samedi 26 juin 2010


If I think back to other times of my life, I can most easily define them in terms of the books that I was reading. They are as much my companions as the places that I went to or the people that I met. At the age of 7 , the Narnia series captured my attention; I could recite the order of the stories off by heart when asked by my teacher, shunned every TV adaptation because what they offered couldn't possibly compete with my imagination and cried after reading a book of the author, C.S Lewis' letter to children when I learned that he was no longer alive. During the eighties, we took our caravan over to France and around different parts of England in the school holidays, exploring castles and charming little towns during the day and when evening fell, playing cards and reading our books. One summer was spent in Lincolnshire where we visited Belton House, used in the wonderful TV series Moondial, one of the most popular books among my generation about a girl who discovers a lost world which appears through a sun/moondial and which made me want to change my name to Minty like the heroine. On the campsites where we stayed, it was easy to make friends; that summer, I met a younger girl staying with her grandparents. She came over for tea and we played with some china figures which ended disastrously because I broke one of hers and she left in tears. Close by, in a disused barn; I peered through gaps in the wood to see groups of children jumping from one side to another and playing games; one of them caught me spying but invited me to join them, although the owner forbade us from going there shortly after because it was unsafe. The last evenings, I was invited by a brother and sister for tea in their caravan. The father offered me a barbequed banana, black and soft, which probably explains why it's not my favourite fruit and the mother did her best to convince her daughter to have her long hair cut off into a bob like mine.

There are images of a different holiday in the Dordogne around the age of 10 in a gîte filled with mosquitoes and copies of Hello magazine left by previous holidaymakers. I played tricks on my poor father like locking him in the bathroom so that he had to escape out of the window, making his way through a field in a dressing gown. Details of the plot have gone but the book that time was called Emlyn's Moon; I remember that it gripped me so much, I couldn't put it down, that I stayed up late to finish it and that the end made me cry.

Then for a few years, I stopped reading; words weighed too heavily upon me, books were my mother's obsession and I wanted to rebel and find my own way. Eventually though, I felt a need for them once more in late adolescence, discovering Camus' The Stranger or The Plague which made one teacher in school warn me that he was far too depressing. Perhaps most importantly, there was Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir which I've talked about so often. There was a week in Cambridge, lonely and sad, sitting on a park bench on Parker's Piece with only Dr. Zhivago to comfort me while at university, there was the joy of books in French for the first time, like Baudelaire's poetry, Nerval's Sylvie and Proust. There was the lost innocence of Le Grand Meaulnes, finished in a National Express coach to London with tears running down my face, even if I felt that I was really too old to fully appreciate it at 21 and the doomed romanticism of Stendhal's The Chartreuse of Parma the summer I left for France. Sometimes, I feel nostalgic for those moments and long to experience them again, as if returning to the past was as simple as opening a book.

In the past couple of weeks, I've read three books that were so wonderful, I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else, often missing my underground station. Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a truly beautiful story about friendship, loss and the places of our childhood we long to recover, was like a jigsaw puzzle I couldn't wait to piece together while at the same time not wanting it to finish. It seems like almost everyone is reading Sylvia Plath these days; my first experience with her was as a child when my mother, feeling unwell, asked me to read her a poem from a large anthology. I chose one from Plath's Ariel called You're which to me with its images of clownlike faces seemed quite cheerful but it didn't help my mother to feel better. I was a little afraid of starting the Bell Jar, her only novel about a young woman's mental breakdown, but it turned out to be beautifully written, moving and not depressing. Lastly, I finally got around to Isherwood's A Single Man: I had no doubt it would be a wonderful book but somehow wondered whether the beauty of the film images would overwhelm the written story. Isherwood's prose though is so amazing that I was able to keep the two experiences side by side, even with two distinct sets of pictures of the characters in my mind. Choosing a new book is difficult though; I keep calling in bookshops, scanning my piles of unread ones but the choice is overwhelming and at the back of my mind, there's the fear of disappointment.


Sometimes memory can weigh upon you like a stone. In the past week, there were visits to the Jewish museum and to the memorial to the murdered Jews in Mitte. The latter was a place I went to during my first ever visit to Berlin and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Large concrete slabs in rows that become deeper the further you go in. It can be rather claustrophobic at times. The Jewish museum was a revelation though. On the ground floor, you find yourself in the middles of three axes; exile, holcaust and continuity. The ultra modern building looks like a broken star from above and everything inside disconcerts you; no right angles,the garden of exile with its columns on uneven ground so you never feel secure or comfortable and the holocaust tower, a dark, unheated concrete room with just a crack of light at the top. It all sounds rather heavy going but upstairs, there were sections about Jewish history and culture; a tree on which you can hang your wishes, written on paper apples, one of which simply said "un amour", paintings, scientists and kosher. I came out knowing there was still so much to understand and learn about but also inspired in a way that few museums have made me feel.

Near Hallesches Tor in Kreuzberg

The Jewish museum

The Garden of Exile

Fallen leaves

The poet Paul Celan

The Jewish museum from the outside; from above, it forms a broken star

Karl Marx stamps

Chocolate tart

The last asparagus of the season

Fragments of the Berlin Wall on Potsdamer Platz

The new U.S embassy

The Holocaust memorial near the Brandenburg Gate

Somehow the waxwork has more personality than the real Beckenbauer

Is this a respectful way to treat Marx?

The Neptune fountain at Alexanderplatz

Chocolate mousse cake (slightly adapted from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess)

Another Nigella recipe but after making it last night, one that I couldn't resist posting. I made it long ago, that time using the water bath she recommends but it still worked out great even by leaving that step out. I also reduced the amount of butter and just used caster sugar instead of muscovado. It managed to be rich and light, squidgy but intense.

300g good quality dark chocolate
50g milk chocolate
8 eggs, separated
125g butter
100g sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt

1. In a double boiler or the microwave, melt the butter and chocolate then leave to cool slightly.
2. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together till thick and pale then add the vanilla extract and salt and finally the chocolate mixture.
3. Whisk the egg yolks until you have soft peaks. Take a spoonful and mix into the chocolate and egg yolks before carefully folding in the rest. Pour the batter into a greased and lined springform tin and bake in the oven at 180°C until the top is cooked but you still have a damp, squigdy texture underneath. Remove and leave to cool completely in the tin before transfering to a plate.

31 commentaires:

  1. Your picturea are beautiful! Berlin seems to be an extremely photogenic place (Jewish memorial, Potzdamer Platz, etc...).

    That chocolate mousse cake looks to die for!



  2. This post is a wonderful tribute to the power of the written word. I'm also a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro's work.

  3. Your post is so rich in thoughts and images. The history in Berlin is like a shadow that follows you everywhere. Karl Marx needs some levity.

  4. I laughed out loud reading about that china figure. I must really be mean (or maybe I sympathize because I'm quite clumsy!).
    Gorgeous cake as usual....

  5. @Rosa - Berlin isn't beautiful like Paris or Venice but it has a kind of rough charm which you may not appreciate at first glance. The cake is awesome and i'm going to make it again on Wednesday for a birthday.
    @Des - I can't wait to get my hand on his latest book. I remember the nice post you did on Remins of the Day, a film I'm dying to see again soon.
    @P.K - I think it's a difficult burden to carry, the past for Germans and it means that apart from football, they can never really show pride in their country. I agree with you about Marx though; it's pretty heavy going.
    @Pia - My china figure was quite a bit bigger than hers and I banged into it so it broke which made her burst into tears. Good to know I'm not alone in my clumsiness. Later on we had a fight about a large stone; honestly, the things that are important when you're 8 years old!

  6. Ton titre est aussi celui de la dernière publication d'Ishiguro... Never let me go m'avait fait le même effet, j'étais ensorcelée ! Je me rappelle les heures passées sur le canapé à côté de la fenêtre, incapable de me résoudre à revenir à la vie normale. Je note Isherwood, que je n'ai encore jamais lu. Tes souvenirs de vacances me font penser aux étés à la mer de mon enfance et aux copains de vacances !

  7. My son just studied the Holocaust in school. Next year's history will include the "Mauerbau und -fall". Berlin is on the list for next summer.

  8. Interesting that you gave up books for a while, I can't imagine a Vanessa without books. I first read Ishiguro when I was about 14 (The Remains of the Day) and hated it, but in the last few months, I've devoured Nocturnes, An Artist of the Floating World, The Unconsoled and The Remains of the Day. Like moving through syrup, so slow but sweet.
    I remember reading Plath but I was gripped by a feeling that she allowed herself to be a victim and that annoyed me too much to enjoy it.
    There's a library here in a beautiful old building that I often visit, I'm making my way through the English books there.
    Love the photo of the broken star (there's a little typo in the main text, it says "borken star" heh, I thought at first it was a new word for me) when you fix it can you delete this bit of my comment? Thanks x

  9. Si vous insistez toutes, je vais finir par lire Sylvia Plath :)
    C'est drole, quand j'y reflechis, j'associe des livres a certaines epoques moi aussi. La recherche, Balzac, Gide, Tolkien, Yourcenar ont marque certains de mes etes. Moins maintenant, il faut dire que la pile de livre a lire est interminable, tellement on a d'envies.
    J'ai adore The remains of the Days, je crois que c'est le seul Ishiguro que j'ai lu - mais surement pas le dernier.
    Continue donc a nous donner des envies de lire.

  10. Coffee and pie is on my summer reading list :)

  11. @Rose - Oui, j'y pensais quand je l'ai choisi; ca me rappelle Chopin aussi. C'est ton billet qui m'a donné envie de ce livre - merci beaucoup, J'étais vraiment bouleversée. Il y en a un film qui sort bientôt mais je ne sais pas si je veux le voir car je crains d'être déçue.
    @My Kitchen in the rockies - Will you also be coming? It'd be nice to see you if you are.
    @Sasa - Today I find that hard to imagine too but as a teenager I was crazy about TV and used to watch hours of it every day, especially Amercian programmes. Now I don't even own one and a day without reading is tough. Funnily, I was put off Plath for a long time of an early experience with her poems which I found somewhat impenetrable and as you say, a victim but now I could appreciate that beautiful prose and find it amazing how objectvely she analyses things. Thanks for pointing out that typo; I make quite a few as I'm a lousy typist but try to correct thrm, although there's always the odd one that escapes, argh! I can't delete the end of your comment, only the whole thing but don't worry.
    @Gracienne - C'est drôle, comme toutes ces bloggeuses lisent Plath tout d'un coup. Avant, j'avais souvent regardé son livre mais j'avais peur de m'y lancer. Tu me fais regretter que je n'ai pas encore lu Youcenar et très peu de Balzac; c'est peut-être un très bon choix pour mon prochain roman.
    @Tracy - And Amuse-Bouche is on mine!

  12. I love how you describe defining moments by the books you are reading. I have books in my collection that spark similar feelings for me. I also tend to do this with music; summer time records include Fleet Foxes and The Cave Singers, where winter music is more Pink Martini and Hockey. Listening to these records out of their season evokes happy memories of the past. Thanks for the post and the lovely pictures.

  13. Interesting, books as markers of time. I haven't thought about that before.

  14. I'm smiling because I can mark moments in my life by the books I was reading too. And fortunately, I have three children who feel the same way about books. What a pleasure for a mother.

    Your photos are particularly fascinating today. I love architecture/lines/angles and you've photographed a lot of it for this post.
    Let alone that divine chocolate cake!

    Really nice post, Vanessa!

  15. i love reading and visitng every sight with you through your lens, lovely cake


  16. @Claudia - Thanks a lot!
    Nicolette - Yes, you're absolutely right, songs takes you back there so that you can almost visualise the moment. I'll have to check out your choices - my music knowledge is sadly lacking.
    @Lecia - Well, it works that way for me. As Nicolette mentioned, music might be a more obvious choice or films perhaps.
    @Barbara - I didn't mention the children's books I cherished but what a joy it is to share the love of reading with children. You must have some great memories. Architecture and buildings are fascinating for me too but I often feel limited by not having a wide angle lens which brings out the best in designs but then again, maybe it's a challenge to make me find more interesting views. Thanks dear Barbara!
    @Bonnie - Kind words as always, thanks so much.

  17. I just love the way you combine such thought provoking text with beautiful imagery and delicious looking sweets. It is special.

  18. Beautiful post! Makes me want about the books of my life too. What a great topic!

    Lots of cool pictures in that article. I like when you shoot people too. There's a special kindness in the way you catch them wandering in the streets and it makes them beautiful.

    I adore Sylvia Plath myself, but I've never read the Bell Jar. I find its cover -the one you show on the right- absolutely wonderful by the way.

  19. i've been looking for a good book, wrote those three down, thanks for sharing!

    I love the softness of the last photo in this post. The subject is nice too, of course :)

  20. @Denise - Coming from you, that's such a big compliment - you really made my day.
    @Magda - I'd love to know more about the books in your life so please write about them. It's funny because I often thought that I didn't like shooting people because I didn't really know how to. I think a good photographer somehow gets under the skin of their subjects. But last Friday, I felt like trying it out and it was fun, even if it can be tricky capturing people when they're not looking. The Faber and Faber cover is part of a classic reissue series with old fashioned covers. I'm totally into them.
    @Shirin - I recommend the Ishiguro most of all but am sure you'd like any of them. Let me know how you get on. Thanks for the lovely comment.

  21. Beautifully written and photographed. That cakes looks amazing, I would gladly have a slice.

    Be Well

  22. I loved reading this post and looking at all your pictures. I went to Berlin for the first time about two years ago and I'd love to go back (armed with all the knowledge of the places I missed first time round). I remember the Holocaust Denkmal very well; it was so cold that day. I travelled with my father and he hated the memorial. I remember him saying that it was awful and ugly, and me replying, "That's the point." It's so hard to imagine Berlin being split in two, even though it wasn't terribly long ago.

    I must read The Bell Jar. I have been apprehensive, too, but you have inspired me.

  23. The words are as rich and wonderful as the cake. So many books like markers in our lives.. holding places of change and loss and joy... we hold bits of these characters in ourselves. The photos were really great today... great post!

  24. Your observations about books and time are very true, indeed. Actually, that would make a very interesting game to play with good friends: try and guess when and where a person read a certain book (everyone would have to submit a list) and then let her/him tell her/his story. I sense a great potential for fun here ;).

  25. @Lazaro - It'd be nice to share the cake with you.
    @Amber - If you ever return let me know. I feel the same way about Berlin, no matter how hard I try, the thought of everything divided seems so unreal. As a little girl, I remember seeing the wall come down but today there are so few traces. Do try the Bell Jar, it's different from how you think.
    @Deana - I like to think that we carry different versions of the same books within ourselves which change as we get older and have different experiences. Thanks so much for your lovely words.
    @Agnès - With your knowledge of literature, I can only imagine what wonderful things you would come up with. I love the idea for the game and would like to try that out as well.

  26. Wonderful words, pictures and the cake, well it's one of my favourites.

  27. Oh and the picture - It was as simple as that - is great in every way.

  28. I just finished a beautiful book called "Astrid and Veronika" by Linda Olsson, which was so good, I hated to finish it. I love a book that makes me feel that way, as if I will never find another book that will take its place, and then suddenly, one appears. I think I will try to replace it with "A Single Man".

  29. I almost forgot: you might want to read Ninni Holmqvist's "The Unit" (oder in der deutschen Übersetzung "Die Entbehrlichen"; it's a Swedish novel), as it has a lot in common with "Never let me go" (which I loved too).

  30. Apologies for taking so long to reply to you all!
    @Rachel - Thanks so much
    @cj - Thanks for all the book tips. I've compiled a list and am hoping to find your recommendations in London this week. Finding a book to follow a perfect one is a tough call but I hope you like the Isherwood.
    @Agnes - Oh great, I'll be sure to look out for that one.