Monday, 30 June 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, would probably never be published today. The author would be told that it was too dense, too long and that it didn’t have enough plot. So we are very lucky that publishers of the past had a different take on literature: novels could just be a pleasure to read - as this one was.

There are three main characters in the novel and a host of others so colourful that they could have had a novel based on them alone. The story starts with the death of one, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who leaves a letter for one of the central characters, Dr Juvenal Urbino. Urbino finds the letter so disturbing that he does the unthinkable and changes the pattern of his day

Some critics wonder if this novel is tragedy or soap opera? It is both. Others describe it as tragic and magical, erotic and absurd. It certainly has some of this in it. But it is essentially a love story: married love, erotic love, yearning love and love that stands the test of time. And the three central characters, Urbino, his wife Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, all experience different forms of love.

Florentino Ariza is perhaps the main character: he is a dreamer, romantic, desperate in his search for closeness and love. He thinks love is all and falls deeply in love with Fermina when she is only a girl but is thwarted in his attempt to marry her. He spends his entire life waiting for the time when she will be his. Although in the meantime he experiences physical love – often carnal and erotic experiences – he never loses sight of the one he is ‘keeping’ himself for.

Unlike Florentino, Urbino appears to be rational but it turns out that his view of life and marriage is just as strange. He thinks that ‘the most important thing in a marriage is not happiness, but stability’. On their marriage, Fermina and Urbino do not love each other but Urbino thinks that in time ‘there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love”.

As a girl Fermina Daza enjoys the idea of being in love with Florentino: when she realises it was an infatuation she marries Urbino, who is everything Florentino is not. He has position, power, good looks, style and she enjoys what these benefits bring throughout her marriage and believes that they finally love each other. They certainly rely on each other. However, when her husband dies she wonders if she ever did love Urbino. And Florentino has his chance.

Our host – who chose this book – did a sizeable amount of research regarding the history of the setting and the author’s life: the former was fascinating, the latter illuminating. It would be very interesting to read about the history of Columbia before reading the book, because although we all know it is beset by drug dealing gangs, kidnappings and killings we were surprised to find that this has all been going on for hundreds of years!

But, it would probably not such a good idea to know all the personal life of the author beforehand as it might colour the reader’s view of the characters and their relationships too much. Marquez, born in 1928, started writing Love in the Time of Cholera in 1965. How come a guy, and one of only 37, knew so much about women and marriage? He was brought up by his grandmother and was surrounded by aunts which might explain it.

Marquez describes all the minutiae of married life brilliantly, often with humour. And he describes ageing in a very unsentimental way but so sympathetically. His observation is astute. He shows an understanding of the way that women tick which is not always the case in novels about women written by men.

Our groupies all loved the book but there were one or two question marks: we were not convinced of the need for the fleeting initial character, Jeremiah, nor do we ever get to hear what this letter contains, which annoyed some of us. Nor did we think that the introduction of the character, America, was necessary and most of us thought it introduced a jarring note. But, overall, those who had read it last twenty odd years ago, or those who were reading it for the first time, all thought it should definitely be on everyone’s Must Read list.


Monday, 23 June 2008

Elder Weeds

This is the best of summer time but the worst of times: the evenings are cool but long – I can work in the garden till after 9 o’clock - but it’s past 21st June, the longest day. So, before the evenings warm up and I have a chance to sit out at night and enjoy the summer scents with a glass of sauvignon blanc, the long evenings will be gone.

And gone before I’ve conquered the weeds. Everything in the garden has grown like mad this year – I’m sure I say this every year – but we have had weather weeds love: warm and wet. I am in the beds and borders until dusk hacking them back, pulling them out by their roots, un-entangling them from the plants and cursing them to kingdom come.

Bindweed is my biggest problem because if I leave the tiniest piece of root in the soil it will come back sure as eggs is eggs. Then there are nettles, I like to leave some in a wild area for the butterflies, but the pesky things know no bounds and encroach on the borders. And finally, after many smug years, we have fallen prey to ground elder.

I mistakenly thought it was some angelica that had self-seeded - prettily shaped bright green leaf - but by the time I realised my mistake the stuff had spread everywhere. It had obviously sneaked its way past me in a potted plant and now I’m stuck with it. It creeps until its invaded everywhere and it’s a real menace to get rid of. I shall still be battling years from now.

But not all weeds are a total menace. Take elderflowers; not the sought after Sambucus nigra with its wonderful dark leaves or its relative, Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’, with its bright yellow-green ones but plain old Sambucus canadensis. Several of them have self-seeded in the garden and although they grow at an alarming rate of knots - and keep coming back if not dug up with all roots – they do produce wonderful flat white panicles that look very attractive, followed by lots of dark crimson berries that the birds love.

And those plate-like flowers make the most marvellous drinks. For years I made elderflower champagne but it was very temperamental - the gas makes the bottles unstable. I finally stopped when one batch nearly gave us heart failure as it exploded in the garden shed. Quite apart from the shock, what a mess! I also once made elderberry cordial but it took a mountain of berries to produce a very small bottle of cordial: not worth the effort.

But, elderflower cordial is quite another matter: it couldn’t be quicker or easier to make and it’s very well behaved - lasts for years! The flowers are out in mid-June in time to make the cordial and store it for a few weeks - diluted with ten times the amount of sparkling water - when it makes a very refreshing cooler on warm summer days. It’s also good poured over ice-cream or used with gooseberry puddings.

To make it, water and sugar are boiled to a syrup, citric acid and lemon juice added, and about 20 heads of flowers steeped in the mixture for 24 hours. Hey presto – elderflower cordial. Of course it always needs more bottles than I have and there is a mad scrabble emptying dregs from anything I can find: the presentable bottles make nice gifts when visiting friends. Elderflower: a weed to grapple with but a weed with a heart.


Monday, 16 June 2008

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

It's always pleasing to get an invitation to the Summer Show at the Royal Academy of Arts and it’s good fun to go but’s not the sort of show that you want to pay a load of good money to see!

Why not? Well, it’s a jumble: a mish mash of different tastes, a rag bag of artists’ work, a mix of medias with a number of items of dubious quality. But, it’s for just this reason that many will tell you that this is why they like to go.

This year a number of people have curated a gallery with what they consider are interesting or arresting works, by amateur or well-known artists. They are artists, art historians or others with the reputation for artistic taste. Taste is so subjective though: the very first gallery celebrates the art of R.B.Kitaj, if celebrates is the right word. Fortunately, after that it could only get better.

In the Large Weston Room the walls were covered with the questionable, the mundane, the good and the very good. The gallery is a mixture of etching, aquatints, woodcuts, silk screens, lithographs and photographs, most of them affordable. Different styles and media seemed to be put together any old way but the room was packed with visitors who were finding it all rather interesting.

Next to it was the Small Weston Room, where oils and acrylics completely covered the walls, all cheek by jowl in any old order. Some works were very boring, others ok but then – what joy – a hidden pearl: a Bernard Dunstan, a Diana Armfield oil. Then a watercolour by Leslie Worth and my impression of the event was definitely on the up.

After a Pimms and a packet of crisps in the next gallery – very bright and very large canvases there – I was definitely feeling in a more mellow mood. But it wasn’t always easy to keep that way. Gallery VI was devoted to architecture – models, drawings, photographs – and was inspiring and interesting (and that wasn’t the booze talking) and the next gallery provided me with more to inspire and delight, some oils of landscapes by Donald Hamilton Fraser and Ivor Abrahams’ figures.

But gallery VIII was a little less calming: Tracey Emin was the curator and she was out to shock. One or two pieces did just that with nothing else to them they seemed a bit pointless but, surprisingly, a truly shock factor sculpture of pink hands and pink members – which looked nothing but a mess of pink parts – very cleverly produced two silhouettes of heads when projected on to the wall!

And in one of the next galleries I was really impressed by the postcode collages by David Mach – made of millions of slithers and cut-outs of postcards the effect is multi-layered in every sense of the word. Yes, they were art and they were stunning to boot. And there was wit: Margaret Calvert’s, ‘Woman at Work’, was one.

One reason the show is so popular with members of the public is that most of the works on display are for sale. Many of the more modestly priced pieces by well known artists who are Royal Academicians – mostly numbered prints – are covered with little red stickers on the very first morning. I did wonder why when I saw some of them: it may be that this is a buyer’s chance to do a little investing – in the hope the value will increase when the darling drops of the proverbial perch – or perhaps it’s the chance to own a piece of work by a well-know artist.

So it’s not a serious show no matter how the RA tries to convince us that their worthy curators have managed to give us something new and stimulating. It’s a circus of a show, a bit of a joke, a chance to see worthy works sitting next to our Billie’s painting of the garden. And we can all benefit from a less rarefied view of art sometimes: a little bit of fun never hurt anyone.

Lucy Ann White