I don’t know that Jeanette Winterson has ever put anything so good so succinctly as she does in this mini-interview from the Guardian Review:
Art and potatoes are pretty similar. Everyone needs slow-release energy and something to stabilise the gut. Art does that – it isn't fast food, but it isn't fancy food either. It's the solid stuff of life. I once had lunch at Heston Blumenthall's Fat Duck at Bray. I was very depressed because I am not a chocolate risotto kind of person. That night I dug up new potatoes from my garden with my hands, steamed them, covered them in olive oil and mint and chives, and ate nothing else. Then I felt better. The same thing happens to me with a book or a painting. It reminds me that life is good and solid, not about money and not about fad.
Ah, love love love. Having said that, I will be rereading Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit quite soon. Me and Ben, risking enchantment, are off to see Jeanette talk about her first novel at the South Bank in July. Twenty five years since it came out! Time flies...
I’m reading Translated Accounts now, a Kafkaesque novel of vignettes, accounts of life under occupation in an unnamed city. Everything about the book is anonymous – even some of the words refuse to reveal their true identities. A knowing stylistic trick – the idea that these testimonies have been translated and possibly edited by the occupying force – gives us a world of mutated, unreliable language, a world first glimpsed in Samuel Beckett (one of Kelman’s guiding lights). ‘Sarcasm’ for instance; one of the nameless speakers keeps insisting: ‘I’m not being sarcastic, this is not sarcastic,’ till you think, what might be mistranslated into ‘sarcasm’? And that sort of thought is good for the brain - slow release, like Jeanette says. And maybe oily, in a good way. So, like a warm potato and anchovy salad.
I remember asking for this for Christmas in 2001, after reading a review by Iain Sinclair in the LRB on a bus going very quickly down Dog Kennel Hill – so I was an earnest teenager, and very into that sense of linguistic shiftiness, that evasiveness of meaning. Jeff Noon had a book out back then, called Cobralingus – imagining a machine that produced narrative out of concepts – and sometimes Translated Accounts is like that, and the translation software breaks down into pages of ^’s, $’s, @’s and ungrammatical ‘theixedbayonetsbaybebabybayonets’ sorts of things.
I’ll have to admit, nearly ten years on, I’m less impressed. My Young Persons’ Railcard has expired, and it is true I am no longer young. I acknowledge the power of Beckett, and who couldn’t love Franz Kafka, but I do wonder how much further we can take their legacy. I wonder if, in the spaces they opened up, any room for other people was left. I suspect they closed them off after they finished their work. This warm salad has been sitting out in the sun for a while, it lacks freshness.
I finished Strange Boy on Saturday morning in Cheshire, the day of Jon’s nephew’s first birthday. I first read that a while ago as well, but I’d forgotten how surefooted it was, that it could be understated and very funny and very moving. And it did exactly what I like done with magic realism, which is to be unsubtle and bold and surprising but at the same time subtle, indeterminate, subjective. I like it when it has less effect on the plot than it does on people, and the conversations they have. Because conversations are so rarely about what they’re about. Strange Boy is full of talk, buoyed against a whole unspoken world. The shared points of exchange and, conversely, the points of dissonance are telling. It’s a wonderfully intimate telling of a quite complex story about many different relationships, many different loves and all their contradictions. A massive, gorgeous jacket potato, but with some sort of twist. Maybe it's a sweet potato.
As I was changing buses this morning, a lady in front of me’s belt fell off. I had to chase her up the street with it! Luckily nothing else followed, and she took it very well. It cheered me up quite a bit, actually. Mind you, I wouldn’t like it to happen every day...