Sunday, April 20, 2014

French Crime Writer: Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon (1903-1986) has been dubbed "the most famous Belgian," which is probably true as far as literature is concerned (although many people think he was French, as that was the language he used). He also has been called "superhuman" - for he crammed into one lifetime what others would have taken a couple of existences. Besides writing more than 500 novels at the pace of 60 to 80 pages a day, he was addicted to smoking (he had a collection of 300 pipes, which he chain-smoked, exactly like Maigret in the novels), drinking, sex and travel, and still managed to live to the ripe old age of 86.

Georges Simenon spent his youth and formative years in Lieges, in the French-speaking part of Belgium, where he was born in 1903 as the son of an accountant. In 1918 Simenon left school without graduating, and after some trial and error with several jobs, the next year he became a journalist with a local paper. He started living as a bohemian and explored the seamier sides of life. He also started publishing fiction under several pseudonyms - his first novel appeared in 1921.

In 1922, Simenon moved to Paris where he lived from his pen, writing pulp novels and stories, as well as numerous articles. This went on for about ten years, but the big change started in 1930 when he was in the Dutch city of Delfzijl. Simenon owned a boat and was at that time trekking along the canals of northern-France, Belgium and Holland. While he sat imbibing the indeed very inspiring Dutch jenever (schnapps), he suddenly came up with the idea for the Maigret novels - reason why Delfzijl now has a statue dedicated to Maigret (see photo below).

Maigret, of course, is the pipe-smoking, Paris-based inspector of police who is the central character in Simenon's crime novels. Simenon immediately started writing at a tremendous pace - in 1931 eleven Maigret novels would see the light of day (starting with Pietr le Letton), followed by another six in 1932 and one in 1933 and 1934 each. These first 19 Maigret books were published by Fayard and were immensely successful, making Simenon rich and enabling him to stop with his pulp novels. After the first 19, Simenon took a break from Maigret and then wrote six more during the war years (1942 to 1944). Next, from 1947 on, he settled in a stable rhythm, writing between one and three Maigret books a year until 1972. In total, Simenon wrote 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories.

But Simenon had higher ambitions - he also wanted to be serious writer, so in the 1930s he started writing what he called his "romans durs." These "hard novels" were not detective stories but darkly realistic psychological novels, books in which he displayed a sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Some famous titles are: Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Pedigree, The Strangers in the House, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, and Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. Simenon wrote in total 110 "romans durs." While the Maigret novels were written for money, in the "romans durs" Simenon tried to show the range of his talent.

Simenon writes in a very concise style, without literary flourishes or unnecessary descriptions. His revisions consisted only of cutting away, of taking out every unnecessary word or sentence. The early novels still have the abruptness and sudden shifts characteristic of the pulp novel; later, Simenon's style would become more polished, but one still finds traces of the haste in which Simenon wrote: he would finish a novel in just one week, a chapter a day, then put it aside for a week, and review it only once via the above-mentioned "cutting method."

After 1972, Simenon stopped writing novels, but concentrated on his memoirs, which appeared in 1981 as Memoires intimes. Simenon traveled a lot - he also moved house about 33 times - and after the war he spent about ten years in North America. Back in Europe, he lived in Southern France, before finally settling down in a large house in Lausanne (Switzerland).

Simenon's novels were translated into more than 50 languages and sold more than 550 million copies. The Maigret novels were immediately filmed - La Nuit du Carrefour was filmed in 1932 by Jean Renoir - and since then 80 other novels were adapted for the screen. Maigret has been many times adapted for television as well, both in France and elsewhere (even in Japan, with the action transposed to Tokyo!). And Maigret remains popular - Penguin Books has just started the project to publish new translations of all 75 novels, more or less in the order in which they originally appeared.

Paris-based Inspector Maigret ranks with Holmes and Poirot in the pantheon of immortal fictional detectives. Maigret's crime-solving method was unique: to try to imagine what the life of the victim was like, how his or her relations with other people were, and so finally to enter the mind of the criminal. Simenon's interest lay almost entirely in the reasons for the crime rather than in the solving of it - his novels are typical "whydunits" rather than "whodunits."

The human interest in Simenon's novels reminds me of that other great French author, Guy de Maupassant; Simenon has also been compared to Chekhov. He himself said that he was in the first place inspired by Balzac, and indeed, his long series of "romans durs" can be seen as a modern "comedie humaine."

What are the best Maigrets? (I will look at the "romans durs" in a future post.) It is difficult to select absolute peaks, for all books by Simenon have a rather stable level and there are no real ups or downs, so it comes down to personal preference (and what one has read).
  • I like the first 19 Maigrets for the atmosphere of France in the 1930s. My favorite at present is Night at the Crossroads (La Nuit du Carrefour), for the character of the "femme fatale," Else, who plays a weird psychological game with Maigret. The setting is a lonely crossroads outside Paris, with only a garage and two houses, where the inhabitants are constantly spying on each other. Also interesting is that almost all suspects are guilty. The Charter of the Providence (Le Charretier de la Providence) is set completely along a certain stretch of a French canal from Épernay to Vitry-le-François (both in the Marne département). We have the wonderful atmosphere of those living in their barges on the water and find Maigret in a local cafe soaking up the atmosphere and inhaling the distinctive odor of stables, harnesses, tar and oil (the stables and harnesses are for the horses who in the 1930s still pulled the motor-less barges). And all the time, the rain is pouring down... A third one is The Late Monsieur Gallet (M. Gallet, décédé), about a commercial traveler who has been found shot in his hotel room and who is not at all the man his family thinks he is. He has a meager face with thin lips and also Maigret dislikes him at first, until he discovers that M Gallet has been doing good behind everybody's back. Really unpleasant is the status-conscious, bourgeois wife of M Gallet - and Gallet has in fact died on behalf of her... 
  • As regards the later Maigrets, I have several favorites among those written in the 1940s and 1950s, for example My Friend Maigret (Mon Ami Maigret, 1949) which has a sunny and indolent Mediterranean setting, on the small island of Porquerolles, where an ex-criminal has been killed after claiming that Maigret was his friend. Maigret is in the company of M Pyke of Scotland Yard who has been sent to observe his methods - but the problem is that Maigret has no method, he works by intuition... Another good one is Maigret and the Dead Girl (Maigret et la jeune morte, 1954), set in Parisian nightlife with its picturesque characters. This novel is a good example of Maigret's characteristic ability of putting himself into the skin of the victim or perpetrator: investigation by empathy, rather than by logical deduction. Because Maigret has gotten to know the murdered girl, Louise, he knows that certain behavior ascribed to her by persons he interviews doesn't fit her character - and so these people must be lying...
  • A good later Maigret novel is Maigret's Boyhood Friend (L'Ami d'enfance de Maigret, 1970). An old schoolmate, Florentin, who used to be the class clown and a habitual liar, comes to Maigret's office and tells him that Josephine, the woman he has been living with, has been shot. She has four other lovers who all visited her on different, fixed days. Interesting portrait of a loser (as we often find in Simenon's work), a man who has failed in life because he tries to trick his way out of everything. 
  • And of course there are many other memorable Maigrets, such as The Yellow Dog (Le chien jaune, 1931), The Bar on the Seine (La Guinguette a deux sous, 1932), The Madman of Bergerac (Le fou de Bergerac, 1932), The Hotel Majestic (Les Caves du Majestic, 1942), Maigret in Court (Maigret aux assises, 1960), Maigret and the Ghost (Maigret et le fantome, 1964), etc. etc.
Extensive Maigret website

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

'The Roses of Heliogabalus' by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The Roses of Heliogabalus was painted in 1888 by the Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, (1836 – 1912), who was educated in Belgium and worked most of his life in England. The large canvas (132x213 cm) was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy and is now in a private collection.

[The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), oil on canvas, 132.1 × 213.7 cm, private collection - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

We see an extravagant dinner party hosted by Heliogabalus, a teenage emperor who ruled the Roman Empire for a few years in the early 3rd century - at the back of the painting, the emperor is lying down in a golden frock, with six guests at his table and a flute player standing behind him. In front we see a number of other guests, who are being showered with rose petals while they sit or lie down on benches. The cascade of petals is so large that it seems the guests are smothered by them. To the right, an elderly man with a beard looks surprised at the whole scene, with a few petals in his hair.

Thanks to the mass of flower petals, the painting looks fresh, colorful and even joyful - but what does it really mean?

[Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Wikipedia - Public Domain]
  • First Heliogabalus. His name is more properly Elagabalus and he was Roman emperor from 218 to 222. Elagabalus was put on the throne in 218 after the assassination of the previous emperor, Caracalla, whose grandson he was. He was barely fourteen years old. His short reign would be marred by religious controversy - Elagabalus was born in Syria and had served as hereditary priest of the Emesan sun deity El-Gabal. He brought this cult (in the form of a phallic-shaped meteorite) with him to Rome and even placed El-Gabal above the traditional Roman deity Jupiter. Conservative Romans were forced to participate in the new rites. In this way, Elagabalus made many enemies in the shortest time possible, and was finally hacked to pieces by his own Praetorian Guards. In subsequent history, he is also depicted as a cruel pervert, a small Nero so to speak. How much of that is reliable remains to be seen: it seems the standard historical treatment of failed emperors. Among the outrages ascribed to Elagabalus in the 4th century Augustan History are his "marriage" to a Vestal virgin, dressing as a woman and playing the "mistress" to his own charioteer, as well as prostituting himself in his own palace: "He set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice soliciting passers-by." He is also described as a bisexual who used cosmetics and "offered vast sums of money to any physician who could equip him with female genitalia." Unbelievably expensive meals and parties were of course also part and parcel of his reputed debauchery. Many modern writers, starting with Edward Gibbon, have copied these rather biased allegations and call him "a debauched psychic," "the most cruel and infamous wretch that ever disgraced humanity and polluted a throne." But any fourteen-year old who is given unlimited power would become a small monster... 
  • The cruel incident on which the present painting is based, is also mentioned in the Augustan History: "In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his parasites in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top." So that is what the painting shows us: murder by roses - the real flower power! Tons of rose petals must have been necessary to execute this feat on his unsuspecting audience.
  • Next we turn to the maker of this "decadent" painting, (Sir) Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). He was born as "Lourens Alma Tadema" in Dronrijp, a tiny village in the province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands. He studied painting at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, and first became assistant to one of his professors (Jan de Taeye), who taught history and historical costume and who strongly encouraged historical accuracy in painting - indeed something for which Alma-Tadema would become known. Next he worked in the studio of the well-known painter Henri Leys, where he produced his first major work: The Education of the Children of Clovis (1861), a painting on a historical (Merovingian) subject. In all, Alma-Tadema would work for ten years in Belgium, finally setting up himself as an independent classical-subject painter. He added Egyptian themes to the European ones, and discovered his real subject when he visited Florence, Rome and Pompeii in Italy on his honeymoon: classical antiquity. In 1870 Alma-Tadema moved to London, where he would stay the rest of his life, also obtaining British denizenship. His second wife was the English painter Laura Epps. Alma-Tadema became friends with most of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, under whose influence his palette became brighter. He developed into a Victorian institution, a classical-subject painter, who was famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of the dazzling blue Mediterranean. Alma-Tadema was eminently successful and could demand the highest prices for his work. He found a ready market among the wealthy English middle classes for paintings recreating scenes of domestic life in imperial Rome. It was only after his death in 1912 that his depictions of Classical antiquity fell into disrepute, swamped away by the flood of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and the other Isms of the Twentieth Century. But a reevaluation has taken place in the last decades and Alma-Tadema is now again recognized as the important 19th century painter he was - at auctions, his work is in high demand (and fetches high prices, up to $35 million).
  • As mentioned above, Lawrence Alma-Tadema strove for historical accuracy in his paintings. His was the age that great archaeological finds were made - one only has to visit the British Museum to see some of the most important ones - and interest in Classical Antiquity ran high. Alma-Tadema extensively researched the costumes, architecture and material culture of antiquity to get every detail right. Every building featured in his canvases could have been built using Roman tools and methods; Alma-Tadema's visualization of the past was based on careful study and exactitude. Interestingly, his paintings were used as source material by Hollywood directors in famous films as Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934) and, most notably, Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments (1956).
  • Also in other ways Alma-Tadema was a meticulous perfectionist. In the case of the present painting, for example, he wanted each rose petal to be as perfectly realistic as possible - but as he was working on the painting in the winter of 1887-88, there were no fresh roses in England, so he had rose petals shipped to him from the Riviera to have fresh examples. He painted each petal with painstaking skill and patience. Besides that, in the present painting the depiction of the banqueting hall is based on a description by Gibbon, and the statue of Bacchus in the background can be found in the Vatican Museum. 
  • Alma-Tadema was also famous as a "painter of marble." In Belgium, his teacher Leys had been critical of the treatment of marble in The Education of the Children of Clovis, which he compared to "cheese." Alma-Tadema took this criticism seriously, and he so much improved his technique that he became the world's foremost painter of marble and granite. See the pillars in the present painting.
  • In 1898, the Dutch novelist Louis Couperus visited the studio of Alma-Tadema in London, in his palatial house at 44 Grove End Road, St John's Wood. The house seems to have been full of marble, as well, and of the studio it was said that it "conjured up visions of all the luxury, the ivory, apes and peacocks of the Roman civilization with which his art was largely preoccupied." Also Couperus was very much interested in the subject of Heliogabalus and in 1905 would publish a large novel about him, called The Mountain of Light. Couperus discards all tales about Heliogabalus's cruelty and instead describes him as a religious innovator - Couperus seems to have regarded Heliogabalus' sun cult as a sort of proto-Theosophism. Couperus wrote many novels about classical antiquity, a period he loved for its lack of "original sin."
[Silver Favourites (1903), now in the Manchester Art Gallery,
depicts a woman feeding fishes in a "marblescape."
The painting is a great example of Alma-Tadema's treatment of marble,
here against the dazzlingly blue backdrop of the Mediterranean - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Count d'Orgel's Ball" by Raymond Radiguet (review)

Count d'Orgel's BallCount d'Orgel's Ball by Raymond Radiguet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Count d’Orgel’s Ball" is a short novel published in 1924, the year after its author, the Parisian literary prodigy Raymond Radiguet, had been killed by typhus at the age of only twenty. It is a delicious love story, a story of unspoken and unconsummated love with a wide open ending, concise and in the true classical French tradition. Also very “French” is its ruthlessly analytical character, as for example in the early 19th c. tale Adolphe by Constant. Radiguet’s novel directly imitated the classical style typical of the novels by Madame de La Fayette (The Princess of Cleves) and Choderlos de Laclos (Dangerous Liaisons) and is completely different from the style of his era.

The story, a love triangle between a woman (the gorgeous Mahaut) and two men (her husband, the Comte Anne d’Orgel, and their mutual friend François), takes place in Paris around 1920 in the milieu of members of the declining hereditary nobility, Russian emigrants, diplomats and various upstarts. From the moment that François starts visiting the D’Orgels, a complicated psychological game begins. François becomes completely obsessed by Mahaut, but he does not dare express his love and shrouds himself in his tormented feelings. Mahaut flirts more and more openly with François, often in a way in which the eroticism is increasingly revealed, but draws the line at becoming unfaithful to her husband. And that husband, as said above, only sees everything as a game, which reveals the emptiness and decadence in the life of the post-war nobility, continuously searching for new sensations, but without having any deep feelings.

Radiguet was a protege of Cocteau, who took care of the posthumous publication of this wonderful novel in a bibliophile edition. Radiguet was closely connected with the artistic bohemian circles of Montmartre and Montparnasse of the 1920s, including Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Max Jacob.

Radiguet was one of the favorite authors of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who especially admired Count Orgel for its elegant style. Mishma even called it “the Bible of his youth” and among his early short stories is one about the death of Radiguet and his relation with Cocteau; he also wrote several essays about Radiguet. It is also a common trend in Japanese culture to admire those who died young and pure with unfulfilled genius – as noted above, Radiguet was only twenty when he left this world. Finally, Mishima was fond of stories set in the milieu of the aristocracy – he wrote several himself, most notably Spring Snow, the first novel of his final tetralogy The Sea of Fertility. Radiguet exerted a seminal influence over the Japanese writer.

View all my reviews

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cherry blossom viewing in Kyoto, 2014 (Incline and Okazaki Park)

One of the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Kyoto is the Incline near Keage (on the Tozai subway line), the pass through the Higashiyama hills connecting Kyoto with Yamashina, near the Westin Miyako Hotel and Nanzenji temple.

The Lake Biwa Canal - which brings water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto and in the Meiji-period was also used for shipping - comes here out of the tunnel bored in the hills and then has to cope with a sharp drop of 36 meters. The water passes through large pipes and the natural force with which it drops down was used in Meiji times to drive the first hydro-electric plant in Japan.

[The Incline with the rails over which the boats navigating the Lake Biwa Canal were transported on railway carts]

The flat-bottomed boats which carried goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa were put on railway carts on the slope and pulled up and down between the points where the canal ended and started again.

The slope over which the rail carts were pulled was called "the Incline." Together with the Lake Biwa Canal Museum, the hydro-electric plant and the slope with its rails, carts and even models of the boats it has now become an industrial museum. Please see my more detailed post about the Incline and Lake Biwa Canal Museum.

[The Lake Biwa Canal at Okazaki]

The incline has been planted with cherry trees, like nearby Okazaki Park, where the canal starts again, running along the Kyoto zoo and the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. On top of the Incline is a small park with a statue of the young engineer who designed the canal and power plant, Tanabe Sakuro. The Incline seems to be less crowded than other blossom spots and the cherry trees, against the green background of the Nanzenji grounds, are beautiful.

[The torii of the Heian Shrine in Okazaki]

George Breitner: Girl in a White Kimono (Dutch Painting)

George Hendrik Breitner (1857 – 1923) painted Girl in a White Kimono in 1894. The painting is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

[Meisje in de witte kimono (1894), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

Inspired by ukiyoe prints, in 1894 Breitner made at least twelve paintings of a girl in kimono. On different paintings, the girl has different poses and the kimono also varies. The paintings are considered highlights of Dutch Japonisme.

On this painting, we see the girl reclining on a couch with her arms behind her head to better show off the long sleeves (probably belonging to a maiko, an apprentice geisha) of her silvery-white kimono. She wears a red under-dress and the kimono has been tied with an orange sash instead of the in Japan usual obi. Behind the couch on which she reclines, we see a Japanese screen.

[George Hendrik Breitner; foto van Willem Witsen - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

  • George Hendrik Breitner (1857 – 1923) was born in Rotterdam and studied at the Art Academy of The Hague. He was initially associated with landscape artist Willem Maris and in 1881-82 worked at the Panorama Mesdag in The Hague. In 1882, he met Vincent van Gogh, and sketched together in the poorer areas of The Hague. Breitner is considered as a representative of the Movement of 1880, a group of writers and painters who did away with the moralistic Biedermeier culture that had kept Holland in its stranglehold for much of the 19th century, and replaced it by fierce Romanticism, Naturalism and later also Impressionism. In 1886, Breitner moved to Amsterdam where he became an Amsterdam Impressionist and disassociated himself from the Hague School. He became a people's painter known for his dynamic street scenes. Breitner also painted nudes in a raw and naturalistic style. Around the turn of the century, Breitner was regarded as the most famous painter of the Netherlands. Unfortunately, his fame never crossed the borders of the country - foreign interest was geared more towards the picturesqueness of the Hague School. Breitner introduced social realism in the Netherlands and often painted grey and rainy streets. In Dutch, we even have the expression "Breitner weather..."
  • In 1892, Breitner attended an important exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague and this inspired him to acquire some prints, as well as kimonos and decorative screens, and try his hand at "Japonisme" (like Van Gogh did in the same period). Breitner's "Girl in Kimono" paintings contrast sharply with his usual impressionistic views of Amsterdam.
  • The innovative Breitner, by the way, was one of the first artists to use the medium of photography as a tool - several of his paintings, including those in the "Girl in Kimono" series, were based on photos he took with his then revolutionary hand-held camera (introduced by Kodak in 1888).
  • The girl with the dreamy look in her eyes is Geesje Kwak, a sixteen-year old working class girl who was one of Breitner's models. Geesje Kwak (1877-1899) was born in Zaandam and moved in 1893 to Amsterdam with her sister Anna to enter the young lady's profession of milliner. The sisters also soon came in contact with Breitner, who then had his studio at the pretty Lauriergracht in Amsterdam, and both worked as his models. This came to an end when Geesje emigrated to South-Africa with her elder sister Niesje. She died in 1899 in Pretoria at the young age of 22 due to tuberculosis. Geesje was properly paid as a model - there still exist notebooks about how long she posed and what she earned for it. Her contact with Breitner was purely businesslike.

[Geesje Kwak, photographed by Breitner - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

  • Breitner's "Girl in Kimono" paintings are decorative and intimate at the same time. Breitner seems not to have been interested in Japanese culture in itself (in contrast to Van Gogh), but rather in the colorful possibilities of painting a model wearing a kimono. Like his nudes, Breitner's kimono paintings were blasted by critics for their presumed "indecent poses."
  • Breitner's Girl in Red Kimono was sold in 2003 at Christie's for €582,450 to a private collector. 
[Girl in Red Kimono - Wikimedia - Public Domain]

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch

Just as in the case of the six years older Hermans, a frequent theme in Mulisch' work is the Second World War. The war was even present in his DNA, so to speak, for his father, an emigre to the Netherlands from Austria-Hungary, collaborated with the Germans during the war (for which he later spent three years in prison), while his mother was Jewish. But it was thanks to his father's collaboration that Mulisch and his mother escaped transportation to a concentration camp - his maternal grandmother died in a gas chamber.

We find the war in his first great novel, The Stone Bridal Bed (Het Stenen Bruidsbed, 1958), in which an American dentist visits the ruined city of Dresden in then East Germany, thirteen years after he himself took part in bombing raids. He has a brief affair with a German woman and her conquest is described in Homeric terms, as an attack on the city. Other war narratives are just as famous: about the Eichmann trial in Criminal Case 40/61 (1962), about the German occupation in The Assault (De aanslag, 1985) - a political thriller that explored collaboration and indifference and that catapulted Mulisch to general fame - and about Hitler's fictive son in Siegfried (2003).

After producing several novels and short story collections in the fifties, Mulisch mainly wrote essays in the 1960s, a period during which he was also actively engaged in leftist politics - he was a prominent defender of the Cuban revolution. In the 1970s he mainly wrote poetry and experimental work, but in the 1980s and 1990s he returned to the novel with a vengeance. In fact, he wrote his greatest work late in life - he completed The Discovery of Heaven, his magnum opus, when he was 65, but also wrote The Assault, Last Call, and Siegfried in these years (to name only the best ones).

The Discovery of Heaven has 65 chapters and can be called a summing up of Mulisch' life, as we find again the themes of war but also political action - one of the events described in the book is a visit to revolutionary Cuba. But Mulisch was also a philosopher - he wrote a philosophical study, The Composition of the World, and The Discovery of Heaven not only bulges with metaphysical speculation, it also masterfully intersperses mathematics, astronomy, biology, linguistics, numerology and philosophy. In the novel, one of the main characters, Max Delius, is Mulisch' alter ego, but with Mulisch' biography taken to extremes: Delius' father has been sentenced to death as a Nazi collaborator after the war, his Jewish mother has been sent to the extermination camps. Max will pay a visit to Auswitz and later, as a radio astronomer, he will be transferred to work at the Synthese Radio Telescope in Westerbork - a scientific complex built on the site of camp Westerbork, where Dutch Jews were gathered before their fatal train journey to Poland. 

The novel starts and ends with a mythological "frame" which also appears between the four parts. It is a discussion between two angels and partly based on the Faust-legend. As mankind has discovered both the secrets of life (DNA) and death (Auschwitz), God ("the Chief") wants to end his covenant with mankind and have the tablets he once gave to Moses returned to him. But Heaven is certainly not almighty in this novel and it is only with great difficulty that the angels are able to manipulate events on earth in such a way that two men and a woman meet and a child is conceived who is to become the person who will find the Tablets and return them to Heaven. In The Discovery of Heaven, Christianity is treated on the same level as Greek or Roman mythology in Western culture: nice to play with in literature or painting, but without any greater truth.

The two men who figure in the novel are Max Delius and Onno Quist, and they are very different personalities. Max is an astronomer, an extrovert and a womanizer, and Onno is a linguist, a heavy and silent man who later becomes a politician like many others in his patrician family. When they meet each other in 1967 they immediately become close friends. In fact, Max is Mulisch' alter ego, and Onno is modeled on Mulisch' friend, the chess master Jan Hein Donner (1927-1988), who like the Onno in the novel came from a family of well-known protestant politicians (his nephew was until recently a cabinet minister).The two personalities are also symbolic: Max stands for the ratio, for science, the discovery of heaven by modern man via astronomy and other sciences. Ironically, he is killed by a meteorite just after he believes he has observed the space-time singularity. Onno is his opposite: as a linguist (he has deciphered the ancient Etruskan language and speaks about every language of the world) and as a politician he is a man of the word, and so also of mythology. Together with his son Quinten, Onno finally discovers the Tablets in Rome and so the myth behind the present novel.

The first part of the novel is the most beautiful one, describing the meeting and interaction of the two friends. They also meet the cellist Ada, who first becomes the girlfriend of Max - his first somewhat longer relationship, as he only used to consume love via one-night stands - but after a misunderstanding between the two, she next becomes the wife of Onno. But when the three of them visit Cuba for a musical festival, Max makes once more love to Ada on a Cuban beach, and that same night she sleeps with Onno, so when she gets pregnant, it is unclear whose child she is carrying.

In Part Two disaster strikes. Ada never sees that child herself, for fate intervenes in the form of a traffic accident that causes her to slip into a permanent coma. The child, Quinten, is born safely, however, and is taken care of by Max and the mother of Ada (with whom omnivore Max has a rather weird relationship). They live in an apartment in an old castle, not far from Westerbork where Max is working for the radio telescope, and that is where Part Three is situated. This section describes the education of Quinten, a precocious and unnaturally beautiful youth, who learns many interesting things from the other inhabitants of the flats that have been created in the old castle. One is an architect, who shows him pictures of old buildings, such as the Lateran Palace in Rome, which Quiten also has seen in a dream; another is a lock maker; a third one is a printer.

In this part also Onno's political ambitions are foiled - about to become Minister of Defense, his visit to Cuba serves as a spanner in the wheels of his career. In the same period, his girl friend is murdered by a vagrant, and disgusted with Holland, he leaves on a trip with the intention of becoming a recluse and never returning, without telling anyone where he goes. Later, Max, who in a moment of lucidity (or wine induced hallucinations?) believes he has discovered the basic principle of the universe, is killed by a meteor falling from the heavens, before he can share his discovery with the world.

In Part Four, Quinten has come of age and decides to start traveling and both look for his father and the strange building he has seen in his dreams. Logically, he goes to Italy, first Venice, then Rome, where he is spotted by his father, who now looks like a tramp. But they team up for the finale of the quest for which Quinten has been celestially destined. This leads to a surprising solution that is perhaps a bit too much Raiders of the Lost Ark - although also Eco's Foucault's Pendulum comes to mind - (they find the Tablets in the Lateran palace in Rome), but that also has a beautiful denouement in Jerusalem - not the physical tablets, but the text written on them are reclaimed by the angels, and Quinten is transfigured together with the text which falls apart in its constituting signs. "In the beginning was the Word," and that word has now been take back by God, but at the same time we are left with the words of Harry Mulisch in our hands, in the form of this superb mythology.

This philosophical novel is a masterly synthesis of idea and story, making complex concepts not only comprehensible but also dramatizing them, immersing the reader in a fast-paced narrative peopled with vivid characters. Nowhere does the story lose its grip on the reader, also thanks to Mulisch' sense of humor. And like Rituals by Cees Nooteboom, Mulisch also paints a moving picture of life in the Netherlands, especially in the late 1960s (in the first part of the novel).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Goma (Japanese condiments)

Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is an annual, flowering plant which is cultivated for its seeds, which grow in pods. Sesame has been long known to mankind as an oilseed: it was first cultivated about 5,000 years ago in Egypt and the Sahara area. It was already know in Japan in the middle or later Jomon-period (2,500-300 BCE) and there are records of its cultivation for lamp oil in the Nara-period (710-784). In the ensuing Heian-period (794-1185) it was also used for medicinal purposes.

Nowadays, 99.9% of all sesame used in Japan is imported. Only a small amount is produced on Kikaijima, one of the Amami Islands belonging to Kagoshima prefecture. The highest production of sesame comes from Burma, India and China.

Sesame has a nutty flavor and is rich in oil. It comes in three forms: white, black and golden (this last one is said to have the best aroma, but is not readily available). White sesame seeds contain more oil than black ones, but black sesame has a somewhat stronger, nuttier flavor.

Sesame seeds are sold in four forms: (1) untoasted, (2) toasted, (3) toasted and roughly ground, as well as (4) toasted and ground into a smooth paste.

One can toast sesame seeds oneself by heating a dry frying pan over low to medium heat, then put in the seeds and toast them in 1-2 minutes. Shake the pan occasionally so that all the seeds get heated through. Be careful not to overroast the sesame.

For grinding, in Japan a suribachi is used, a bowl-shaped ceramic mortar which has small grooves on the inside. For the grinding, a wooden pestle (surikogi) is necessary, so that the bowl is not damaged. Grind the seeds until they are flaky and aromatic. Ground sesame is only good fresh, so use it soon after grinding.

[Sesame seeds (goma) with mortar (suribachi) and wooden pestle (surikogi)]

Sesame is used in Japan in the following ways:
  • Toasted but not ground (irigoma): black sesame seeds are sprinkled over rice or other dishes to add a color accent (furikake). Sesame seed is also an important ingredient in prepackaged furikake. Both black and white sesame seeds can be used on the outside of uramaki (inside-outside rolls, like the California roll).
  • Toasted and ground sesame is called surigoma in Japanese. Used in many recipes in the Japanese cuisine, starting with adding it to shira-ae (cooked vegetables dressed with tofu). As on the picture above, surigoma can also be used in the sauce for tonkatsu.
  • Sesame dressing (gomadare) is one of the most popular dressings for salads in Japan and can be found in all supermarkets.
  • Sesame paste (nerigoma) is also sold in supermarkets and can be used as a spread on bread, like peanut butter (but much more tasty!). 
  • Sesame oil (goma-abura). The best oil for cooking, thanks to its flavor, often blended as it is rather thick. It is indispensable in the oil mixture used for deep-frying tempura.
Sesame is high in proteins and since olden times, various health benefits have been ascribed to it.

"Goma" has also found its way into general culture. As grinding sesame seeds in a suribachi is hard work, the expression "goma-suri" was born to indicate "flattery," especially flattery of one's superior.