Thursday

Nov. 20, 2014

Recollection of Tranquility

by Idris Anderson

The first time we ever quarreled
you were cutting an onion
in the kitchen of our rented cottage.
I remember vividly. We were making creole
for a late night supper with champagne,
and you were taking it seemed forever
to cut the onion.
Each time your dull paring knife
chopped on the counter, I shifted my feet,
and I saw once in a glimpse over my shoulder
a white wedge of onion wobbling loose.
I sighed inaudibly. The butter I stirred
had already bubbled and browned.
I was starting over with a new yellow lump
that was slipping on the silver aluminum
when you brought, cupped in your hands,
the broken pieces, the edges all ragged,
the layers separated, bruised and oozing
cloudy white onion juice.
I complained:
the family recipe stated specifically,
the onion must be "finely chopped,"
for what I explained were very good reasons.
Otherwise, the pungent flavors would be trapped
irrevocably in the collapsed cellular structure
of the delicate root.

You sighed, I guess, inaudibly
and adjusted your glasses carefully
with two fingers (a fidget
I have since come to know
as a sign of mild perturbation)
and explained:
the pungence of onions too finely chopped
would be simmered away. The original sharp
burning crispness could be retained
only in fairly large, bite-sized chunks.
But you wouldn't fight tradition.
I mopped onion on the counter
with the dull knife, while you set the table
and figured the best way of popping the cork.

"Recollection of Tranquility" by Idris Anderson, from Mrs. Ramsay's Knee. © Utah State University Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1971 a ban was placed on the use of the popular pesticide DDT. The American public's knowledge of DDT and its environmental dangers was in large part due to Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring (1962).

It's the birthday of the novelist Don DeLillo (1936) (books by this author). He was born in the Bronx, New York, and said: "I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles. And I also became a writer by avoiding serious commitment to anything else." He developed a reading habit when he was a teenager, working a summer job as a playground attendant, a "parkie": "I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck — which they provided — the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wore blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my pocket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulkner, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And I got paid for it." All that reading eventually led to an interest in writing, particularly in emulating Hemingway, who was one of his early heroes. After college, he took a job as an advertising copywriter, but quit just as he was getting good at it, he said.

He began his first novel, Americana (1971), in 1966. "I don't always know when or where an idea first hits the nervous system, but I remember Americana. I was sailing in Maine with two friends, and we put into a small harbor on Mt. Desert Island. And I was sitting on a railroad tie waiting to take a shower, and I had a glimpse of a street maybe fifty yards away and a sense of beautiful old houses and rows of elms and maples and a stillness and wistfulness — the street seemed to carry its own built-in longing. And I felt something, a pause, something opening up before me. It would be a month or two before I started writing the book and two or three years before I came up with the title Americana, but in fact it was all implicit in that moment." It was in the process of writing that book that he finally began to see himself as a writer.

It's his 1997 Cold War epic Underworld that critic Martin Amis said marked "the ascension of a great writer." DeLillo didn't expect much of the book when he finished it, feeling that, at 800 pages and with more than 100 characters, it was too complicated.

He published his 15th novel, Point Omega, in 2010, and his most recent, a collection called The Angel Esmeralda, in 2011. The book gathers nine of his short stories over the span of his career.

Don DeLillo said: "I've never thought about myself in terms of a career. ... I don't have a career, I have a typewriter."

It's the birthday of writer Nadine Gordimer (books by this author), born in Springs, South Africa (1923). When she was a child, her mother had a crush on the family doctor, and she used Gordimer's chronic rapid heartbeat as an excuse to call him out on lengthy house calls. The mother had a taste for drama, and a part of her enjoyed having a fragile daughter — even though Gordimer later found out that her ailment was not life-threatening. Her mother was possessive and stifling, and Gordimer found it difficult to break loose, even as an adult. Her only freedom was found in books — first as a reader and then as a writer. She wanted to write about life in South Africa, but exploring her society meant encountering the repression of black South Africans. Even though she never intended to write political novels, she couldn't seem to avoid it, and that's what she became known for. Three of her novels were banned in South Africa, two of them for more than a decade each.

During the 1970s, she was criticized for writing from the point of black characters when she herself was white. She said, "There are things that blacks know about whites that we don't know about ourselves, that we conceal and don't reveal in our relationships — and the other way about." The characters in her books worked against apartheid in a number of ways: driving fugitives across the border, hiding them from the police, and passing secret messages. Over the years, Gordimer revealed that she had done all of those things herself, quietly, and that was what had inspired the stories. But she resisted being enlisted as a spokesperson for the anti-apartheid movement. She was a member of the African National Congress party, but she never paid her dues in person until apartheid ended in the 1990s. With all the changes in South Africa, people assumed that she would have nothing more to write about, but she said, "It wasn't apartheid that made me a writer, and it isn't the end of apartheid that's going to stop me." She was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991.

Nadine Gordimer died in Johannesburg this past July, at the age of 90.

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