Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gazpacho is Not the Only Soup, with apologies to Jeanette Winterson

With tomatoes ripening on the vine a young girl’s thoughts naturally turn to gazpacho, but with some leftover roast my soupish thoughts wandered further east. Vietnamese food is a fragrant study in contrasts. 

This soup starts with a combination of chicken and beef broth and oyster sauce infused with ginger, anise, cloves, cinnamon and fennel seeds. Rice noodles are soaked for about 20 minutes in cold water before they are boiled for two minutes. The broth is strained to remove the aromatics; the noodles are portioned into serving bowls, in goes the broth, some bean sprouts, slices of beef, all topped with chopped scallion greens and fresh basil and coriander. This is not a first date soup as there will be a lot of unseemly slurping. Light, but satisfying, it’s more a friendly, I’ve-seen-you-first-thing-in-the-morning kind of soup.
The long and the short of it
Autobiographies fascinate me, so it’s hardly surprising that I’m a sucker for a novel that assumes this form. I’ve read a lot of them: William Boyd’s The New Confessions, Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, and of course the granddaddy of them all Tristam Shandy, but Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger is a revelation.
Taut throughout where these others occasionally lapse into turgid detail, Claudia Hampton tells us the history of everything including herself from her hospital deathbed. She makes no excuses, pushes away all sentimental comforts and exposes wounds as keen during her last days as when they were inflicted decades before. She isn’t always likeable and she sometimes gets things wrong. In short she is fully human. I imagine her remembering some deliciously barbed comment she made, and demanding with Leigh Hunt that 

“Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!”
I don’t read a lot in translation, but the TLS recommended Javier Marias’ collection of short stories While the Women Are Sleeping, and because it specifically mentioned a couple ghost stories I had to give it a try. An Epigram of Fealty, while not specifically ghostly reminded me of M.R. James, as did The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban. But while the subject matter varied among these stories, the writing style did not, which may be a fault of the translation. Or not. I don’t know. It’s not without interest, but was for me more like a jar of something I wouldn’t really want to eat I’d pick up to examine out of curiosity, rather than an inviting dish.

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