For me books have always been like friends. Paul Morand once said that we carry different versions of the same books with us throughout our lives and react to different things as we change and get older. I love to re-open old favourites and look at passges underlined in pencil which obviously meant a lot to me and which had been forgotten. Have I really changed so much? Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like without this endless stream of printed pages I'm so dependent on but that seems unimaginable. In a way though, I had to love reading because of the mini library I grew up in which probably also explains why dust doesn't bother me! My mother fed me words, not just cakes. As a child, I wrote stories; once the headmistress of the school read one out and it felt so strange hearing my own words that I was no longer sure it was even my story anymore. At the end, she asked the author to stand up. It took me about five minutes to get over my embaressment and then I was crushed not to get a prize like the other kids who'd painted pictures. Perhaps it explains why I've never been brave enough to write a novel or a story, even though it gives me so much pleasure to write.
Back then, I even had the courage to talk to authors at book readings my parents took me along to. It didn't bother me that I didn't know anything about their work and I felt special being the only kid there. The first books I can remember were the Orlando ones about a marmelade cat and his family which included a naughty black kitten called Tinkle who had a pet spider in his pocket. Then there was The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the story of a tiger who called round at a little girl's house and was so hungry and thirsty that he emptied the cupboards and drank all the water out of the taps so later she couldn't take her bath and the whole family had to eat at a café. The major obsesssion though were the Narnia books which made me travel to a world so different from my own. They made me laugh but also cry and never before had anything been so important as getting through the next volume. When the TV version was on, I felt disappointed that it wasn't at all how I'd imagined everything; it just seemed dull and obvious. I guess I knew even then that sometimes the wonderful journey books take us on can only be experienced for ourselves and that no image, however beautiful can replace the first impressions words make on us.
One day though, I stopped reading; I can't tell you exactly when or why. Perhaps it was an overdose or a teenage rebelllion against how my parents wanted me to be, I honestly don't know but I didn't miss it at all. Later on though, books became my way or rebelling against being an outsider at school. I was considered strange because I was the hopelessly shy girl with braces and no sense of style who couldn't relate to others. Reading made me different, it gave me something over them I could use and I sat alone in a corner of the classroom at breaktimes with Fitzgerald, Camus or Beauvoir who none of them had ever heard of. With books, you can be somebody different and you never feel alone. I sobbed at the lost youth of Le Grand Meaulnes, my heart was pounding at the love story of L'écume des jours and I longed to be as cheeky and clever as Zazie. Most of all, drifting from line to line, the sense of time faded away. It's still wonderful to do that in the U-Bahn, just immersed in my book, even if I tend to miss my stop. Since then, the addiction to words has never left me and I love to think of all the unexplored literary places I have yet to visit. I still feel amazed that such a small, simple object like a book can give me so much and personally, there's nothing which would terrify me more than the thought of being without something to read. On my return to Munich, I finally started my first Carson McCullers book and wondered why it took me so long. It's like something that's been waiting for me to open; the loneliness , the connections with others, the humanity and her amazing descriptions. I find myself unable to get it out of my mind and want to savour every minute of it slowly but also read it all in one go non-stop. It's been a while since a book really made me feel like that but below are some others I adore.
Some authors I can't live without:
This is probably on most people's reading list and I'm honestly not trying to show off by listing him! I first became interested when I bought Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life and then Malcolm Bowie's beautiful Proust Among the Stars made me see how modern, touching and eccentric he can be. I love the way each volume of the Recherche has its own colours and style and I find it hard to think of anyone who made me see the pain and beauty of life and love so much. I adore (and am frustrated too) how the long, long sentences slow you down and how he weaves the text together, moving back and forth and reminding us of everything we've lost. I feel guilty for abandoning him at volume five but know I'll come back to him and his curious circle of characters who stay with you long after you've closed the book.
J. and I were sitting one winter in a bookshop in Arles, looking at a Libération book on twentieth century culture. "You must know him", he told me, (I had never heard of him) "He thought all Germans were Nazis but he's also one of best writers in German." I couldn't imagine the kind of books he had written but a little later he brought me one back from Germany called Alte Meister and I had never read anything like it before. Long sentences again like with Proust but which repeated themselves like in music, going round and round. He was so critical but so funny and the situations he observed were almost tragi-comic - the public toilets in Vienna, the Habsburg's lack of artistic taste, guided tours in museums. It's impossible to translate him properly into English (it works better in French because of the special tense used for reported speech) but I love the exaggeration of his descriptions and the uniqueness of his style.
I was so obsessed with foreign languages and reading books in them that I neglected ones in English for some time but these days, I can't seem to get enough of books in English. If I could write like anyone, I would choose Fitzgerald. I love the gorgeous sensuality of his language and the things or people he describes, whether it's Gatsby's parties or a beach in the South of France. I love the way things are doomed against a beautiful, glittering sky and the fragility of it all. Every time I re-read Gatsby, I feel the sadness of the broken American dream more and more.
Simone de Beauvoir
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is one of the most important books I've ever read, even though I love the other volumes of autobiography too. I read it as a spotty, scruffy teenager and it instantly spoke to me with her honesty, the way she wrote about the confusion and pain of growing up, the fact that she didn't believe in anything religious. I almost felt I knew her. From that moment, I wanted to be an intellectual, to shape my life like her and study philosophy. I didn't exactly achive the first thing but managed the last! Even today, I can still remember the pain I felt, reading about Zaza (I don't want to say anymore for those who haven't yet read it).
Moderato Cantabile was the first French book I read from beginning to end and the short, simple phrases made me feel confused but also fascinated. Not much seemed to happen but somehow every bit of dialogue and expression was important. After that I read the earlier more descriptive books like Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique and La Vie Tranquille which were so different but still mesmerizing and La Douleur was something I read and re-read constantly as student with its beautful, poignant descriptions. I haven't read any of her books for some time now but have never stopped dreaming of going to Normandy to discover the places where Marguerite once was.
The book of poems lies constantly beside my bed and I try to read at least a couple before going to sleep. They're often so painful and dark but her words make me feel at least someone understands me, even at the saddest times. Perhaps the most beautiful things written in German.
There are, of course so many other books and writers left unmentioned; Jane Austen, Alice in Wonderland, Molesworth, Modiano, Kundera, Heiner Müller, Calvino.
To finish this long post, a recipe which brings back memories of my first ever trip to Germany and Bavaria when the day was wet and rainy. We sat in a café close to Austria with some Amercian friends, waiting endlessly for the sun. J. recommended Kaiserschmarrn to me, a name that always amuses me because it literally means Emperor nonsense, although it's a kind of eggy pancake. It was filling and comforting and has been a firm favourite of mine ever since. It's traditionally served with raisons soaked in rum (but I prefer mine without) and also plum jam. I've always had mine with Apflemus though which is why I chose it this time too but any jam would work well.
Kaiserschmarrn (for 2 people as a main meal or 4 as a dessert)
125g plain flour
a pinch of salt
3 eggs, separated
a little butter for frying
icing sugar and jam or compote to serve
1. Put the sugar and salt in a bowl and mix in the egg yolks using a balloon whish until frothy and light orange.
2. Add the milk a little at a time, blending well, then gradually stir in the flour until you have a smooth mixture.
3. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold them in carefully and blend well.
4. Melt a little butter in a large frying pan then when the pan is hot, pour in the mixture. When it's brown underneath, turn it and continue cooking until you have everything is golden brown. Then use two forks to cut it into pieces. Remove from the heat and turn out onto a plate, Dust with icing sugar and serve with the jam or compote of your choice.