Having been entrusted with a regular column by your editor (a friend of mine – wot’s talent wen u kno ppl), and eager to please, I ploughed headlong into Metamorphosis and then one of Kafka’s mesmerising short stories, Conversation with the Supplicant, a Salingeresque attack on pretence set in pre-war Prague (The Catcher in the Žito?), whereupon I ran out of steam and watched Jamie Oliver assemble a whacking great burger.
A wiry blond bloke from the American south, introduced as the “king of the grill”, egged him on from behind a Budweiser. Given his reputation, I wondered why the American wasn’t doing the cooking. “This burger is the ultimate,” Oliver lisped, as its contents began spilling all over his lap.
I ran out of steam and watched Jamie Oliver assemble a whacking great burger.
On Wednesday, I wrote a news story about a colossal new pipeline, the Keystone XL, which will one day transport Canadian crude to refineries in Texas. Obama vetoed it, Trump approved it. I pointed out, as many have before, that Canadian oil is among the world’s dirtiest. Quickly, I was branded an “environmentalist” (the horror, the horror).
One reader, almost certainly bald, suggested in the comments that Canada’s Justin Trudeau and myself be placed in “permanent isolation”. Aside from the sad departure of beloved girlfriend, and further distance from family, friends, mementos and books, it would irk me to have a flatmate who’s so busy running a country that he almost never wants to play Fifa. On the plus side, I’d finally get that interview I’ve been after for months…
“Do you reckon, as Merkel and Putin have claimed, that the liberal order is over then?”
“Can you please just focus on bagging up that wood, we don’t have long until nightfall.”
To Metamorphosis, Caesar!, and absurdist realism, a literary genre (pronounced the French way) I am obsessed with.
Kafka’s hero, Gregor Samsa, a diligent, hard working cloth salesman paying off a family debt to an unpleasant employer, wakes up one morning as a huge, putrid, brown liquid exuding insect. Just a glance at him is enough to send his mother crashing to the floor, while his father jabs at him with a walking stick.
Samsa, for his part, is more concerned about having missed a train than his hideous exterior, like a guy taking his girlfriend to the League Cup final for valentines day and chalking her disgruntlement up to Wigan having lost – “Darren, do you not even realise why I’m annoyed?”.
It is lunacy, of course, but the message is not. The story is about entrapment, the loss of agency, forfeiting control to some twisted power. Very few of us are lucky enough to feel a sense of control at the best of times, let alone housebound during a pandemic, at the mercy of a deadly disease that is, like most of its dastardly kind, rather invisible. And Samsa, like many coronavirus patients, has his meals left outside the door.
Very few of us are lucky enough to feel a sense of control at the best of times, let alone housebound during a pandemic…
Incidentally, why does food referenced in literature – particularly early 20th century (picture the hearty spreads in the asylum of Mann’s Magic Mountain) seem so appetising at first reading? A large bowl of fresh milk, “in which swam tiny globs of white bread”, yes please – on second thought…
Cut to Philip Roth’s The Breast, a piece of deeply experimental writing, about a handsome doctor who metamorphoses into a breast. Life takes a turn for Kapesh after that, although his misery is punctuated by a diligent nurse and a non-plussed former lover who “milk” the monstrosity, shall we say.
“What about The Nose by Gogol,” I hear you shrieking, learned reader. One day a man loses his nose and after a hunt finds it seducing women in a grotty bar.
Silly perhaps, but not necessarily more so than thousands of bottles of hand sanitiser filling the garage of a gormless Texan who cannot sell it, amid a worldwide shortage. And rather more poignant.
Back to reality, and it turns out mashed potato needn’t be made solely of spuds. I’ve had an inkling that might be the case since a brush with a celeriac puree in ‘08, but haven’t had the balls or the time to give it a whirl. If covid-19 teaches us anything, it is to live to the fullest, so on Thursday I got to mashing.