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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Tag Archives: Kevin Major

The Bourbon:  Booker’s

www.bookersbourbon.com

The Book:  The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

Booker Noe was a one-of-a-kind distiller, Eric Hoffer a one-of-a-kind philosopher. Together, can they ever help me understand how Trump ended up President?

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Straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered, Booker’s is pure orange-mahogany and, at a whopping 64% abv, not to be intimidated. Intense nose  of caramel, oak, and nutty rye. Lots of sweet heat in the mouth, complex waves of wood and spice. An outlier. A tough Southern charmer. (batch 2015-15, aged 6 yrs 7 mths)

THE BOURBON

Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam, was master distiller at Beam distilleries in Clermont and Boston, Kentucky from 1965-1992. He liked to choose favourite barrels from the centre (fifth and sixth floors) of the rackhouse, where he believed the temperature and humidity made for perfect maturation, and from these bottle a little bourbon for his family and friends. In 1988 the idea went public and Booker’s Bourbon was born. It revived interest in premium bourbon. After he retired Booker travelled widely as a Beam ambassador, telling stories about his Kentucky roots, a glass of his beloved Booker’s never far out of reach. He was 6 ft. 4, of ample girth, a straight-talking man with a ready smile, full of homespun wisdom. When he died in 2004 he was already a legend.

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Booker’s is one of four “small batch” bourbons marketed by Jim Beam, together with Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden. It’s generally considered the best of the bunch, although each has its champions. Jim Beam, the world best selling bourbon brand, is now under the umbrella of Japan’s Suntory Holdings, but Beam decendants are still very much in evidence. Booker’s son Fred is now the master distiller, carrying on the tradition of releasing premium products that stir up the market. Booker’s Rye, the first rye whiskey under the Booker’s brand was named “World Whiskey of the Year” in the 2017 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

Booker would be proud.

Would he have voted for Trump? He strikes me as a man who bucked the system, and Kentucky went 62.5% in favour of the Republicans, carrying all eight electoral seats. I’d give Booker the benefit of the doubt. I won’t let it stand in the way of a good slug of his bourbon.

THE BOOK

Eric Hoffer was born in New York City in 1898. His parents had emigrated from Alsace, then part of Germany. Hoffer learned to read at an early age but when he was 7 he suddenly went blind and for the next 8 years remained that way, never returning to school. When he suddenly regained his sight, he devoured books, fearful he might go blind once again. Hoffer was a self-taught man, had no academic training, spending much of his working life as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. He didn’t marry and in his off hours could often be found in the public library. He filled countless notebooks with his own thoughts about what he read. From 1951 to the time of his death in 1983, he published ten books on moral and social philosophy. His first remains his best known — The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

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Interest in the book spiked when Dwight Eisenhower listed Hoffer as his favourite author. Sixty-five years later Hilary Clinton was distributing copies to her staff during her campaign for president. Needless to say, Trump wasn’t. His acolytes would have recognized Hoffer’s description of a mass-movement leader:

Exceptional intelligence, noble character and originality seem neither indispensable nor perhaps desirable. The main requirements seem to be: audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials); unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; a recognition that the innermost craving of a following is for communion and that there can never be too much of it…

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I came to this book after seeing repeated references in articles that attempted to explain how a bombastic reality show host / real estate tycoon with no political experience massed a following big enough to send him to the White House. Although the book moves about in various directions, my own interest spiked when I read, as I did time and time again, hypotheses that seem to fit Trump to a capital T.

The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world. . . .There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts.” 

The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense.

Hoffer’s book was written shortly after the end of WWII, with the rise of Nazism and Fascism still fresh in the author’s mind. They serve as ready reference, but so does Christianity and Islam, and an array of other political revolutions. What’s fascinating is the thesis that there are common elements underlying all mass movements (no matter if they end up for the good or not), often a reflection of the human willingness to turn a blind eye to reason.

Hoffer style is terse, with a steady stream of aphorisms. He packs a lot into a page, so much so that it is an effort to retain all the points he makes. I took to adding check marks in the margins, at points I would return to…

All mass movements, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, reverent hope, hatred, and intolerance.

Sobering.

 

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The Pastis:  Henri Bardouin

www.distilleries-provence.com

The Books: Suspended Sentences and Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

France has had it hot this summer. I suspect there’s been a lot of sipping of that favoured French summer drink — pastis. Where I live, an August not quite so hot, but made for a sip of pastis, together with a pair of books set in Paris and Provence.

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THE PASTIS

Most prefer it with water, often as an aperitif. I take it chilled and neat. Straw yellow in the glass, with herbaceous green highlights. On the nose, a potent aromatic mix, liquorice/star anise holding forth. On the palate, the anise stands its ground, surrounding a complex, intriguing infusion of 65(!) plants and spices, among them cardamon, mint, rosemary, chamomile, wild thyme, mugwort, lemon verbena, kidney vetch, borage, garden angelica, grains of paradise. Some summer days I relish a vigorous, inspired aniseed drink, (as I did this year on the day a partial solar eclipse did a colander-cut across the bottle). (45% abv)

Pastis is the French branch of the family of anise-flavoured spirits. Others include sambuca, ouzo, arak, raki (see the blog entry for January 2015), and mastika. The mix of the multitude of plants and spices to be found in Henri Bardouin pastis is the creation of Distilleries et Domaines de Provence, located in Forcalquier, a small town in the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in southeastern France. The distillery was established in 1898, refining the centuries-old tradition of making tonics and digestifs from the abundance of medicinal plants to be found in the terroir of the Montagne de Lure. Pastis means “mixture” in the Provençal language, and while all makers of pastis combine many different ingredients (foraged locally or imported), none use so many with quite the same refinement.

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The dried plants and spices are first macerated, each in its own optimal quantity of alcohol, at a strictly-regulated temperature and duration of maceration. Distillation follows, again the approach varying from one plant or spice to another. And finally the various flavour components are brought together, in a precise order dictated by decades of experience.

It makes for an uninhibited drink of earthy proportions.

THE BOOKS

When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, much of the literary world outside France was left confounded. Few Anglo-American readers knew anything about the author, given that only a handful of his many published works had been translated into English, and most of these were long out of print.

Publishers rushed to catch up. Suspended Sentences brings together three novellas from 1988-1993. It has been said of Modiano that “he is perhaps the most repetitive novelist in world literature.” There is a distinctive similarity among this trio, indicative of the style and preoccupations that fill the author’s total literary output since his first book was published in 1968.

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If there is a starting point to understanding Madiano’s work it is his discovery of his own father’s past during the WWII Nazi occupation of France. A Jew in Paris, he refused to wear the yellow star, and was detained by the Gestapo, Auschwitz his likely fate. However, he was released due to the intervention of a friend. As an older teenager, his son (born in 1945) came to the realization that his father survived the war because he did business on the black market and was associated with the Rue Lauriston gang, the French criminal underworld in league with the Gestapo.

It is a circumstance that underlies the whole of Modiano’s fiction. Though his writing might surround itself with the Paris of the post-war period, it consistently turns back to the Nazi era, seeking, but never finding, a satisfying understanding of it. It is fiction with the author never far removed from a storyline shaped by inadequate memory, overlaid with a directionless melancholy, while thinly embodying the genre of the detective novel.

The three novellas — Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin — are portraits of Paris, of its streets and cafés, and the secretive lives lived behind its shuttered windows. It is fiction that weaves in and out of stories, never with a firm grasp, struggling to makes sense of a fragmented past. Fiction fascinating in its momentary detail, and fascinating as variation on a single theme.

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Honeymoon (1990) opens in a stiflingly hot Milan in August. At a hotel bar to escape the heat before catching a train to Paris, a documentary film-maker, Jean, learns that a Frenchwoman, Ingrid, has committed suicide in the hotel two days before. And he is astounded to discover that, as a young man of 20 hitchhiking in the south of France, he had encountered the very same woman, together with her lover Rigaud.

Jean casts aside his film plans and disappears into the outskirts of Paris, in pursuit of the story behind Ingrid’s death. Not surprisingly, to those who know Modiano’s work, it leads back to the time the Nazis occupied the city. And in this case also to Provence where Ingrid and her lover had escaped on the pretext of a ‘honeymoon.’

The fragility and inconclusiveness of the story is to be expected of Madiano, and to be relished. His words, spare and illusory, never quite reach a point of clarity, assuredly capturing the desolation of its human narrative. The novel circles the unknowable, exposing the entanglements of memory. It is fleeting and evocative, as atmospheric as a ‘film noir’ scene set in a Parisian café along an all but deserted street in the 1940s.

 

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The Whiskey:  Teeling Single Malt

www.teelingwhiskey.com

The Book:  The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

A few years ago I met Anne Enright at a literary festival. I have since regretted not asking her if she drank whiskey, and if indeed she had a favourite. I’m thinking a yes on both counts. And given she was born in Dublin, and, now lives just south of the city, that Teeling (the “Spirit of Dublin”) would be a sound guess.

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THE WHISKEY

A golden light glow in the glass. A subtle nose of fruit and oak. Fresh and inviting. It shines on the palate — dark fruit compote in balance with warm, rich spice, yet open and airy. Pleasingly integrated, with thinly oiled mouth feel. A tasteful burn lingers to a slow spicy fade. Strikingly good. (46% abv, non-chillfiltered, natural colour)

Teeling Distillery comes with a wealth of family history. The Teeling name can be traced to whiskey production as far back as 1782, when Walter Teeling established a distillery on Marrowbone Lane in Dublin. It is not far from Newmarket Square, where, in 2015, two brothers, Jack and Stephen Teeling, opened the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years. It is the sole distillery in a city that could once boast more than three dozen, the last of which closed 40 years ago.

Whiskey distilling is in the Teeling blood. Their father, John, founded the Cooley Distillery (known for such  brands as Connemara and The Tyrconnell) in 1987, eventually selling it in 2011 to Beam International (now Bean Suntory). Son Jack retained 16,000 barrels of aged whiskey as part of the sale agreement and with it the Teeling Whiskey Company was launched. (Hence, the choice of a phoenix rising from a pot still as the company logo.)

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With the new distillate maturing, Teeling worked with its aged stock to release several whiskies, all at an impressive 46% abv and aiming for the premium market. Among the core range of three is Teeling Single Malt, blended from whiskey (including some distilled in 1991) that has been finished in five different wine casks — Sherry, Port, Madeira, Cabernet Sauvignon and White Burgundy. The bold experiment works wonderfully well.

It’s indicative of the brothers’ philosophy of respecting the heritage of Irish whiskey while confidently taking a new path to produce whiskies that are clearly their own. They have turned a few heads in the process. They are part of a new wave of Irish whiskey that has drawn kudos worldwide. The phoenix flies high.

THE BOOK

At the literary festival Anne Enright read the opening pages of The Forgotten Waltz. It was as fascinating an author reading as I’ve witnessed.

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The thorny wit of Gina, the novel’s narrator, is scattered throughout an unrepentant account of her adulterous affair with Seán, a fellow Gina first spies in those opening pages. She catches sight of him from across her sister’s back garden, in the evening light of a summer barbecue, “at the moment the day begins to turn.” Gina’s take on her subsequent adultery is wry and guiltless. In tone it’s a distinct shift away from what we have come to expect of most novelists.

But it is the early years of the 21st century after all. Ireland is booming, though the prick of the bubble is not far off. Gina works in IT (“sort of”) and observes, through her skeptic’s lens, the over-extended lifestyles that have implanted themselves around her. She is ill-content with her marriage to Conner, and willing to lead herself out of it, working through the new scenario without much of a plan. “I can’t be too bothered here with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn’t make sense.” It never does, and that’s what’s likeable, and honest about the novel. We’re never quite sure if Gina is capable of overriding perceptions of what’s going on in her life.

If there are down-to-earth moments in the whole tangle of relationships they belong to Evie, Seán’s daughter by his first wife. It is Evie that Gina comes to terms with, in the end, in a way she can’t seem to with the others. Perhaps it is because she is what Gina once was — a young woman with a whole uncertain life ahead of her.

CroppedImage680680-Enright-Anne-Credit-Hugh-Chaloner-webAnne Enright was the 2007 Booker Prize winner for The Gathering, a novel about a woman trying to come to terms with her brother’s suicide. Four years later came The Forgotten Waltz. Her most recent is The Green Road, a story of family spanning thirty years. Her subjects are diverse, unpredictable, with writing that is sharp and original, and with characters that ring deeply true. She is not to be missed.

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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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