Very bad news for competitive blokes

Some admittedly rather varied passages from Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of:

The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque.

Here’s one that made me laugh:

We can compare the number of synapses that fire during the female and the male orgasm – very bad news for competitive blokes …

Barnes complains about the bureaucracy that has replaced folklore in hospital dying and tells the following story:

Registering my mother’s death, I was dealt with by a woman with a metronomic delivery and no skill – or luck – in human contact. All the details had been given, the signatures provided, the duplicate copies obtained, and I was rising to leave when she suddenly uttered four soullessly otiose words in a dead voice: ‘That completes the registration.’ She used the same mechanical tone employed by the humanoid bosses of the Football Association, when the last of the ivory balls has been drawn from the velvet bag, and they announce, ‘That completes the draw for the quarter-final round of the FA Cup.’

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Best Reads 2013. IX: Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the KitchenHaving recently read The Sense of an Ending and Levels of Life, I couldn’t resist Julian Barnes’s ruminations on cooking, cookbooks, recipes, entertaining guests etc. And I haven’t regretted it either, for this has turned out to be an entertaining read that has managed to take my mind off other, more troublesome things. Just what I needed therefore!

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

I once bought an eel from a Chinese fishmonger in Soho, carried it home on the Northern Line, and then realized my next job was to skin it. This is what you have to do: nail it to a door-frame or other substantial wooden part of your dwelling, make an incision on either side of the neck, take a pair of pliers in each hand, grip the two cut pieces of skin, put your foot against the door level with the eel’s head, and slowly haul back the skin, which is firm and elasticated, like a dense inner tube. Afterwards I was glad to have done it. Now I shall know how to proceed if forced to survive somewhere with only an eel, two pairs of pliers, and a door-frame for company; but I don’t otherwise need the activity to be central to my life.

As any domestic cook who’s ever made [a risotto] knows, it’s virtually impossible to do anything during the final twenty minutes or so except stir, add liquid, worry; stir, add liquid, worry, and so on. At best you might have time to leave the hob just long enough to shake an ice-cube into a de-stressing drink; normal sociability is quite out of the question.

… don’t get me wrong. I quite want to cook some of what Mr Blumenthal proposes: though when he tells me that the best way of cooking a steak is to flip it every fifteen seconds, making thirty-two flips in all for its eight-minute cooking period, I am inclined to wonder who will be minding the chips and mushy peas while I flip four steaks 128 times, so I say Pass.

And then there’s Barnes’s definition of cooking:

Cooking is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss.

Quite!

A proof of love

Julian Barnes’s latest book, Levels of Life, offers some intriguing observations about the beginnings of ballooning and photography. But that shouldn’t fool anyone: the book is essentially about grief, Barnes’s grief for his wife Pat, who died in 2008. Two passages struck me particularly.

In one, Barnes describes his experience in terms of a seventeenth-century map, which features ‘the Desert of Loss, the (windless) Lake of Indifference, the (dried-up) River of Desolation, the Bog of Self-Pity, and the (subterranean) Caverns of Memory’.

The other passage talks about the persistence of pain. Barnes comments: ‘Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is a proof of love’.

One key difference between the sexes

In his new book Levels of Life, which, among other things, is about the beginnings of photography, Julian Barnes comments on ‘one key difference between the sexes’:

when a couple who had been jointly photographed returned to examine their proofs, the wife always looked first at the portrait of her husband – and so did the husband.

Anything wrong with that?

Barnes continues that ‘most were inevitably disappointed when they finally saw a true image of themselves’. And I can relate to that, too.