done. She was pleasant if a bit embarrassed. Ours was the next stop, and likely she was relieved when we exited.

Should it happen again I would have so much more to talk about. Whisky, Hockney, Cinderella, Mun.

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The Cognac:  Cognac de Collection Jean GrosperrinFins Bois 1990

www.lagabare.com

The Books:  In Search of Lost Time: Vol. V, VI, and VII by Marcel Proust

As I head into the Proustian homestretch I think I’m in need of something special—a fine, aged cognac. French, fluent and gratifying.

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THE COGNAC

It’s a pool of bright amber in the glass, with a rich, pleasing nose, displaying citrus and floral notes, both subtle and classy. The palate is authoritative, tempered by a spicy, vanilla creaminess. Elegance with a maturing bite. (45.9% abv)

Cognac de Collection Jean Grosperrin is one of two brands marketed by La Gabare, one of the last family-owned cognac houses in France. La Gabare doesn’t actually make cognac. Rather, it buys quantities of the double-distilled spirit from the hundreds of winemakers in the Charente department of France (where the town of Cognac is located, and which holds the AOC designation for cognac). These are winemakers who over the years have skillfully distilled small amounts of cognac and often left them to mature for decades in their cellars. They are secret stores, backed by their own special stories, making up what Jean has called “the exceptional heritage that sleeps in the cellars of Charente.” Left unblended, they make for prize cognacs “that have their own distinctive personalities and which are made with family skills.” Skills which, sadly, have been lost in many modern estates.

Jean worked for many years as a cognac broker in the Charente department. The job allowed him access to the some of the region’s finest private stocks of maturing cognac. He decided to establish his own cognac house in 1992, with the philosophy of keeping the cognac he purchased intact, to allow it to mature further in their original barrels (or transfer it to “dames-jeannes” to halt maturation), to the time it was bottled, unblended, as vintage, single estate cognac. He felt “a true sense of urgency in the need to save just a few drops of this individual know-how, dating back 40 or 50 years to a time when the winegrower made all the decisions, without the knowledge and sophisticated techniques we have today.” It was in many ways a project to help preserve the cognac-making heritage of France.

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In 2004, with his health failing, Jean Grosperrin turned the business over to his son Guilhem. He has embraced his father’s artisanal philosophy, searching throughout the region for barrels of cognac bearing the elusive combination of “complexity and personality,” and with certifiable vintage. No easy task. Yet the Grosperrin stockpile of cognac amounts to the equivalent of over 80,000 bottles, some stock dating prior to 1940.

Our 1990 vintage comes from a small farm in Patreville, in the Fins Bois region of the  Charente department. It is from the 1990 wine harvest. Impressed by the quality of the cognac, the winegrower had set it aside. La Gabare purchased it in 2012 and prior to its bottling in 2016, it was further aged in Grosperrin’s cellars located on the banks of the Charente River in the community of Saintes.

For me, a fitting complement to Proust–inherent quality, nicely aged, with a distinct narrative.

THE BOOKS

Volume V:  THE PRISONER

The Prisoner has sometimes been translated as The Captive, but Albertine is more accurately Marcel’s prisoner. He has convinced her to come to Paris and live with him in the family apartment. His mother is conveniently away, but the long-standing family live-in servant Françoise is around, and none too pleased with the arrangement. Indeed it does seem odd that Albertine (with her guardian aunt turning a blind eye) should give herself over to Marcel’s erratic control. She is hardly let out of the place and when she does go off on her own it sets in motion Marcel’s raging jealousy, absolutely certain as he is that Albertine is having lesbian affairs.

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[from a 2011 film for French television by Nina Companéez, with Caroline Tillette as Albertine and Micha Lescot as Marcel]

His love for her does reach a fever pitch, but only when she’s away from him. Nor does Marcel actually seem capable of consummating his love for her. He seems most content observing her sleep. Marcel’s preoccupations make this the most bizarre segment of the entire book. I don’t think I am alone in thinking— for heaven’s sake, man, get yourself together and get on with your life.

It is a relief when the scene changes for an extended period and the narrator secrets himself away to the salon of Mme Verdurin, and we return to the social antics of Baron de Charlus. Morel, his on-again, off-again lover is there, impressing everyone gathered with his violin playing. But the Baron has irked the Verdurins by his control over the evening, and fireworks ensue. When Marcel finally returns home, a quarrel with Albertine erupts, spoiling the next two days, until finally Marcel wakes to find that his sometimes beloved has packed up and fled, leaving Marcel agonizing over what has gone wrong. Only Françoise is relieved that Albertine has finally seen the light. Well, Françoise and the reader.

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Volume VI:  THE FUGITIVE

Albertine is gone, but of course not forgotten. Marcel schemes to get her to return, but nothing works, not even an offer of 30,000 francs to her aunt if she can persuade Albertine to return to Paris. Nor does a hint to Albertine of a yacht and a Rolls-Royce. At his most frustrated, Marcel receives a telegram. Albertine has been in an accident. Thrown from her horse while riding, she struck a tree and was killed.

Marcel is swirling in grief. Yet he cannot help himself from searching deeper into Albertine’s life just passed. He discovers she has had numerous lesbian affairs. It adds a new dimension to his pain, although it is not long before he returns to his social circles. Who should he encounter but his old flame, Gilberte, the daughter of the now deceased Charles Swann. The young lady has come up in the world, her mother having remarried, to Baron de Forcheville this time, allowing her entry into the Guermantes clan. In addition she has inherited a fortune from a dead uncle, enough to make her one of the richest women in France.

Proust portraitIn the meantime, and on a refreshing note, Marcel and his mother finally make their much anticipated trip to Venice. Marcel is spellbound. The enchantment of the city is well-served by Prout’s prose. On the train back Marcel learns that Gilberte plans to marry Marcel’s old friend Robert Saint-Loup. Swann’s Way and Germinates Way have been united!

Lest the reader get too comfortable, Saint-Loup also turns out to be homosexual, or, as Proust delicately terms it, an invert. The object of his affection — Morel! The former lover of his uncle, the infamous, now declining Baron de Charlus.

Like Proust’s own world, it’s an all-consuming, passionate, jealousy-ridden, but ultimately minor, focus.

Volume VII:  FINDING TIME AGAIN

It is 1914 after all. Europe is at war. Young Frenchmen are being killed in their tens of thousands.

Yet, oddly, the book seems only marginally concerned. Marcel does lose his friend Saint-Loup to the fighting, but it is not something that preoccupies him for long. It seems secondary to the intricacies of relationships among the social elite. Marcel spends much of this time in a sanitarium, away from Paris, so his disconnect could be seen to be justified.

With the war over, Marcel returns to the city once again. The salons are still active, but the people have changed markedly. They are considerably older and closer to the inevitable. Baron de Charlus, especially, has not aged well. It leads to lengthy musings on death, a reflection of course of Proust’s concerns about his own demise. It makes for some of the most affecting passages in the book.

The narrator’s recollections of his past life, all the way back to the years in Combray with his mother, this ‘finding time again,’ is the catalyst he needs to begin, as a writer, to capture the life he has led, a life whose end he now knows is not far off. His world, as idle and and elitist as it has been at times, must be the stuff of his literary creation. Suddenly there is an urgency to get on with it. As he says, “It was high time.”

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These seven volumes (here published in six books) are proof of Proust’s determination. Years of lying in bed, writing doggedly through the night, constructing what many would argue is the foremost literary achievement of the 20th century.

In Search of Lost Time changed the face of fiction, making a sharp break from plot-driven narratives. It is all about the many facets of character, about introspection, about the role of memory in shaping the many aspects of our lives. Tedious at times, it nonetheless sustains our interest and admiration over its great length and through some of most intricate literary prose ever composed.

I have every belief Proust died a satisfied man.

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The Whisky:  EdduSilver Brocéliande

www.distillerie.fr

The Books:  In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III & IV by Marcel Proust

It’s month 2 of my 3-month Proustian quest to read his 7-volume mega-novel In Search of Lost Time. To lubricate the challenge I turn to a French whisky, distilled in Brittany, a part of France that Proust knew as a young beginning writer. Brittany inspires. I read and sip.

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THE WHISKY

It’s a cheery amber in the glass. Florals and vanilla oak on the nose. On the palate, engaging forest notes, lingering vanilla, all with a nutty, spicy bite. A pleasing cereal aftertaste that leaves you pondering what makes it different from anything you’ve tried before. (42% abv)

Maybe it’s the buckwheat! Eddu Silver Brocéliande is the only whisky in the world to be distilled entirely using buckwheat. Brittany’s own black buckwheat (blé noir in French, eddu in Breton).

The origins of Distillerie des Menhirs (named after the ancient standing stones common to the area) date back to 1921, when Francès Le Lay, the great-great grandmother of the present owners, began distilling and aging a hard cider brandy called lambig. That tradition passed down through the generations and in 1986 Guy Le Lay and his wife Marie Anne built the present distillery, initially for the production of cider, using only local ingredients, the distinctive Pommeau de Bretagne (with AOC designation since 1997).

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In 1998 they turned their attention to the distillation of whisky. But not just any whisky, rather one authentically Breton, using local buckwheat (at considerably more expense than barley). A separate building was constructed and a pot still acquired for whisky production alone. Their first buckwheat whisky, Eddu Silver, went on the market in 2002. Soon the three Le Lay sons were an integral part of the business.

Recently the even more idiosyncratic Eddu Silver Brocéliande came into production. Brocéliande is the fabled Paimpont forest of Brittany, where many of the Arthurian legends are said to have taken place, and where, if you looked hard enough, you might even find Merlin’s tomb. Distillerie des Menhirs sources oak from this magical, mythical domain and uses it to construct barrels for the secondary maturation of its Brocéliande whisky.

Buckwheat tenderized by The Lady of the Lake. Cheere! as medievals would say.

THE BOOKS

Volume III:  The Guermantes Way

I was not long into this book when I noticed an article on a news website detailing how a Canadian professor researching at the Centre National du Cinéma in Paris had uncovered what is believed to be the only known film footage of Marcel Proust. If it is indeed him, he is descending the steps of L’église de la Madeleine in Paris in 1904, following the high society marriage of Armand de Guiche and Elaine Greffulhe.

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Interesting that the church should be Madeleine, given how the madeleine, the French pastry, is forever associated with Proust. But more interesting is the fact that the Count and Countess Greffulhe, parents of the bride, were Proust’s inspiration for two central figures in this book, the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes.

The brief film clip is a further glimpse into how Proust, weaving solo down the steps past several richly garbed couples, was a part of this aristocratic milieu, but somewhat distinct from it. His pearl gray overcoat and bowler hat, favourite attire of Proust, is out of line with the black tuxedos and top hats of the other male guests.

At the beginning of Volume III the narrator moves into an apartment adjacent to the suites occupied by the Guermantes and is quickly enthralled by the prospect of becoming part of their social circle. Proust himself was constantly attracted to the salons of Parisian high society, and therefore it should be no surprise that they should occupy much of In Search of Lost Time. More than one hundred pages of The Guermantes Way is devoted to the personalities at play during a single visit to one such salon. A repertoire of diverse characters jostling for societal position make for engaging, but ultimately laughable scenes. Proust goes to great lengths, with his characteristically intricate sentences, to draw a sweeping group photograph of these characters. It does get tedious at times, as the Belle Époque itself must have been for the economic underclass which made up the majority of French citizens. The salon segments are at their most interesting when they touch on the famous real-life Dreyfus Affair, exposing the anti-Semitism that coursed through Parisian society at the time.

Volume III has its more universal and lasting moments, among them the death of Marcel’s much-loved grandmother, or when for a brief period the focus is on the clever Robert de Saint Loup and his army pals. But the class conscious Proust has mostly other preoccupations, so we need the thoroughly witty, thoroughly snobby Duchess, the painful Princess of Parma, and the grossly obnoxious Baron de Charlus, if the life of the salon is to come alive. They are all excellent reminders of why the French aristocracy of the day was on its last legs.

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Volume IV:  Sodom and Gomorrah

As the title suggests we’re in for forbidden sexual intrigue, much of it homosexual, albeit in language that reflects the guarded public discourse about the topic at the time of Proust.

The fourth volume of his masterwork opens with Charlus having his way with the much younger Jupien, something which the wide-eared narrator inadvertently overhears, confirming just what an insufferably fake the Baron is. It’s a storyline which is all the more intriguing when you know that Proust himself was gay, but went to great lengths to conceal it. His publisher, André Gide, thoroughly chided Proust for making his main character heterosexual. In fact, if you were to think of the narrator’s lovers as male, rather than female as they are portrayed, it would go a long way to understanding his behaviours. And a long way too in appreciating the frustrations Proust himself must have felt, plagued as he was by desires society would not permit him to exhibit. A friend of Oscar Wilde, Proust knew only too well the potential consequences of being open about his sexual direction.

Much of Volume IV is set back in the seaside resort of Balbec. The narrator’s love interest, Albertine, is not far away, as are the distasteful Verdurins, ensconced in a rented château and preoccupied with creating a rustic parallel to the salons of Paris. Pretension abounds, with the Baron de Charlus at the centre of much of it. The Baron has a new lover, the violinist Morel, but of course goes to great lengths to disguise the fact. The other relationships (and there are several of both sexual persuasions) are never anything but complicated. But, as we well know from the previous volumes, exploring the depths of human relationships is a strong suit of our man Proust.

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Now, for certain we understand the need for the cork-lined walls of the bedroom where Proust wrote and rewrote in his lined cahiers. He needed to be supremely focused if he were to translate his observations of the world he knew into this vastly perceptive, very long novel.

Three more volumes to go. Bring on another bottle of something French.

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The Calvados:  Lecompte – 12 years

www.calvados-lecompte.com

The Book:  In Search of Lost Time, Vol. I & II by Marcel Proust

There is nothing like a 7-volume / 3,000-page book to enlighten the dark days of winter. For this reading marathon I’ll need three months and three bottles of something wonderfully French. Since much of the first two volumes of Proust’s masterpiece is set in or near Normandy, the first pour will be a time-honoured calvados.

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THE CALVADOS

Nut brown in the glass, the contents release roasted hazelnut aromas infused with spice, notably cinnamon and nutmeg. Creamy and mouth-rich, it’s a caramelized apple, peppery compote showing a touch of fire. Complex and flavoursome. A delight.

No time lost here. All dozen years have worked together to bring this calvados to perfection. Lecompte certainly knows what it’s about.

Its history began in 1923 when Alexandre Lecompte, local trader in wine and spirits, decided to forgo his other holdings and focus on his store of well-aged calvados. Decades later, in 1980, Lecompte was purchased by Yves Pellerin, and is now one of the most acclaimed Maisons de Calvados in the Pays d’Auge, the region of Normandy which bears A.O.C. status for calvados.

3731933081Lecompte distillery, La Morinière, is located in the picturesque village of Notre-Dame de Courson, surrounded by apple orchards that produce some of the finest fruit in Normandy.  It uses double distillation in two traditional Charentais stills. Its eight cellars hold some 800 oak casks, all under the watchful eye of Richard Prével, a third-generation Cellar Master who has overseen operations at Lecompte for a quarter century.

The Lecompte line-up includes 5, 12, 18, and 25-year-olds, a couple of limited editions, and the ultra-premium Secret, a blend of over 100 individual batches, none any younger than 42 years, and with a few casks laid down at the time Lecompte was founded in 1923!

That’s just one year after the death of Marcel Proust.

THE BOOKS

Volume I: The Way by Swann’s (or Swann’s Way)

To understand In Search of Lost Time it helps to know something of the life of its author. From childhood to his death at age 51 Proust was plagued with asthma, and was seriously ill for much of his life, the last three years of which he spent confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping by day and completing his monumental novel at night, propped up in bed, using his knees for a desk. (The bedroom has been recreated in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.)

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He was something of a misfit. He embraced writing as his sole employment, a situation made less daunting by the fact he lived at home into adulthood and when, in his early 30s, his parents died he received a substantial inheritance. It gave him lots of time to read and contemplate the artistic life.

In his youth he spent long holidays in the village of Illiers (the model for the fictional Combray) and his student days gave him access to the upper levels of French society. He became enamoured with the so-called “salons” of the rich, earning him the reputation of being a social-climbing elitist. He was homosexual, but denied it throughout his life. All material for his fiction, of course. It could never reflect the life of the ordinary Frenchman, but would allow him penetrating analysis of upper crust of society in fin-de-siècle France.

The reader is fifty pages into the book before coming upon the famous scene when the petite scallop-shaped cake, the madeleine, is dipped in lime blossom tea. It triggers a flood of memories of his childhood holidays in the home of his eccentric great-aunt Léonie. He escapes to time past, to reflection well beyond surface detail, to extended moments of deep introspection.

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The opening section of Volume One unfolds over a summer in Combray, ostensibly from the perspective of young Marcel, although the viewpoint often switches, as it does throughout the novel, to that of an older narrator. The boy takes near daily walks in the direction of property belonging to Charles Swann, a rich stockbroker and friend of the family, or in the direction of a summer residence of the Guermantes, a bizarre family who inhabit the pinnacle of French society. Paris is where they live most of the year and it is there the reader will meet them again.

The book turns to the story of how Swann became entangled with Odette de Crécy, the woman who will eventually become his wife. Here we see to what lengths Proust will go to create a picture of personal relationships and their implications for shaping the society in which the characters are immersed. Proust is the master of intricate, though readable sentences, some of which go on for a half page or more. The reader enters the labyrinth, never knowing what verbal contortions the author will take before nicely disentangling himself and coming to a full stop. As a reader, there is no notion of resisting; you take the ride and learn to appreciate the multiple diversions along the way.

The fruit of the Swann marriage, the red-headed Gilberte, who made a brief appearance in Combray, resurfaces in Paris, in the Jardin des Champs Élysées, pursued by the now teenaged Marcel. It will be one of his many infatuations that never seem to go anywhere. Then again, plot was generally secondary to Proust. His concern was the passage of time, and our attempts to hold to what is invariably lost. Remember the author Proust spent much of his life resting, often in bed. He himself wasn’t going anywhere. He had vast amounts of time to reflect on where his limited life had taken him.

Volume II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s masterwork, which the translator called “Remembrance of Things Past” (now much discredited as a title), remained the standard for several decades after it was published in the 1920s. It is considered a classic of English translation and is still widely read. But recently other translators have taken on the task, with results that have been praised by critics who feel the newer versions are closer to what Proust intended.

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I started with Moncrieff (updated by Terence Kilmartin), augmenting the experience with a recent graphic novel version of Volume I, and  “Paintings in Proust” by Eric Karpeles, a book which brings together the multitude of artwork referenced through the six volumes.

Then, partway through reading the second volume, I switched to the James Grieve version, part of a multi-translator edition first published in the UK in 2002. Though I occasionally found the word choice too current, I took to it immediately. To me the book breathed more easily.

“In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” the title Grieve gave his Volume II  (a mindset away from Moncrieff’s awkward “Within a Budding Grove”), immediately sets the focus. Marcel is in love, especially with a troop of adolescent girls who wander about the beach at Balbec, in Normandy, where much of this segment of the book is set.

First though there is his further pursuit of the Swann daughter, Gilberte. The love is unrequited and eventually Marcel comes to his senses (or as much as he is capable) and sets her aside, turning instead to his friendship with her parents, who continue to prove to be an enigmatic pair.

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The scene changes to Balbec (based on the resort town of Cabourg, and above depicted in Nina Companeez’s 2011 television adaptation of the novel). In Balbec an older, though seemingly no wiser, Marcel (still under the wing of his grandmother) quickly turns to a new love interest, several in fact. The “gang,” as Grieve calls them, are an inducement for Marcel to schedule outings beyond the hotel that will give him the best chance of encountering the girls. The painter Elstir is something of a help in getting to know them. A newfound aristocratic friend Robert de Saint-Loup, as much as Marcel admires him, proves a distraction. As does the reemergence of another acquaintance from Volume I, Albert Bloch. Bloch is Jewish and threads of anti-Semitism begin to take hold in the novel, another angle in the depiction of the French bourgeoisie at the time of Proust.

Marcel has settled on Albertine Simonet as his love for life. She has not settled on him. The narrative weaves in and out of the relationship, Proust using any incident that arises along the way as a route to an ever wider analysis of it, analysis that is at times so far-ranging that we can easily lose sight of where Proust is taking us.

Marcel Proust

Of course he is taking us anywhere he wants, and that is sometimes the frustration, but more often the pleasure of the book. Incident evokes conjecture, which turns into scrutiny of character, and thus speculation on the direction the French society was headed.

Encasing it all is the masterly Proust prose. Two thousand pages of which remain. I’m eager to press on.

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The Whisky:  GlenmorangieMilsean

www.glenmorangie.com

The Books:  Doppler by Erlend Loe and Hash by Torgny Lindgren

Outside it’s definitely a white Christmas. Treetops are glistening. It’s time for a dram that’s sherried and bright. And for clever Nordic books, reindeer-like.

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THE WHISKY

Out of the Christmasy candy-striped packaging and into the glass comes a splash of amber gold, with hues of orange and red. Sweet aromas of candied florals, fruit and spice. A bright nectar mélange. On the palate, a rounded alcoholic bite, cinnamon overlaying a warming mix of dried fruit. A distinct, but measured sweetness. A dram for all seasons, but extra special at Yuletide.

Founded in 1843 and located in Tain, Scotland (about an hour’s drive north of Inverness), Glenmorangie distills some of the biggest-selling single malts in the world, with an annual production of about six million litres. The distillery is noted for having the tallest pot stills in Scotland, at some 5+ metres. Glenmorangie is owned by the luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. And, like Ardbeg, also owned by LVMH, it is notable for stepping outside its core range and marketing some distinctive special editions.

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Milsean (Gaelic for ‘sweet things’) is the seventh release in Glenmorangie’s Private Edition series. As the name implies, the scale this time has tipped toward sweetness.

dr-billThe much-admired and innovative Dr Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling at both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, tags it ‘…a whisky recalling a bygone era.’ Adding that ‘a glass of Milsean transports me straight to an old-fashioned sweet shop.’

Unlike in other years, Lumsden was not the one responsible for the creation of this 2016 special release. That job fell to Brendan McCarron who had recently joined Glenmorangie as head of maturing whisky stocks. He is considered the heir apparent to Lumsden.

glenmorangie-va-nhung-bi-an-ngot-ngao-tu-scotland-2Bourbon-matured spirit was transferred to French oak barriques that originally held Portuguese red wine and that had been heavily toasted to draw out the sweeter notes in the wood. The original time frame for finishing the whisky was five years, but was cut to two and a half when the whisky reached its intended profile early and was running the risk of taking on too much of an oak influence. Removed from the barriques and vatted together for a final six months, Milsean was released two years ahead of schedule.

McCarron is justly pleased. His boss is pleased. The whisky has garnered an array of kudos for them both.

THE BOOKS

Erlend Loe is a Norwegian author, well-known in Scandinavia, and increasingly so in other parts of the world. Doppler was a roaring success in Norway when it was published in 2004. Release of an English translation (by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) happened eight years later.

sek-person-scid-1308Doppler is a middle-aged man who recently lost his father, and who gives his skull a smack in a bicycle accident. The combination prompts a major shift in his world view. He uproots from Oslo central and sets up a tent in a forest that overlooks the city, leaving behind a wife and two children, as well as easy access to the essentials, including food.

Sustenance comes in the shape of an elk (a moose in the Canadian edition), which he felled in his new forest home. The elk has left behind a calf which Doppler, after some internal debate, befriends and names Bongo. The calf adapts, while the human protagonist quietly rages against what he sees as the absurdities of modern life.

Doppler never fully disentangles himself from his former self. Some of the most engaging interaction in the book is with his young son who comes to live with him for a time, and with his teenaged daughter who is obsessed by the ‘Lord of the Rings’ film. I’ve witnessed Loe reading that latter part, to deadpan perfect effect.

The novel is short, offbeat, and subversive. It moves past satirical entertainment to purposeful rumination on the world we build for ourselves. I want more Nordic eccentricity in my Christmas.

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So there’s Hash by Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren.

An unfortunate title translation perhaps, since the reference is not to cannabis, but to a rustic (some would say vile) animal-offal foodstuff not unlike haggis. Swedish hash, and the search for its ‘finest’ expression, comes to be at the centre of a cleverly outlandish story (translated by Tom Geddes) involving a 1940’s epidemic of tuberculosis and a travelling fabric salesman, Robert Maser, who might or might not be the Nazi war criminal Martin Boorman.

The tale is told by an 107-year-old former reporter who in his nursing home is finally released from a decades-old silence imposed by a former editor who had accused him of fabricating his newspaper articles. He’s off then to tell the story he’d left unfinished all those years before, though of course, we can never really know where the truth of the tale lies.

In post-war Sweden TB is rampant, and no more so than in the village of Avabäck. Arriving to teach school is Lars Hagström, a young man cured of TB who’s now immune to the disease. He teams up with Maser, also immune, who shares his interest in vocal music, and in hash. They set off into the Swedish countryside to find the best hash made, which swells to an exploration of the deeper meaning of hash in a troubled world. For readers who might not be inclined towards hash when the novel begins, the story would seem to go out of its way to reinforce any aversion. The crowning hash is the creation of the most physically foul character that I’ve had described to me in a long time.

torgnyLindgren, one of Sweden’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and one of the most recognized internationally, has said of his writing, ‘I lack the disposition for realism: as soon as I have managed to put together a suitable number of realistic people…they start to fiddle about, they behave as if they had never before been in contact with real life…’ Even though Lindgren himself suffered from TB as a child, and in fact inserted himself as that child at one point in the novel, the story escapes the constraints of realism to become something surreal and excitingly ambiguous, and, shall we say, gustatorily textured. It helps to have a flavourful dram at hand to ease past the hash.

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The Whisky:  Reisetbauer Single Malt7 years

www.reisetbauer.at

The Books:  A Whole Life and The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

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These books needed a compatriot, a nonconformist who found in his Austrian homeland something that translates well far beyond its borders.

THE WHISKY

Once past the mundane label, the light amber-coloured whisky comes into its own. An offbeat nose of wine-charged muskiness, circling about nuts and chocolate and spice. After advancing with a certain amount of trepidation, a swish about the mouth reveals an earthy brew mixing cereal notes with hops and well-aged fruit. A catchy alcoholic bite. A lingering funky warmth. An odd one this, memorable but not for the purists. (abv 43%)

Hans Reisetbauer had established a stellar reputation as a distiller of fruit schnapps when in 1995 he decided to try his hand at single malt whisky, one of the very first entrepreneurs in Austria to do so. He aimed for a distinctly Austrian take on the dram.

hans_reisetbauer_2010_4aHe set aside four hectares of his farmland in Axberg, northern Austria, to grow his own barley. Both malting and the 70-hour fermentation took place on site. He undertook double distillation in copper pot stills that had been modified to his specifications in order to fully capture the distinct aromas Reisetbauer wanted in the whisky. And, eschewing the tradition of ex-bourbon or sherry maturation, he directed the double-distilled spirit to casks from two of Austria’s top winemakers, casks that once held Austrian Chardonnay or the country’s famous sweet wine Trockenbeerenauslese. He waited until 2002 before bringing his first whisky to market.

The grapes used to make Trockenbeerenauslese are harvested after they have succumbed to noble rot, so the trace of botrytis in the whisky is entirely legitimate. There are other unexpected aromas and tastes, but there is no denying the whisky is distinct and makes a proud statement of being in a class of its own. Not to everyone’s taste, but whisky making is now a multi-cultural mix, and this Austrian distillery has tailored a place for itself. Reisetbauer subsequently released a limited edition 12-year-old, with a much classier label (see photo), and now a 15-year-old.

THE BOOKS

Vienna-born Robert Seethaler‘s A Whole Life is clear demonstration that a brief novel (in this case just shy of 150 pages) can tell a monumental story with remarkable impact. Seethaler traces the life of a rugged mountain labourer, from childhood in the first decade of the 20th century to the height of manhood, to decline into old age. Andreas Egger’s end, like his beginning, is lived largely out of sight of the forces of modernization.

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To anyone weaned on brash, plot-driven novels constructed to corral the reader’s attention, this book will seem tame fare. But it is richer for its simplicity, its modest, yet unpredictable pacing. The writing is forthright; the craft is there, without ever making a show of itself. A Whole Life is, above all, strikingly perceptive, encapsulating what matters in the life of one person, and in doing so speaking to each one of us. It is the universal writ small, resonating large.

As a four-year old, the orphaned Egger arrives by horse cart in a mountain village and at the doorstep of a heartless, oftentimes sadistic uncle. He endures a brutal boyhood until he is old and muscled enough to retaliate. He strikes out on his own, slow to speak, burdened by a permanent limp, yet willful and graced with exceptional physical strength. He finds hard work and love; tragedy and war find him.

The novel is enriched by a mountain landscape more powerful than the stoic man who inhabits it. When an avalanche brings great adversity, Egger works his way past what would have defeated a lesser man, building and reinforcing his own path through life. What more is there for him?  For any of us?

avt_robert-seethaler_1482It is a novel to hold on to and reread. As is the recently released The Tobacconist, the second of Robert Seethaler’s four novels to be translated into English.

The year is 1937. Arriving in Vienna from the Austrian hinterland is the youthfully innocent Franz Huchel. At 17 he’s been apprenticed to the tobacconist Otto Trsnyek. He knows nothing of the trade, but before long settles into the daily routine of reading the newspapers for sale in the shop and sorting out the idiosyncrasies of the customers who regularly drop by.

One of them is an impatient, aged Jewish professor, Sigmund Freud. And in due course he and Franz become friends and confidants. Franz needs help sorting out his amorous misadventures with an erratic Bohemian girl Anezka. Freud enjoys the company and the cigars the young man brings with him.

But more serious situations loom. Without warning there are Nazis in the streets and the Gestapo lurks in the doorways of ordinary citizens who happen to be Jews. As the tobacconist goes missing and Freud and his family prepare to escape the country, Franz has decisions to make about how to deal with the menace that threatens his own life.

A marginally longer novel, The Tobacconist is written with the same restraint and attention to telling detail that distinguished A Whole Life. Its timeframe is much shorter, but its impact is no less.

These are two exceptional novels, expertly translated into English by Charlotte Collins. Hopefully she is in the wings, ready to translate more.

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