Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick

TITLE: Machiavelli’s Lawn
AUTHOR: Mark Crick
PUBLISHER:  Granta  (1 April 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 84708 134 6       111 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Buy Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick here…

I am not sure whether Mark Cricks’ skill is ventriloquism or parody. Whatever it is, this small book purports to be full of the voices of  “great writers”. Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Martin Amis and Machiavelli are just a few of the writers whose style Crick mimics in order to offer us expert gardening advice. It is an ingenious notion, but it relies on us having read enough of the work of these authors to recognize a few distinctive features of their style in Crick’s versions of their horticultural guidance.

The patronized “little squirrel” wife of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for example, is re-cast as ‘Julia’ in Act 1 of a play called ‘Planting a Fruit Tree with Henrik Ibsen’. Julia, pretending to be a helpless wife, does all the work whilst her husband, Helder, looks on and criticizes from his bath chair. Secret passions and secret liaisons are hinted at. A boy and a gardener are glimpsed and the importance of “good root-stock” is emphasised. Underlying psychological games-playing pervades the scene and it ends with the threat of devastating revelations.

Machiavelli , who humbly introduces this book to “the magnificent reader”, tells us that it offers the learning, knowledge and worthiness of “great gardeners and plantsmen”.  He also instructs us, later, ‘On The Art of Mowing’. Gardens are, after all, akin to Principalities, about which he was an authority, and good governance of a lawn requires “rules and discipline”, a willingness to be severe, and the determination to “punish delinquent plants” which threaten the borders.

Alan Bennett, it seems is an expert on ‘Caring for Heather’. Heather is a performer of Scottish ancestry whose unexotic career and sturdy and reliable performance make her the star of civic presentations. She features in sea-side shows, fund-raising ventures and, latterly, as a star performer in the overheated communal lounge of a nursing home.

Other writers demonstrate surprising skills. Raymond Carver, it seems, knows all about ‘Planting a Hanging Basket’; and Pablo Neruda writes loving instruction on ‘How to Prune a Rose’.

If you are not familiar with the genuine writings of Crick’s gardening experts, the irony of the pieces will be somewhat lost on you. And if you are very familiar with a particular author’s genuine work you may find Crick’s parody amusing but limited.

My own familiarity with Sylvia Plath’s work, for example, made the maternal theme in Crick’s ‘Burying Bulbs in Autumn with Sylvia Plath’ seem quite appropriate, but his oblique use of her suicide in his final paragraphs I found un-necessary and distasteful.

Parody, as Nabokov once said, is a game. Crick’s mimicry and his versions of art works by “famous artists” are clever, inventive and good games-playing, but this is a light-weight book in every sense. It is amusing to dip into but quickly forgotten.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Dr Ann Skea, Sydney, Australia.
[[email protected]]
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

 

We love you, Alice B. Toklas

Adelaide’s Wakefield Press recently sent out notification of their new and current publications, which included a few re-releases of some older titles.  They have some delightful titles in their new editions and I urge you to pop over here for a look, but I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a closer look at a couple of the older books.  Theses books both contain recipes, but both offer the reader much more than just the promise of a good meal.

Kafka’s Soup by Mark Crick

The cover of this slender little volume promises “A complete history of world literature in 14 recipes” – a surprising claim in anyone’s estimation, but if you are lover of both food and literature you won’t be disappointed.  Now, I can’t claim an utterly comprehensive knowledge of the history of literature, but it was pretty clear to me that Mark Crick, the author, has certainly done his English homework.

Each of the 14 recipes in the book is written in the style of a different, noted literary author and the results are very funny and very clever.  Homer shares a delicious recipe for the Maltese dish, Fenkata, John Steinbeck depresses us with a Mushroom Risotto and dear Jane Austen takes four and a half pages to deliver a recipe for Tarragon Eggs.  Contemporary authors are not left out with  Irvine Welsh’s outrageous recipe for Rich Chocolate Cake my favourite by far.  Crick accompanies each recipe with one of his own original illustrations or photographs in exactly the manner of the original works, suggesting that his skills are not at all limited to writing.

This little book had me  in stitches and was quickly appropriated by my daughter whom I later  found giggling in a corner over it.  A perfect gift for the bookish foodie in anyone’s life.

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook by Alice B. Toklas

Alice was the life partner and lover of the well-known writer, poet and art collector, Gertrude Stein, with whom she lived in Paris until Stein’s death in 1946.  She wrote her cookbook some years later, when seeking something to occupy her while she recuperated from an illness.  This book is really something of a memoir as it mingles recollections, reflections and recipes from Toklas’ life and travels with Stein during and after the war.  Toklas and Stein were famous for their Paris salon where they entertained some of the leading literary and artistic personalities of the time and, while Stein is remembered for her art collection and writings, Toklas’ legacy is a little more obscure.  She was quite satisfied to stand in the shadow of Stein, undertaking the role of secretary, cook and general support – hence her interest in culinary matters.

First published in 1954, the chapters of the book are divided into some very interesting categories, listing things like “Dishes for Artists” with details of Bass for Picasso, food during the Occupation and food in the US in 1934 and 1935.  There is one recipe included for which the book is quite notorious.   Haschich Fudge is a blend of spices, nuts and fruit to which is added “a bunch of canibus sativa” and which “anyone can whip up on a rainy day”, although Ms. Toklas does point out that obtaining the canibus (sic) can present some difficulties.  This recipe alone ensured that her name was remembered well into the heady days of the 1960’s and ’70’s when it was lent to a range of chemically enhanced baked goods.

Notoriety aside, the book is a warm and charming account of travels and meals with her beloved companion (who is always given her full title, Gertrude Stein, in the narrative) with the original recipes of the time.  On a sad footnote, Alice B. Toklas died in poverty (Stein’s family took the artworks which she had willed to Toklas) in 1967 at the age of 89 and is buried next to her lover in Paris.

Alice B. Toklas by Carl Van Vechten, 1949