Erik Satie

Érik Satie (1866—1925) was a French composer and pianist. Satie was a colorful figure in the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde. His work was a precursor to later artistic movements such as minimalism, repetitive music, and the Theatre of the Absurd. In 1879 Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he was soon labeled untalented by his teachers. Georges Mathias, his professor of piano at the Conservatoire, described his pupil’s piano technique in flatly negative terms, “insignificant and laborious” and “worthless”. Emile Decombes called him “the laziest student in the Conservatoire”.

Erik Satie was attacked by fever and gout repeatedly in his later years, caused his doctor Finot great distress, especially when he refused to eat, claiming that he was already dead, and that the dead did not eat. Yet if he had not eaten, he would have died for a fact. But he could never be persuaded that he was alive, and consequently, that he should eat. Finally Finot and another doctor who attended him decided to agree that he was dead, but to argue that some dead persons ate.

They offered to show him some, and brought in several persons they could count on, and who said they were as dead as he was but still went on eating. This device did the trick, but he would only eat with the other “dead” and Finot. His appetite was good, although Finot despaired at the persistence of his fantasy. Finot would double up with laughter, however, when recounting the otherworldly conversations that took place at these meals.

Erik’s doctor Finot always told him to smoke. He even explains himself:

“Smoke, my friend. Otherwise someone else will smoke in your place.”



The Bliny, a Pancake of Great Mystification

pancakes1I was slumbering in my chair when she entered the darkened room lit only by the sullen embers in the fireplace. She had come to comb my hair, it was one of her eccentricities. She would wet down my head with a damp towel to knead it at length, like bread dough. And then, she would slice a part in my hair with a comb, as though with a knife, dividing my hair the way one divides a loaf of bread. When the combing was finished we would kiss. While I rose to stir the fire she said to me, “By morning your hair will rise like dough ready for the oven . . . ”
My happiest moment came when she said, “I’m going to prepare a cup of hot, strong tea for you so you can sit and meditate, think, or write a thoughtful letter.” I replied, “What happy idea, but please, not Earl Grey which in England, as everyone knows, is consumed only by little old ladies during afternoon tea, and which the English tea lover scorns as a perfumed, old-maidenish drink.” I suggested, “A bliny with sour cream and caviar would be an intriguing idea. (By the way, “bliny” is the correct plural form of “blin” in Russian culture.) It is, after all, Malenitsa week.”thinker
Maslenitsa in the Russian Orthodox tradition is the week that precedes the 40 days of the Great Lent, when no meat, fish, dairy or eggs are allowed. It’s the time when people traditionally make bliny – large crêpe-like pancakes (except that bliny are leavened, thus are thicker that crêpes) that are slathered with generous amounts of butter. Maslenitsa falls on the end of winter, so it is also the time to celebrate the coming spring, to say goodbye to the cold days. Both the idea of feasts and the public celebration makes the festival similar to Mardi Gras.
Her face expressed her bewilderment as each intellectual challenge or unanswerable question arose in her mind. She said, “A bliny is a difficult pancake, a very compound crux. It is one of the most compressed and intricate pancakes I have ever known of.”girl
The bliny has pre-Christian origins, and was connected to the agrarian calendar, customs and ceremonies of the ancient Slavs, in whose animistic beliefs the Russian bliny is a ritual food. They are eaten on calendar holidays and at family ceremonies to influence nature and human beings. The ritual use of the bliny has, with its fertility magic, partly survived in the Christian period.
”But what a supreme pancake the bliny is,” I said. “if you will agree that it is a fantastical pancake I will agree that it is a conundrum of great mystification, and a phenomenon of the first rarity.”

An Anecdoted Biography of Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire3Guillaume Apollinaire (1880 – 1918) Born Guillaume Albert Wladimir Alexander Apollinaire de Kosdrowitzky in Rome. Apollinaire was a poet and mouthpiece of Cubism, writing on art and clarifying the significance of the changes afoot in Paris before and during the First World War. Among artists and writers, he was everyone’s friend and kept everyone friendly; Gertrude Stein wrote that after his death (of a head wound, from the war), there was no one to keep them all together. His Cubist Apollinaire2poems included snatches of overheard café conversation and sounds of the street, much as Braque’s and Picasso’s paintings would take in a scrap of newspaper. Apollinaire was incredibly active during these years, and in Alcools he celebrated Paris in poetry that caught the rhythm and light of the city in this brilliant time.

The Bells

My gipsy beau my lover
Hear the bells above us
We loved passionately
Thinking none could see us

But we so badly hidden
All the bells in their song
Saw from heights of heaven
And told it everyone

Tomorrow Cyprien Henry
Marie Ursule Catherine
The baker’s wife her husband
and Gertrude that’s my cousin

Will smile when I go by them
I won’t know where to hide
You far and I’ll be crying
Perhaps I shall be dying

Guillaume Apollinaire

Pistachios: The Expletive

wineSketchWhat say you, good masters, to a squab pigeon pasty, some collops of venison, a saddle of veal, widgeon with crisp hog’s bacon, a boar’s head with pistachios, a bason of jolly custard, a medlar tansy and a flagon of old Rhemish?
Pistachios! Cried the last speaker. That likes me well. Pistachios!
—James Joyce, Ulysses

If Joyce had been present, that flagon of old Rhemish would have to be cleared the minute it was drained. He’d always protest the presence of an empty bottle on the table. As Bertie Rodgers put it while he conducted radioed recollections of Joyce: “Well, an empty bottle can never go the rounds. And the round, the circle, the recurring and reassuring routine, was all-important to Joyce, whether in Trieste, or Zurich, or Paris.”

Nino Franck recalled that while James Joyce was working on Finnegan’s Wake, he took a break to take a taxi and take a walk (Finnegan’s Walk) in the Bois de Boulogne. Having spent all afternoon making jokes out of words, when he spoke to the chauffeur he called him “choufleur”—cauliflower—leaving the man both astonished and insulted. Joyce paid and went off laughing, telling Franck later, “You know, I looked in and really he had the head of a cauliflower.”


James Joyce

Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922—one of the great events of publishing history. Then again, I could simply say that James Joyce lay down where all the ladders start in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. And the he wrote Ulysses yes and each episode in a different style yes and yes, yes he did write more after that. When I read a book, I often feel impelled to eat what its characters are eating, and, not having tasted kidneys since landing in Bremen in 1959, and having read half of Ulysses before my homecoming of 1982.

The Taste of the Text

taste1The linguistic philosophers of France, especially the late Roland Barthes, understood how French cuisine and French culture are related, and how both fit with structuralist philosophy. A Parisian dinner is meant to be a single elegant statement, like a well-turned sentence or an outfit from Yves Saint-Laurent. The Anglo-Saxon view of a banquet can be expressed in terms of the history of the world. You begin with soup—water with things swimming in it—then move on to the aqueous kingdom, then to flying creatures, then to mammals. Finally you celebrate man in cheeses and desserts, both products of sophisticated culture. This is the diachronic view, which the French reject. They prefer to see the various courses as syntagms, or sentence components—soup adjective, fish noun, chicken adverb.

But we must remember the wine. . . . is not a good wine the wine whose flavor oscillates, alters, doubles, so that the mouthful swallowed does not have quite the same taste as the next mouthful taken? In the draught of good wine, as in the taking of the text, there is torsion, a twist of degrees: it turns back, like a lock of hair.


Balzac laments, coffee, coffee.  Alexander Pope, who had a constant headache during the long diseased life, would sniff coffee all day long and nights in public houses to relieve the pulsing pain. Like alcohol, coffee is a social drink: people are always asking, “Do you want a cup of coffee?” when they mean, “I want to drag you to my bed.” Coffee is also a necessary ritual between the sheets and the streets. Bach wrote a piece called “The Coffee Cantata,” whose raucous laughter and jollity we can only attribute to the magic of the drug. It’s about a father who won’t let his daughter marry unless she gives up drinking coffee, but she outsmarts the old man and has coffee written into the marriage articles, and becomes the first bride in history to live happily ever after.

The Armenian language cannot be worn out; its boots are made of stone. Well, certainly, the thick-walled word, the layers of air in the semi-vowels. But is that all there is to it? No! Where does its traction come from? How to explain it?

I felt the joy of pronouncing sounds forbidden to Swedish lips, secret sounds, outcast sounds, crunchey sounds like the chewing of filbert or almond nuts, and perhaps, on some deep level, shameful.

There was some fine water boiling in a pewter teapot and suddenly a pinch of marvelous black tea was thrown into it.

That’s how I feel about the Armenian language.

Truth on a Szolnay Plate

chefSophie had started early on to translate from her first mother tongue, Russian, into English, and her house always seemed to have guests. Serving her guest meat on Szolnay[1] plates, Sophie like to say:

“To each person comes, like his portion of meat, his own part of the truth. But the truth, too, needs to be salted; otherwise it’s tasteless. I only translate writers who can do that.” . . .

Friends came to drink plum brandy on her piano and eat goat cheese with garlic from her Tatar homeland (the Khanate of Astrakhan (where the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea); when they sneezed the expressions on their faces would have made one think that they had at least two international reasons for doing so; and the departed content, and they came back again.

When my thoughts caress the beauteous Tatar Sophie, for some enigmatic reason I think of Chekhov[2] served on a Szolnay porcelain tray.

Chekhov was far from home, with his wife, Olga, in Badenweiler, Germany, when he died of consumption. At the Villa Friederike, on July 2, 1904, his doctor had a bottle of champagne brought to the writer. Chekhov, accepting the glass offered to him, said, “It’s been such a long time since I drank champagne,” and, emptying the glass, lay on his side and took his final breaths. A long journey back to Russia was inevitable.

Before leaving Badenweiler, Olga arranged for the remains to be transported to Moscow, where the burial was to take place on July 9, 1904. That day a group of friends gathered at the station to meet the train carrying the body. They were flabbergasted to learn that his coffin had traveled in a dirty green boxcar[3] with the words ‘FOR OYSTERS’ written in large letters on the door.

Gorky was furious, “I feel like screaming, weeping, brawling with indignation and wrath,” he wrote to his wife[4]. He knew that Chekhov would not have cared whether his body traveled in a basket of dirty laundry.


[1] The Szolnay factory was established by Miklós Szolnay (1800–1880) in Pécs, Hungary, to produce stoneware and other ceramics in 1853. Art Nouveau Szolnay china can be very costly.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov said of Chekhov, “His dictionary is poor, his combination of words almost trivial—the purple patch, the juicy verb, the hot-house adjective, the crème-de-menthe epithet, brought in on a silver tray, these were foreign to him.”

[3] The Palestinian author Soraya Antonius suggests that it must have been a chilled car, and they were taking care of the body, not humiliating the man. I would also add that oysters are ever the perfect accompaniment to champagne., and Chekhov’s final meal was not complete.

[4] Gorky’s reaction must be taken with a grain of salt (from his own tears): Nina Berberova describes in her memoirs how Gorky used to cry copiously over his own fresh pages, smearing the ink as he wrote.