Sunday, July 19, 2015

Summer, Beaches, James Salter and Irwin Shaw

It's deep summer now, a season that reminds me when I'm far from home, as I am now, of American beaches, especially those in New Jersey and on eastern Long Island.

And thinking about beaches on Long Island, the lunch picnics, and the evening barbecues, often reminds me of a favorite writer who spent his summers there, the short story writer James Salter, a poet of such things who died last month.  Once at a dinner he and I spoke about another writer, Irwin Shaw.  Readers of this blog may have read Shaw's much-anthologized "Girls in Their Summer Dresses," but likely little else.

Shaw is largely forgotten now, his literary achievements oddly overshadowed by the enormous commercial success of his late novels, and yet his short stories not only hold up but are superb.  In Salter's gorgeous if pointillistic memoir, "Burning the Days," he offers a remembrance of Shaw.  This morning, again, I took his memoir down from the shelf and read:

Time with its broad thumb has blurred nothing. He was forty-eight that year and already late for a dinner he was going to on Avenue Foch. He gave me the address—come afterwards for coffee, he said. A few minutes later, paying the bill, he left. Thus I discovered that Paris. There were worlds above, I learned, but there are also worlds below. I found Avenue Foch—the name itself has only a faint resonance now, the century is ending and into its crypt all such things will vanish, marshals of France as well as unknown poilus—and I also found the Île Ste.-Louis, rue de Grenelle, Place St.-Sulpice, and apartments and restaurants as well as other towns and regions, not always in France, because of him. He was my unknowing Virgil, brief in his descriptions, irrefutable, fond of drink. Years later I heard him give some advice: never be in awe of anyone. He was not in awe of Europe. He tossed his coat on her couch.

As I've written before here, there may be, as well, a shadow-like depiction of Shaw in "Via Doloroso," a short story in Salter's first collection, "Dusk." From that story, I suspected that Shaw, for Salter, was not so much a mentor as a representative figure of a writer, one to compare himself against, admire, and whose example and aims he would in some measure turn away from. Or perhaps he took Shaw's advice to heart, never to be in awe of anyone.

The Paris Review, who originally published another of Salter's stark classic stories, has made available on-line "Am Strande von Tanger." It shows well how in turning away from the example of Shaw, in taking another route, he become such a fascinating writer.  There's also a beach in summertime depicted.  The story begins thus:

Barcelona at dawn. The hotels are dark. All the great avenues are pointing to the sea.

The city is empty. Nico is asleep. She is bound by twisted sheets, by her long hair, by a naked arm which falls from beneath her pillow. She lies still, she does not even breathe.

In a cage outlined beneath a square of silk that is indigo blue and black, her bird sleeps, Kalil. The cage is in an empty fireplace which has been scrubbed clean. There are flowers beside it and a bowl of fruit. Kalil is asleep, his head beneath the softness of a wing.

Malcolm is asleep. His steel-rimmed glasses which he does not need—there is no prescription in them—lie open on the table. He sleeps on his back and his nose rides the dream world like a keel. This nose, his mother’s nose or at least a replica of his mother’s, is like a theatrical device, a strange decoration that has been pasted on his face. It is the first thing one notices about him. It is the first thing one likes. The nose in a sense is a mark of commitment to life. It is a large nose which cannot be hidden. In addition, his teeth are bad.

At the very top of the four stone spires which Gaudi left unfinished the light has just begun to bring forth gold inscriptions too pale yet to read. There is no sun. There is only a white silence. Sunday morning. The early mornings of Spain. A mist covers all of the hills which surround the city. The stores are closed.

Nico has come out on the terrace after her bath. The towel is wrapped around her, water still glistens on her skin.

“It’s cloudy,” she says. “It’s not a good day for the sea.”

Malcolm looks up.

“It may clear,” he says.

Morning. Villa-Lobos is playing on the phonograph. The cage is on a stool in the doorway. Malcolm lies in a canvas chair eating an orange. He is in love with the city. He has a deep attachment to it based in part on a story by Paul Morand and also on an incident which occurred in Barcelona years before: one evening in the twilight Antonio Gaudi, mysterious, fragile, even saintlike, the city’s great architect, was hit by a streetcar as he walked to church. He was very old, white beard, white hair, dressed in the simplest of clothes. No one recognized him. He lay in the street without even a cab to drive him to the hospital. Finally he was taken to the charity ward. He died the day Malcolm was born.

Against all advice, I'm in awe. Read the whole thing here.

Read Ulin on happy changes in the weather, and Irwin Shaw here (hat-tip Jane Ciabattari and Anna March).

Shaw's story "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" may be read here.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Economic Indicators

Nathan Rothschild famously quipped, "Buy when there is blood in the streets," but he never said anything about what to do when firebombs are thrown at Greek riot police, and there's a trillion dollar easing of the money supply.

h/t to Andy Kessler

Monday, September 1, 2014

Lebanon Notebook: Two Visits with A Warlord and Kingmaker

Funny thing.  You travel the wide world and you find sometimes that people in far off corners have some of the same ideas as those back home.

I’ve been in Lebanon this month, working on a documentary.  While there, I interviewed the remarkable Walid Jumblatt, the rare person who can be simultaneously mercurial (working a dozen angles) and also phlegmatic (feeling the profound weight of the world.  He is also is both a tribal leader (of the Druze) and a former war lord while leading, as well, a Progressive Socialist Party.

The last time I interviewed Jumblatt I was traveling with a pack of writers that included journalists Christopher Hitchens, as well as travel writer-turned-novelist Lawrence Osborne.  That day, the great man, receiving us at his castle in the Chouf mountains an hour and a half above Beirut, served a wonderful lunch of Lebanese meze and roast lamb, with wine from his own vineyard. 

After lunch, he gave our group a tour of his office.  I was particularly taken by his reading material, and his choice of paperweight (see picture below).

On return to our hotels we found that Jumblatt had sent us Jeroboams of his Kefraya wine.  Sometime during that weekend Osborne, wine-fueled, was inspired to recount for us the story that in time he elaborated to create his acclaimed novel “The Forgiven.”  Meanwhile, later in the day after that lunch Hitchens and cohorts ventured out on Hamra Street, a perambulation that lead to a confrontation with some local political thugs who delivered a beat-down culminating in their stomping on the Hitch’s writing (and smoking and drinking) hand.  In mock-epic style, that episode became nicknamed by pundits “The Battle of Beirut,” and Hitchens himself recounted it in great style, with erudite historical and cultural asides, in Vanity Fair.  (That story can be found among the links below.)

On the occasion of my recent visit, just last week, Jumblatt received my producing partner, myself, and our crew at his palace in the Hamra distract of East Beirut… not far from the location of “The Battle.”  Jumblatt was preceded into the receiving hall by his faithful Shar Pei named Oscar, who gave everyone a good and friendly sniff (presumably Oscar does double duty as both attention magnet and back-up security screener).

On camera and under the lights, Jumblatt immediately turned serious, offering not the hospitable mien of our earlier encounter. Instead, ever the canny politician and ever aware aware of our film’s western audience, while glowering at this interviewer positioned (or hiding) behind the camera, Jumblatt proceeded with a blistering attack on the Obama administration’s Syria policy. 

More surprising… our interview was in a sense a twenty minute elaboration of exactly what Hillary Clinton had said just two weeks earlier.  In short, Jumblatt attributed the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the long chaos in that country, directly to Western (and especially American) disengagement from the Middle East.

Needless to say, Jumblatt sent us no Jeroboams of wine that evening.

I’m left wondering: Do the Warlord/Socialist leader and the presumptive leading Democratic presidential candidate compare notes?

One should be careful about attributing too much authority on matters of American policy to a foreign politician, even regarding matters in their own backyard.  Besides, what I said to those friends in Lebanon who complained about this administration’s foreign policy was that if you don’t like its direction today, just wait six months and it will be completely different. 

Jumblatt himself, nicknamed “The Weather Vane,” has been prone to similar seemingly capricious shifts.  As a leader representing a small constituency (Druze make up just 5% of Lebanon’s voters) he has periodically shifted between the March 14th coalition (who benefit from Saudi support) and the March 8th coalition (of which Iran-backed Hezbollah is a leading member).  As the swing vote, he has been able for some two decades to play “king-maker.”

In the meantime, things are afoot in the region, and there are hints that a tectonic and profound redrawing of alliances is under way. 

Among other signs, at the beginning of this week, Iranian tanks entered in Kurdish Iraq.  That’s right, the US has stood by while Iranian tanks formally entered Iraq, and those tanks are fighting on the same side as their some-time enemy, the Kurds.  What’s more, US, Syrian and Iranian planes flew sorties against the so-called Islamic State. 

Looked at one way, the Sunni/Shiite cold war we've seen the last few years… or rather decades or even centuries… has in the Arab heartland turned hot and become surprisingly triangular.

Read Hillary Clinton’s critique of the Obama administration’s Syria policy HERE

Keep in mind of course, that HRC was herself part of that administration, and indeed the Secretary of State as the so-called Arab Spring, and then the Syria crisis, began.

Read Christopher Hitchens’s account of the “Battle of Beirut,” in Vanity Fair HERE

And keep in mind that despite the mock epic nickname for that incident, he and his cohorts were in real danger, both then and for the remainder of their stay.

Read about Iran’s entry into Kurdish Iraq HERE.

Read Walid Jumblatt’s own account for Now Lebanon of a recent and much more cordial recent encounter when he and Oscar received another group of foreign visitors, HERE.

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Mackerel, Fish in General, and the Wonder that is Harissa

I was in Lebanon last week and spent a happy afternoon killing two hours before sunset on the rooftop of The Albergo Hotel, consuming an enormous bottle of San Pellegrino water, an Almasa beer, and some of the best roast almonds and pistachios, both dusted with sea salt.

When back home, I mentioned this, a favorite moment from the trip, to a friend trapped at his writing desk in upstate New York and he emailed to say this made him hungry for pistachios, which he loved.

I do too, whether plain, in baklava, or used in a main. I commented that I once had roast grouper encrusted with pistachios.  

My novelist friend said I shouldn't eat grouper, not sustainable, almost all gone.

I have no idea whether this is true, and suspect he just wanted to deny me the pleasant memory, but I protested that it had been years ago, there were plenty around at the time.

In any case, that afternoon, at the fish monger in North London I asked for some mackerel, four filets.  They were fat fish and their eyes were clear so I knew they were fresh.  They were also cheap, six quid for four servings.  We should all eat more mackerel, an underrated fish.  They're plentiful, and cheap, and have all those good oils that make your brain grow.  

I made my mackerel for dinner with harissa, a spicey pepper paste from Tunisia that is sometimes served alongside couscous.  I'm using harissa in lots of things now, putting it on salmon and chicken.  I suppose you could roast nuts with some harissa to sharpen them.

In any case, this was my dinner on return.

Spicy Mackerel with Bread-crumbs

Mackerel - four fillets
Harissa - a big dollop
Breadcrumbs - 100 g?
Olive oil
A lemon

Rinse the mackerel and pat it dry.  Spread the harissa, a thin covering, on the flesh side, then roll the fillets in bread crumbs.  Over a medium heat, place skin side down in a frying pan coated with olive oil. Cook for two or three minutes, then flip them and cook for another one or two.

Serve with a wedge of lemon.  

We served them with steamed green beens and a salad.  They'd also go well with spinach.  

With that, we drank a full-bodied Spanish red from near Valencia, on special offer at the wine store just down the street.  I'd have been happy also with shiraz or even a rose.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

On Simin Behbahani, an Unacknowledged Legislator of Iran

A fine tribute this week by Sohrab Ahmari on the poet Simin Behbahani, dubbed the Lioness of Tehran.  She was 82, nearly blind, but the regime still felt compelled to slap a travel ban upon her.

For a lesson in the power of artists to shake despots, consider the Iranian poet Simin Behbahani. The Islamic Republic four years ago imposed a travel ban on her in retaliation for poems she'd written denouncing Tehran's crackdown on the 2009 Green uprising.

She was 82 and nearly blind, yet she was barred from boarding a France-bound plane and interrogated through the night in March 2010. Behbahani died Tuesday from respiratory illness.

Behbahani's poems are routinely memorized and quoted in Iran. "In more than a thousand years of Iranian literature, it is unprecedented for a woman to have reached this level of national recognition during her lifetime," notes her English translator, Farzaneh Milani, in an essay on Behbahani's work. She was popularly dubbed the "Lioness of Iran."

Born in 1927 in Tehran, at the dawn of the Pahlavi dynasty, she published her first poem at age 14. Persian poetry was at the time undergoing a revolution of sorts, and Behbahani eventually came to lead its vanguard, alongside the likes of Nima Yooshij, Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farrokhzad.

In their work, idyllic wineries and star-crossed lovers were replaced by serious social and psychological themes and portraits of everyday life. [...]
Behbahani's most-beloved ghazal, widely anthologized in the West, was published soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"My Country, I Will Build You Again" expressed the fragile optimism of a nation still convinced that it had just staged a democratic revolt—not one to usher in a new Islamist dark age. Its opening couplet:

My country, I will build you again,

If need be, with bricks made from my life.

A tip of the hat then to Simin Behbahani, another "Unacknowledged Legislator."

Read the whole fine article by Ahmari "in" the Wall Street Journal HERE.