Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Currently reading this...

I’m currently reading – to be precise, re-reading, having retrieved it and a few other things from a box at my mother’s – this:

The Birds Fall Down - Rebecca West.

I had forgotten what a masterly piece of writing it is. I have been completely gripped and cannot wait to get back to it tonight. I’m not sure I can collect my thoughts enough to explain why it is so superb.

It’s quite slow to get started, and quite a solid read; someone who disliked solid novels would find it hard going. But the steadiness of the beginning becomes meaningful as the story goes on. I won’t give away any details of the plot in case anyone reading this hasn’t read the novel and is intrigued, because it’s a mystery, and a thriller, in the truest sense of the words. It’s also one of the finest examples I’ve ever come across of a very tight third-person narrative; and in this case the narrator is both aware of some things that other characters are not, and helplessly unaware of other things which the reader can see – yet which we see through her eyes, aware ourselves that she is so uncomprehending as not even to see that she is missing something. In that respect it is a dazzling display of the technical craft of writing. But Rebecca West also pulls off my favourite trick of creating a balanced tension between technical genius and emotional sincerity; one suffers with Laura, with the Count, and one feels the dreadfulness of the betrayals that are exposed during the narrative, and the further layers of betrayal they provoke, and the further betrayals underlying these. And the quiet, steady build-up of tension is horrendous. Hence my desire to get to the end of the day, go home, and settle down to reading again.

Rebecca West once said something along the lines of that in her opinion Mozart was at the highest end of a scale of genius that also encompassed someone baking a good cake; in other words, talent is a continuum and is not the privilege of some tiny elite. In celebration of that honourable and democratic thought here’s the recipe for the bread-and-butter pudding I baked last night. It’s an easy recipe, great for using up slightly stale baked goods of almost any type, and far nicer than its simplicity would suggest.

Bread-and-butter pudding

A couple of slices of slightly stale bread per person. Or fruit bread, fruit cake, malt loaf, teacake. Probably good with most sorts of biscuits, too. You name it, really. Not sure it would work with shortbread, or with Mrs Crimble’s coconut cakes…
Dried fruit. I like to add chopped candied ginger or chocolate chips as well.
One egg per person

Butter the bread/cake/whatever. Make dried fruit (& ginger/chocolate) sandwiches and cut up. Put in a greased oven proof dish. Sprinkle with a little sugar – less if the bread is rich fruit bread or cake, more if it is plain bread. Beat eggs and milk together – about ½ a pint of milk to every three eggs, although obviously also bear in mind the depth of the baking dish so you don’t end up with a huge amount of excess fluid. Pour the egg and milk mixture over the bread and fruit and leave to soak for 30-40 minutes. Bake in a medium oven for 30 minutes or so until the egg custard is set and the top is risen, golden and puffy. Good hot, warm or cold.

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