In 1923, the adventurous, hard-drinking American Ernest Hemingway visited Madrid and fell in love with it.
"[W]hen you get to know it, it is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in, the finest people, month in and month out the finest climate" (Death in the Afternoon, 1932).
Though he would return 8 more times, sometimes as war correspondent sometimes as a tourist for the bullfights, it is not clear what prompted his initial visit. What is clear is the mark he left on the city, in terms of both literature and libation.
In 1936 and 37, Hemingway went to Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War for the North American newspaper Alliance. No ordinary reporter, Hemingway soon rejected journalistic neutrality and sided with the Republican cause (against the Nationalists, who were supported by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany). He helped train militia soldiers on how to use rifles and--along with fellow journalists John Dos Passos and Antoine de Saint-Exupery--consoled locals with cheerfulness (and, no doubt, plenty of booze) throughout nights of heavy bombing.
Hemingway turned these experiences into masterpieces, such as For Whom The Bell Tolls, "The Butterfly and the Tank," and (perhaps less a masterpiece) the play, The Fifth Column.
But Hemingway was as famous for his lifestyle as for his writing, and the list of bars he frequented in Madrid is impressive. I had the pleasure of spending time in two of them last September: Museo Chicote and Cerveceria Alemana.
The latter, despite the wall of spirits, feels a bit like an American diner from the 1940s, hard wooden chairs, oak wainscoting, and marble table tops with stainless steel condiment and napkin holders. Hemingway said it was a nice place to have a coffee or beer, and he so often took the seat by the window that it is now memorialized with his picture (the cover photo for this post).
Museo Chicote has a different feel altogether. If the Cerveceria Alemana is 1940s traditional, the Museo is 1920s modern, that is, Art Deco--a mix of colors, frosted lighting, stainless steel and vinyl chairs, and cozy round booths.
Founded in 1931, Museo Chicote is the oldest cocktail bar in Spain, and has a reported 10,000 bottles of spirits (though most of these are not visible from the bar area, as you can see above). In Madrid: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Jules Stewart writes:
"The original owner, Perico Chicote, who died in 1977, kept the place open and thriving throughout the war [WWII, that is]. In later years, Chicote would show visitors the stool Hemingway used to sit on when he dropped in after work. With a wry grin, he pointed to the floor, indicating where the work-weary and famously intemperate author would from time to time draw a line under his evening drinking sessions" (216).
The highlight of the experience for me was trying Hemingway's own concoction, the Papa Doble, a mix of rum and grapefruit, Maraschino liquor, and lemon that was lower in sugar than his other favorite drink, the rum daiquiri (here's a fun version).
Sugar or no sugar, I wouldn't recommend drinking 15 Papa Dobles. But it was fantastic. The bartender even thanked me for ordering it because very few people ask for it these days.
So, if you're ever in Madrid, stop in the Museo Chicote and order a Papa Doble. Take along your copy of Hemingway's collected stories. Open to "The Butterfly and the Tank" (which is set in what he calls "Chicote's") and imagine the electricity that must have pulsed through the place when Papa was being boisterous and a war raged outside.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. I must have expected something tamer, its themes confined by its cultural and historical setting. Perhaps a slightly cruder version of Harper Lee. But despite some nauseating racism that is so often part of the backdrop of classic Southern fiction, what I found was a wild ride of angst, mysticism, and murder, with two of the most memorable names in literature: Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery.
Through eighteen-year-old Enoch Emery, O'Connor introduces us, albeit vaguely, to the arcane spiritualism of "wise blood," a sort of guiding agency--"a knowing"--that both portends the future and bestows gifts on those who heed its call. And though the novel is set against the backdrop of the Christian metaphysics of sin and redemption, wise blood has no part in that world. It seems something cut free from those restraints, or perhaps, like its characters, it aims to be. It does not aim to redeem or cleanse because, as Motes puts it, there is "no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two." It simply drops hints to Enoch about something important that's going to happen to him.
Both Hazel and Enoch work hard to live out their freedom from the old-time religion and all its guilt. They both visit sex workers, they both kill, Enoch steals constantly, and Haze has no kindness in him. Enoch ultimately succeeds in breaking ties with his conscience, though his plan to be someone who the world would shake hands with--the gift given to him by his blood--fails, in a heartbreaking way, by his own incompetence. Haze, on the other hand, has no successes and is trapped in his failures. And, though he never says it, we learn that he believes his only recourse is a gruesome form of repentance, inherited from childhood, for a guilt that was never fully defined for him.
The ideas of sight and blindness are contrasted through the novel in masterful ways. The preacher Asa Hawks pretends to be blind but proves to be as lost as any other character. Enoch's blood, though blind, knows more than his eyes can see. Hazel only sees that he's "not clean" just before he blinds himself.
O'Connor called Wise Blood a "comic novel," and today, we might add "speculative fiction," for all its wanderings into the fantastical. I love this novel for so many reasons: for the fact that Enoch's blood "wrote doom all through him," for the colorful characters like fifteen-year-old Sabbath Lily Hawks and conman Onnie Jay Holy, for the Southernisms you have to have grown up with to know how to pronounce (oncet = "wonst"; thater = "that ere"), the irony of a Southern town that exhibits none of the fabled Southern Hospitality, and many others.
If you don't have time to pick up the physical novel, the audiobook read by Bronson Pinchot is a real treat. But be warned! You'll never be able to separate his Hazel Motes voice from the character ever again.
(Cover Image: https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2015/07/23/a-stamp-of-good-fortune/)
People are generally uncertain what distinguishes whiskey, bourbon, and scotch, and for good reason. The details are subtle, and, if you don't "live" in that world, easy to forget. Here's a simple chart for reference:
To be clear, it's all whiskey (or, if you're in bonny Scotland, whisky, no "e"). And all of them, when well-crafted, have their charms.
I've taken two scotch-filled trips to Scotland and hope to take many more. But I usually have to be in the "mood" for scotch. And I use some whiskies only for "mixers," mostly younger bourbons and American whiskies (e.g., Ten High, Corsair). There are few special whiskies I drink neat for special celebrations (e.g., Stagg, Jr.). And I can drink rye anytime.
But wheated bourbons (the middle column of the chart above) have a special place in my bar.
With a hint of sweetness on the back end, wheated bourbons are easy to drink neat or with a cube of ice. And because they lack the spice of a cask strength or small batch bourbon, they are flexible mixers. I prefer a full 2-ounce pour in cocktails to get that frank whiskey flavor. But even if you only kind of like whiskey, a lighter pour of a wheated bourbon adds complexity without overpowering the cocktail. And they drink well in all seasons, whether in the middle of summer, with lemonade or ginger ale, in the chill of autumn, in a Lion's Tail or Kentucky Mulled Cider, or in the dead frost of winter, in a classic toddy or maple old fashioned.
Wheated bourbons include:
I know there's always a race to find the Pappy 15 and 20 yr, but if you find Weller 10 yr, I would happily split a bottle with you over an evening of bookish tête-à-tête.
Here's to spirited reading!
(Cover image from: https://www.socialhourcocktails.com/american-whiskey)
I'm doing it. I've started the intimidating one-and-a-half-million-word epic, In Search of Lost Time. And I have to say, it's marvelous.
I was afraid it would be difficult to follow--too many characters, boring dialogue, vague imagery. I was wrong on all accounts. To be sure, it takes focus. Some sentences are a page or more long. But it's beautiful and compelling.
The best part is that Proust has proved to be, like Shakespeare, a master of one-liners. Here's a smattering just from volume 1 (Swann's Way). (I'm reading the Moncrieff and Kilmartin translation, revised by Enright.)
"Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them" (5).
"But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people" (23).
"But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost implacable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection" (64).
"'And see you this, my boy, there comes in all our lives a time, towards which you still have far to go, when the weary eyes can endure but one kind of light, the light which a fine evening like this prepares for us in the stillroom of darkness, when the ears can listen to no music save what the moonlight breathes through the flute of silence'" (178).
"Climates that breathe amorous secrets and futile regrets may suit a disillusioned old man like myself, but they must always prove fatal to a temperament that is still unformed" (185).
There are far too many to keep going. If these don't excite you, it may be best to pass over Proust. For my own part, I've dived into volume 2 (Within a Budding Grove), and I can't get enough. I'm sure I will return to his themes often on this blog.
(Cover image: https://www.dw.com/en/unpublished-texts-from-marcel-proust-released/a-50760623)
Even though I've lived most of my life in the American South, I had to grow up before I appreciated Southern literature. I was raised in Tennessee, went to high school in South Carolina, taught in Georgia, and now I teach in Arkansas. And the more I read Southern authors, the more I appreciate their sensibilities of place and language and imagery.
Here, for no other reason than the pleasure it brings, I'll do five posts on my favorite Southern novels and some highlights I think are worth pausing over when you read them.
1. Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men (1956)
This is not only my favorite Southern novel, it's probably my favorite novel of all time. Warren achieves a rhythmic prose that's compelling and unmatched in his other writing. And it is so chock full of striking imagery and Southern sensibility that the reader is swept along as if they were standing in the crowd at Willie Stark's feet.
To get a sense of this magical flow, here's one of protagonist Jack Burden's many reflections on his muse, Anne Stanton:
"That was how the nights became Anne Stanton, too. For that night in the roadster, Anne Stanton had done her trick very well. It was a wordless and handless trick, but it didn't need words or hands. She had rolled her head on the leather seat back, and touched her finger to her lips to say, 'Sh, sh,' and smiled. And had sunk her harpoon deeper than ever. Queequeg sunk it, through four feet of blubber to the very quick, but I hadn't really known it until the line played out and the barb jerked in the red meat which which the Me inside of all the blubber of what I had thought I was. And might continue to think I was.
"Anne Stanton was the nights, all right. And the days, too, but in the days she was not the total substance, rather the flavor, the distillate, the climate, the breath, without which the rest wouldn't be anything at all."
There's a smoothness to the prose from start to finish that makes you feel like you're being dragged through Jack Burden's memories. The Southern-ness of the novel comes out in many forms. Some are homey and immersive, such as the big gallery porches and hot, black top roads. Others are uncomfortable and off-putting, such as the overt racist language and some characters' sympathies with the Confederacy.
Even still, even with the uncomfortable history and what it implies for the writer, the South today, and the reader, there are reflections on human nature worth stopping to consider. Here's a passage where Cass Mastern refers in his journal to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, notorious for his belief that people of color were not fully human:
"I remarked to my brother that Mr. Davis did not look well. He replied, 'A sick man, it is a fine how-de-do to have a sick man for a president.' I responded that there might be no war, that Mr. Davis hoped for peace. But my brother said, 'Make no mistake, the Yankees will fight and they will fight well and Mr. Davis is a fool to hope for peace.' I replied, 'All good men hope for peace.' At this my brother uttered an indistinguishable exclamation and said, 'What we want now they've got into this is not a good man but a man who can win, and I am not interested in the luxury of Mr. Davis's conscience.' Then my brother and I continued our promenade in silence, and I reflected that Mr. Davis was a good man. But the world is full of good men, I now reflect as I write these lines down, and yet the world drives hard into darkness and the blindness of blood, even as now late at night I sit in this hotel room in Vicksburg, and I am moved to ask the meaning of our virtue. May God hear our prayer!"
These lines stopped me cold when I first read them, and I stand in awe of them now. Warren makes us feel the tension of a mind trying to rationalize a political system built largely on self-serving bigotry, trying to hope there is some good in bad people, yet recognizing--in good Southern fashion--the depravity of human nature: The world drives hard into darkness and the blindness of blood.
Stick around for Part 2: Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (1952)
There is a tension in advice for authors on how they should read. Some argue that you should read primarily, or even solely, the kinds of stories you write. If you're a mystery writer, you should read mystery, if a thriller writer, then thriller, and so on. Others advise that reading broadly is the key to better writing. Insights from, say, classics can have just as positive an influence on genre fiction as copious amounts of genre fiction.
For my money, this is a false dichotomy. If you're writing genre fiction, you certainly need to know the themes and tropes, how to craft a twist in that genre, how to show things with words that other genres might never describe (a planet, a murder, the look of a lover recently satisfied).
But if all you read are genre pieces, your toolkit can be limited to the tools of that genre. You may miss an opportunity for deep self-reflection that figures regularly in literary fiction, you may overlook a perfect allusion to a Greek tragedy, or you may stumble over a religious reference that you only half remember from college.
To be sure, every writer should do their research. But it is hard to get inside the head of someone you've spent little time with.
My own strategy is to read *around* my main themes. If I'm writing Southern gothic, I will read a Southern gothic novel for tone and rhythm. But I'll also read books that overlap with my themes: philosophy if my themes are philosophical (and I'm a philosopher, so I can't help it); Greek tragedy if my themes are fate and folly; science fiction if my themes are speculative.
While writing Itzhak, I spent time with Jewish literature (Bellow, Wouk) but also with Nietzsche. Though I'm trained as a philosopher, I never studied Nietzsche properly, so getting into Nietzsche's head was critical for one of my characters.
Clearly, writers don't have time to read everything. But reading in and around my themes seems to help keep my tone focused and my content interesting.