The Cognac: Cognac de Collection Jean Grosperrin – Fins Bois 1990
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
In 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.”
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.
Tags: cognac, Finding Time Again, Fins Bois 1990, Grosperrin Cognac d Collection, Guilhem Grosperrin, In Search of Time Past, Jean Grosperrin, Kevin Major, La Gabare, Marcel Proust, The Fugitive, The Prisoner
The Whisky: Eddu – Silver Brocéliande
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Calvados: Lecompte – 12 years
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.
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.
Lecompte 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tags: 12 years, calvados, In Search of Lost Time, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, James Grieve, Lecompte, Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, Scott Moncrieff, Swann's Way, The Way by Swann's
The Whisky: Glenmorangie – Milsean
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
Bourbon-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.
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.
Doppler 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.
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.
Lindgren, 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.
The Whisky: Reisetbauer Single Malt – 7 years
The Books: A Whole Life and The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
These books needed a compatriot, a nonconformist who found in his Austrian homeland something that translates well far beyond its borders.
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.
He 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.
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.
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?
It 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.
The Whisky: Johnnie Walker – Double Black
The Book: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
There’s plenty of 1970s-era whisky drunk in this novel, much of it Johnnie Walker. But if I’m going to take on Johnnie Walker, then my choice will have to be more character-driven than its regular blends.
Light orange amber in the glass, with a subtle, slightly smoky nose. Some fruit, some oak — all good, if understated. On the palate the smoke rises though the creamy semi-sweetness. Slow, soft burn. Likely as smooth a peated whisky as you’d meet. Johnnie Walker with a tempered but lingering Islay attitude. (40% abv)
Is there a country on the planet where you wouldn’t find Johnnie Walker? It’s the most widely distributed blended Scotch in the world, with annual sales approaching 200 million bottles. That’s a lot of smooth, consistent, quality product.
Double Black is about as surprising as it gets. First introduced in select travel markets, it met with immediate success and was added to the core range in 2011. By doubling down on the peated malts found in JW’s long-standing Black Label, master blender Jim Beveridge was able to appeal to the increasing segment of whisky drinkers who lean towards a smokier dram.
Using the same 40 malt and grain whiskies found in the Black Label mix, Beveridge significantly upped the percentage of Coal Ila and Talisker (both, like JM, owned by spirits giant Diaego) and did some adjusting to the other malts. JW bumped up the price from the Black Label, introducing a shiny black, translucent bottle that stands out from the others in the core range. Clever marketing, but also a fine and clever whisky that, despite its non-age statement, looks very sharp in the sleek Johnnie Walker line-up.
It has often been said that the Vietnam War is the first war in history to have its story written by the loser rather than the winner, ironically the war Americans most wish to forget. We know the books, the movies, the Broadway musical. What The Sympathizer does first and foremost, is bring an overdue, fresh perspective to the war, giving voice to the generally voiceless Vietnamese fighters.
Debut novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam but grew up in the United States. He has a foot in both countries, and like the Captain, his novel’s unnamed narrator, the author is in a unique position to see the war from both angles. This is clear from the opening lines: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. …I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” It sets the course for an intense tragicomedy, a multi-layered, ultimately devastating narrative.
Situated dead centre in the chaos of the April 1975 American evacuation of Saigon, the first 65 pages leave the heart pounding. The Captain, right-hand man to a General leading the South Vietnamese in support of the Americans, is the one to decide who among his compatriots will be left behind and who gets to board the last U.S. flights struggling to make it off the tarmac amid enemy bombardment. Only when the scene shifts, first to Guam and then California, does the reader breathe and assess what the author has set before us: historical realism, espionage, social satire, meditation on war.
The novel is bookended by intense scenes of escape and torture. Between them, it refocuses several times, including when the narrator is hired as a consultant for a movie being made about the war (a movie which bears a strong resemblance to “Apocalypse Now,” as does its director to Francis Ford Coppola).
Meanwhile the Vietnamese escapees drift bored and frustrated in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Gradually the General sets in motion a plot to return to their homeland and overthrow the communist government. It is doomed to failure of course, but the attempt to bring it about proves as intriguing as if it did have a chance of success.
The Sympathizer is many things, but like any novel of war, it is an account of shifting moral ground. There can be no ultimate resolution. The Captain’s struggle for survival is what there is, but it is more than enough to hold the reader to this striking, justly important novel.
The Whisky: Embrujo de Granada
The Book: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I’ve decided it’s about time to take on thick, classic works of fiction that over the years have slipped by me unread. First up, that knight-errant of La Mancha. Along for the adventure is a Spanish malt whisky in a hand-painted ceramic bottle. It would fit quite comfortably in Sancho Panza’s saddlebag.
Soft, bright mahogany in the glass, and on the nose baked spice overlaying honeyed floral notes. Pleasantly sweet and creamy on the palate.The sherry aging has served it very well. Excellent Spanish whisky at 40% abv.
Embrujo de Granada is the star product of Destilerias Liber and the creation of Fran Peregrina, a chemical engineer whose heart found a home in the making of whisky with an Andalusian influence. Founded in 2001, the distillery was only the second in the country to produce whisky (the other being DYC) and the first to make a single malt.
Located in Padul, just outside Granada, it draws on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada for its water supply. The climate (chilly winters and hot, hot summers) plays a definite part in what finally ends up in its bottles, though not as much as the maturation in select ex-sherry casks of American oak, some of which have held the best Jerez for twenty years.
The malted barley is Spanish as well (from Albacete), as are the copper stills. These unusual flat-bottomed stills were designed by Fran Peregrina himself, and crafted by a local artisan. This version of Embrujo de Granada is a limited edition. Its ceramic bottle (with a hand painted pomegranate, symbol of Granada) salutes the centuries old pottery traditions of the city.
All in all, Peregrina has taken the techniques of Scottish distillation and let the Spanish terroir and heritage have its say. The result is a well-made, thoroughly pleasing sherried dram. One worthy of a classic partner.
I once read a 200-page abridged edition of Don Quixote. Shame I didn’t take the time to bring myself to the whole marvel, rather than a cut-rate version. The relatively recent and much-lauded translation by Edith Grossman offered the perfect prod to return to the book, and this time take on the 900+ pages. That led to the gift of a second, older translation by John Ormsby, a fine press version printed with marvellous woodcuts by Enric-Cristobal Ricart. I fell under a double spell.
Often billed as the first modern novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha was published in two parts, the first in 1605 and the second a decade later. Four centuries on, my reading of Cervantes proved a constant surprise, the multiple approaches to the story not being what I expected of 17th century writing. In the second part of the novel Cervantes cleverly plays the story against an unauthorized sequel that had been published in the Spanish city of Tarragona in 1614 (by an unscrupulous writer named Avellaneda). It has the scent of postmodernism.
The sublime contrast, in physical make-up and worldview, between Don Quixote and his donkey-riding squire Sancho Panza is the driving force of the novel. Often hilarious, it builds, perilous adventure after perilous adventure, to an ending that is unexpectedly bittersweet and deeply moving.
Don Quixote, the idiosyncratic romantic, the lanky knight-errant atop his haggard steed Rosinante is a man for all time. His squire’s earthy witticism, in parallel with Quixote’s naive rhetoric, echoes through a richly imagined narrative. Their escapades, to win the favour of the knight’s illusory lady love Dulcinea, brings the reader face-to-face with a host of characters — goatherders, friars, criminals, prostitutes, slaves, an odious pair of aristocratic pranksters. No wonder translators are lured back to it again and again.
Edith Grossman’s 2004 version maintains a contemporary readability without ever sacrificing the feel of 17th century Spain. It is a tough translation trick and Grossman has done the modern reader a great service, as did Ormsby for his generation when that translation was first published in 1885. It is still fluid today, and blended with Ricart’s woodcuts, the 1933 Limited Editions Club printing is a standout.
So, after several decades of putting it off, Don Quixote won me over, and decisively. The Embrujo de Granada added to the experience, all the while keeping in mind that the classic is a classic all on its own.