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British Novelist A.S. Byatt

British novelist A.S. Byatt. Her novel Possession was a bestseller, and her novella Angels & Insects was turned into an arthouse film. Byatt's new novel is The Biographers Tale (Knopf). This interview was recorded before a live audience at the Free Public Library in Philadelphia.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on February 28, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 28, 2001: Interview with A.S. Byatt; Review of books on cooking; Review of the music album “Teresa Sterne: A Portrait.”


DATE February 28, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: A.S. Byatt discusses her writings and her literary

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

British writer A.S. Byatt is best known in this country for her Booker
Prize-winning novel "Possession," about two academics who follow a trail of
literary clues and discover a love affair between two Victorian poets. In the
process, they fall in love. Byatt uses the story within a story technique
again in her new book, "The Biographer's Tale." It's about a failed academic,
Phineas Gilbert Nanson, who attempts to write a biography of a Victorian
biographer by the name of Scholes-Destroy-Scholes. I spoke with A.S. Byatt
recently before a live audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia as part of
their authors series "Rebuilding The Future." One of the things Nanson
discovers in his research are notes Scholes made on the art of writing
biography. Scholes maintained that a biographer must never lay claim to what
he doesn't know. I asked A.S. Byatt if this isn't a two-edged proposition,
since all writing is in some sense an attempt to lay claim to the unknown.

Ms. A.S. BYATT (Author): Absolutely. And there's a kind of sentence that
biographers commit, I think is the word I'll use. They say--as Scholes goes
on to say--they say, `He must have felt' when he saw Durham Cathedral. `He
must have remembered that he was married there.' But they don't know. And I
have read biographies that start with a completely imagined scene saying, you
know, `So-and-so looked out of the window and felt very moved because he knew
that soon, his new young wife would approach up the alley.' Well, all that
is--that one's an invented example, but there are things that start just like
that. You know, `One day in 1812, a young woman was sitting at her writing
desk and wrote down the words "Persuasion," a novel by a gentlewoman.' Well,
she may or may not have done. You don't know, and the moment you start
describing it as though you were there and saw it, you're writing a novel or
something that isn't quite true.

BOGAEV: Biography, though, is very in vogue right now, and I've noticed that
people are often more likely to read a biography of a famous author than to
read the actual works themselves. That happens a lot.

Ms. BYATT: Well, this is what started me, of course. Many, many years ago, I
got into a fit of terrible indignation about this. I got into a fit of--it
had two arms to it. One of the arms was that if you write a biography of
Virginia Woolf, you will get an enormous amount of reviewing space in a
newspaper. The newspaper reviewer will, in turn, write an elegant little
biographical essay on Virginia Woolf and what the biographer did and didn't
know. Readers and students will rush off and read the biography. You don't
find many of them have actually read Virginia Woolf.

BOGAEV: No, the "Lighthouse" is not flying off the shelves.

Ms. BYATT: It is not flying off the shelves, and people talk knowledgeably
about Virginia Woolf. And beyond that, they will probably read her notebook
or her letters, and if you say Virginia Woolf is a great writer, they say,
`Yes, her letters are absolutely wonderful. They're so wicked,' which is
true, but she thought that she had written several great works of art, and
this was her claim to fame. She thought that everybody would know that the
"Waves" was one of the great modern novels. And if you wander around now,
apart from Woolf specialists, you don't meet people who have read the "Waves."
But they all know everything she thought. They know what she thought about
the reviews of the "Waves."

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: Along those lines, I was very interested in a passage in this new
book, "The Biographer's Tale." It's about Phineas' disgust at the idea that
people should find themselves through reading, that a person would understand
themselves better by identifying with a character or say identifying with a
subject of a biography, and he says that's just nonsense, and here we're
talking about fiction. And this is a quote: "The true literary fanatic, the
primeval reader is looking for anything but a mirror, for an escape route, for
an expanding horizon, for receding starscapes, for unimaginable monstrosities
and incomprehensible strictly beauties." I thought that was a beautiful,
interesting description of reading, and I wondered if you could talk about it,
what you look for in your reading of fiction and perhaps what we sometimes
look for in fiction misguidedly.

Ms. BYATT: My heart always sank when I was teaching a book and one of the
students would, say, complaining, `I'm terribly sorry, I just can't identify
with that character.' I mean, this is a double-edged weapon, because I think
actually a good reader--Phineas is only half right. A good reader must
identify with a character, and paradoxically I write most of my novels in the
third person, because I think you actually identify more closely with somebody
through a writer's description. A first-person actually pushes you away, and
I think I chose Phineas for that reason. He shouts so much himself that
you--I don't think you identify with him at all.

BOGAEV: He's just retched.

Ms. BYATT: You just observe him.

BOGAEV: He's so annoying.

Ms. BYATT: Yeah. He's terribly annoying. He annoys me. But equally, he's
right about reading being a kind of immense sort of world outside yourself.
You know, through reading, you get into a huge world of other things, of
things you don't know by other means, of people whose experience is so
different from yours. I mean, an example I've recently taken to giving
because I've only just realized how interesting it is was the shock I had at
the age of about eight, reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I didn't know that
people had been slaves. I mean, imagine a child, a respectable English child
in its grandmother's house suddenly stumbling across the fact that the world
had been like that. It's very good for me to have known that and somebody
made me imagine that that was the case. It frightened me to death for weeks
and months.

Equally, you can find something extraordinarily beautiful. You know, you can
read descriptions of going up the river Amazon or you can read about people
whose thought processes you do understand but would never have thought of
before that. And I prefer the kind of reading that's a discovery of something
other than myself. You know, like something to be added rather than nod my
head and say, `Yes, yes, that's quite right. I know, I feel like that.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: Is it a juggling act for you? We've been talking about things,
facts. Is it a juggling act for you to balance the facts with your fiction?
I'm thinking are you thinking of our attention span as readers?

Ms. BYATT: It is a juggling act. I mean, this book is dangerous about the
attention span, because although it does tell a story, which I believe you
should do, and it tells a story with a beginning and a middle and an end, and
Phineas' emotions change, it's got an awful lot of, as it were, a kind of
collage, like a stamp collection of things and observations and little other
stories inside it.

BOGAEV: As do many of your other books.

Ms. BYATT: Yes. Yes, but this is more so, I think. This is about that
process. This is, in a sense, an exposing of the way the novelist works. You
know, I stick all these things and quotations next to each other and see if
some new thing will come to life out of them, which of course it always does,
because human beings must make patterns.

BOGAEV: A.S. Byatt from an onstage interview recorded last week. We'll
continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: We're back with novelist A.S. Byatt. Her new book is "The
Biographer's Tale." When we spoke, I asked her where her passion for
Victorian writers comes from.

Ms. BYATT: It comes from my childhood really. I grew up with--I had three
coloring books, and they had pre-Raphaelite pictures in for me to fill in the
colors of, and one was "The Lady of Shalott" by Tennyson. You know, it was
quite a fat coloring book with lots and lots of pictures of "The Lady of
Shalott." And the next was the "Morte d'Artur," also by Tennyson. The third
was Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin." And I read these books over and over
and over and over again and the rhythms of the Victorian poetry sing in my
head. And when I went up to Cambridge as a student, I was deeply shocked to
find that these poets were thought to be dreadfully bad poets that had somehow
betrayed English poetry and shouldn't be studied.

And "Possession" is dedicated to my friend Professor Isabelle Armstrong, who
was making a one-woman career of saying these are actually great poets who
should be taken seriously. They're not secondary writers. They're major
great writers. That's where the passion comes from. It's not really the
novelists. It's the poets who got me. This is still quite unfashionable, I

BOGAEV: My heart is just bleeding thinking of the coloring books. My
children have "Scooby-Doo" and "The Little Mermaid."

Ms. BYATT: Well, the real horror was that I didn't color them because once
I'd color them, it would have been done, you know. I didn't. And one of my
siblings scribbled on one of them, a much littler child. You know, just took
a colored pencil and didn't fill in these beautiful images of "The Lady of
Shalott" with her web and her loom in the window. I don't think I ever
colored anything in. I left them in black and white. I've never said this to
anyone before ever, but I left them in black and white lines, as though there
was something to be put in later when I learned how to do it or--yeah. Very

BOGAEV: Was the rest of your family life as literary as your books, your
coloring books?

Ms. BYATT: The thing about my family life was that all the good bits of it
were literary. The house was full of books. My mother had studied English at
Cambridge also. My mother and father had been in the same class at Nexber
Grammar School(ph), which was just a grammar school but it had a teacher of
genius who had inspired several generations of students to go to Cambridge,
and she'd also taught them to recite almost the whole of English literature by
heart. And my parents, when everybody was happy, would sit together in the
motor car or over the Sunday lunch and just recite great wodges of English
poetry, and if one of them forgot a line, the other one would put it in. And
this was what they did when they were really happy, so I thought--I mean,
somehow one grew up feeling that language and literature were the important

Also it was very narrow. I mean, we were a family that didn't have any of the
other things you might have had. We were no good at sport. We had some
reproductions of van Gogh's paintings on the wall, but when one of my sisters
became an art historian, my mother said, `Is there really anything to be said
about art history?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: And which...

BOGAEV: That's supportive.

Ms. BYATT: My sister did that in order to escape the whole thing. And we
were totally unmusical. We can't sing a note in tune and we aren't

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: So it was narrow indeed really.

BOGAEV: Did you know you wanted to be a writer as a child?

Ms. BYATT: Yes. I mean, I did write. I wrote all the time. And I think I
knew it very easily when I was little. I thought that the obvious response to
"The Lady of Shalott" was to try to do that. And then I thought that about
all the children's stories I read, and then I got a bit daunted as I got older
and bumped into people that I couldn't write like. But I don't ever read
anything without thinking `How would I do this? What can I learn from this?'
And so it became clear to me that that was what I wanted. I never had any
wish to be a writer. It's quite important to distinguish between being a
writer and writing. I wanted to write.

BOGAEV: And what did being a writer mean to you? Something different?

Ms. BYATT: Yes, it meant having the character of the writer and sitting on
platforms talking to people about...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: Doris Lessing once said very severely to an audience, `You will
never become a writer if you want to be a writer. You'd better go away and
think about the act of constructing a book.' That's what I really meant. But
I didn't think, `I shall be a good person if I am a writer.' I thought, `I
have got to make sentences or I shall go mad.'

BOGAEV: I did read that you had asthma as a child. Did that figure into your
living very intensely through reading or writing?

Ms. BYATT: Yes, it did. I mean, I spent sort of one week, two weeks in bed,
one week, two weeks at school, and when I was in bed, I read and I read and I
read. And that was my life really. I think there are a great many writers,
including Proust, whose original impulse was being in bed with asthma or some
other illness. Iris Murdoch's husband John Bailey once said that a lot was
lost to English literature when tuberculosis was cured.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: And what I think asthmatics tend to have in common, they get
slowed down by having to keep very still or they can't breathe, whereas
tubercular people were very excitable and rushed around. It was a...

BOGAEV: Sped up.

Ms. BYATT: ...different kind of occupational hazard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: You do, though, explore in your books "Possession," in this book,
also, how people get addicted, possessed by books in their intellectual
pursuits at the expense of living their lives and recognizing the things
around them and the people around them, and I do know you're the mother of
four children. You raised a family while working, while writing. How did
that tension or that conflict play itself out in your life?

Ms. BYATT: Oh, I can hardly bare to remember the tension and the conflict.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: My three daughters are very happy women, successful women. They
don't appear to be neglected. My eldest daughter is bringing up three
children of her own, of whom I can certainly say that they're sort of
wonderfully stable, intelligent, outgoing children. The strain of having to
stop writing or indeed of having to earn my living by teaching in order to pay
a nanny to help to look after the children so every now and then I did a tiny
bit of writing. The terror of my life is being stopped from writing when I
don't expect to be stopped. I learned to get very, very disciplined about not
even thinking about the writing. I never even tried to write at the weekends
because that was the children's time.

One of my daughters then told somebody who came to interview me about asthma.
I said, `You come and talk to this person because you've got asthma, too.'
She made a long speech about how she admired me immensely as a person but I
was no sort of a mother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: And so I sort of sat there taking all this and the interviewer
recorded it all, and when the interviewer had gone, I looked at my daughter
and I thought now shall I say, `Listen, I do love you' or, `I am a mother.'
And then she said, `You know, there's nothing on that tape.' So I said, `What
do you mean?' She said, `Well, the cat was sitting next to it purring into
it. There's nothing on that tape.' And she was dead right. She was
absolutely right. The interviewer rang up and said...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: I still don't know if she did it on purpose. I daren't ask her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: On an entirely different subject: How much is involved in the
editing of your books for publication in the US? I was curious about that
because I would think that American publishers might make demands on you and
say, `Americans just--they're looking for different things in novels. They
just can't put up with this and put up with cultural references.'

Ms. BYATT: I think I was very lucky with "Possession." I mean, I did have
publishers for my earlier novels and I kept shifting publishers because
somebody said, `The American reader will never stand for this.' That's the
phrase they always used, you know. `The American reader will not respond to
this.' And then somebody else likes it and has a go and the American reader
responds enough. But with "Possession," no American publisher would look at
it except one who did take it and she said, you know, it had fascinated her,
but, of course, the American reader wouldn't be able to put up with it. And
she sent me a letter saying, `You have spoiled a fine intrigue with all this
excrescent matter and you must take it all out again.'

And I said, `I can't. I'm terribly sorry, but let's just give this up.' And
she said, `No, no. I shall send you an edited type script and if you can't
bear it, then we will do it up.' And she took a very long time to edit the
first hundred pages, during which time the book had won the Booker Prize and
was doing rather well, so I rang up my agent and said, `Listen, we can find
even a very small American publisher that will publish this book as it was
written,' and she then agreed to publish it very generously, and she said, `I
still think American readers won't like it with all this stuff in it.'

BOGAEV: Right.

Ms. BYATT: And she printed 7,000 copies, and by January, it had sold a
hundred and twenty thousand copies. And now they're not quite sure what sort
of an animal I am, because it shouldn't have done that. And what it proved
actually was that American readers read better than any other readers. The
readers who read read. It's just that publishers have an idea of trying to
sell books to people who don't naturally read, and I think that's something to
do with being a great democracy, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: You wish to tempt the person in the supermarket to have a go at a
book, but there are people in the United States who are in libraries and
universities and sitting in hotel bedrooms like I am now who love books, and
you find yourself in an American bookstore and they will all come and say,
`Why don't American publishers publish more books with more things in them?'

BOGAEV: A.S. Byatt recorded last week at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
We'll hear more of our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm
Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


BOGAEV: Coming up, more conversation with A.S. Byatt. Also, there's a new
series of food writing by the Modern Library. Maureen Corrigan reviews that
and two other new food memoirs. And Lloyd Schwartz reviews the tribute album
to Teresa Sterne, the musical prodigy who became the head of Nonesuch Records.
We're listening to it now.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Let's return to our interview with novelist A.S. Byatt. Her books include
the best-seller "Possession," also "Babel Tower" and "Angels and Insects."
Her new book is "The Biographer's Tale." We spoke recently before a live
audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia as part of their visiting authors

"Angels and Insects" was made into a movie, the insects part. Are there other
films in the works for your books?

Ms. BYATT: Ooh, yes. Rather to my amazement, really, there is three more
movies in various stages of making. "Possession" is largely filmed, and it's
being directed by Neil LaBute, and I saw a bit of the work on the set and it
really looks very interesting. And Philip Haas, who made "Angels and
Insects," has now got an absolutely wonderful script of the other story, the
other novella in the same book about Tennyson's sister at a seance trying to
call up the ghost of Arthur Henry Hallam. And he's written a wonderful script
and the finance is practically there, and the actors are all excited. And I
think the thing that most amazes me is that George Miller, who made "Mad Max"
and "Babe," has bought the rights to "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye."
And I think that's the one that...

BOGAEV: Ooh, how interesting.

Ms. BYATT: Because I can't imagine at all what he will do with that. We had
dinner together, and he kept saying, `I see these two figures walking through
the streets of'--and I could suddenly see it, he had imagined it all through.
You know, he'd made some other thing in his mind. I do hope he gets around to
making it.

BOGAEV: Well, for a person who appreciates things, he has a huge catalog of
details, I think, in his movies.

Ms. BYATT: Yeah. He's wonderful. And I think it was the things that got
him, that what he wants to do is the film--the bit of the story I didn't tell,
which is fine by me, because I would like to see it, and it's a story I should
be happy, you know, to let him do that with.

BOGAEV: I think you are the only author I've ever heard who has liked the--or
you sound as if you've liked the film adaptations of your novel.

Ms. BYATT: Well, I haven't seen "Possession" yet, but I've liked what I have
seen. I loved "Angels and Insects."

(Soundbite of applause)

BOGAEV: Sounds like many people have seen it.

Ms. BYATT: Now listen. I shall go back and tell Phillip Haas you said this,
because I've begun to say to Phillip, when we speak on the phone, because,
much to my amazement, we became very good friends. I say every time I do a
reading, somebody asks me, rather anxiously, what I thought of the film, and
when I say `I loved it,' they say, `Oh, good.' I've never met anyone who
dislikes the film, though there must be people--I mean, any one of my readers.
And this must be most unusual, because most writers are very ambivalent

BOGAEV: Well, of course. Most readers hate the movie.

Ms. BYATT: Yes, most readers hate the movie. See, this audience actually
applauded the movie. This is great.

BOGAEV: Taste. They have taste.

Ms. BYATT: It was a very, very clever movie, made on a shoestring and
beautifully cast, I think. And the costume designer was a genius.

BOGAEV: A.S. Byatt from an onstage interview recently in Philadelphia. As
part of the evening's event, Byatt took questions from the audience.

Unidentified Man: I have a three-part question. One of our recent favorites
is John Galsworthy, and we were interested in finding out what you thought of
his works. One of the things he accomplished in his lifetime was to win a
Nobel Prize, and that's the second question, when you think that will happen
for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: And number three, what will you do with the money that you
win when you win the Nobel Prize?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: It's a very long time since I read Galsworthy, and when you said
that, I thought, `My God, I've forgotten. I must go back to him.' It is a
big undertaking. I can't quite see myself winning the Nobel Prize, partly for
reasons of too much literary detail, and I think partly for reasons of being
too English, though...

BOGAEV: What does that mean, being too English?

Ms. BYATT: Well, it means that people on juries in other countries don't
quite know where you're coming from, although I'm beginning to be thought of
by the Europeans as a European writer now. And also I think partly because I
don't have any political angle on anything, and the Swedish jury really does
like a political angle. But I was at a great book fair in Frankfurt when Toni
Morrison won the Nobel Prize, and I was actually driving along in my German
publisher's car, and he was completely convinced that Sase Noterburm(ph) was
going to win it. And we heard--he turned the radio on to hear the
announcement, and it said, `An American woman has won the Nobel Prize,' and
then it said Toni Morrison and he went--and I began to dance up and down and
wave my arms. And we actually called Toni Morrison from the restaurant, which
I would never have the guts or the nerve to do, but the German publisher said,
`You must call her if you're so excited.' And that was a great moment.

Anyway, the English--actually now Graham Greene's dead. The English always
put forward Graham Greene every year, and there was somebody on the jury who
hated him, so it this kind of little closed circuit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Do you have any fears about your work being made into
films, or are you just openly curious about what form it will take?

Ms. BYATT: I do have fears. I mean, one of the fears I have is--well, there
are two--no, there are an awful lot of fears. I've seen scripts of
"Possession" that were discarded that just filled me with deep horror.


Ms. BYATT: One of them was written by somebody who seemed to think it was a
novel about sadism. Every time he introduced one of my characters--all of
whom are actually nice, which is one of the reasons why people like
"Possession"--he said, `His face is dour and rather cruel.' Everybody's face
was being introduced as `rather cruel.' This upset me because it was wrong.
But it was simply wrong, and I thought my readers of my book would discard
this if it ever happened, which it didn't.

But the opposite thing is even more worrying. If somebody plays one of your
characters so well that you can only see the actor's face and not the imagined
face, which any reader of any book must fear, I think. And they've got
Gwenyth Paltrow as Maud in "Possession," and she has, in my mind--I've seen
her recording two or three little scenes. She has, in my mind, slightly
displaced my Maud, and I must get Maud back because she isn't quite Maud. And
that bothers me. And it bothers me if one person is wrong, because then
everything goes out of kilter.

BOGAEV: She has the long neck, though.

Ms. BYATT: And she has the lovely, cool look as well.

Unidentified Woman #2: Do you have any input?

Ms. BYATT: I have a lot of input into Phillip Haas' films, because he's a
born collaborator. And also, he's a born telephone conversation man, and he
actually calls me up on the telephone and says `Listen, I could do it this way
or I could do it that way and what do you think of such?' And then we end up
discussing the whole of international politics, and then he rings off again.

But I had it in my contract that I could see the "Possession" script, which I
did see about one week before they started shooting it. And I said, `Please
do not make Professor Proper into an Englishman.' And I think they have made
him into an American. And he doesn't look anything like I imagined him. I
haven't seen him speaking, I've just seen in rush. He's about 20 years
younger than I thought he was, but we shall see.

And what was the other thing--oh, yes, they had made the main characters to go
bed together about halfway through the film instead of at the end, and I said,
`I think this is a dreadful mistake.' And rather to my amazement, they said,
`Oh, yes, we'd written two versions. We weren't quite sure. We'll make the
other one.' And whether they will, you will see when it happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BYATT: At least they were listening, you know. I had a very intelligent
conversation about it all. Oh, and the other thing was--oh, this is to do
with libraries. When Roland first appears in the London library in the film,
he tears a strip off the librarian for having misplaced "Veco"(ph) for
completely incomprehensible and wrong cataloging reasons. So I said, `Listen,
this man is a nice man. He will not appeal to the viewers of this film if he
appears as an American being extremely rude to the London librarian, who,
anyway, is an immensely helpful and wonderful person without whom I couldn't
have written this novel and I don't want you to insult the London'--so they
took that out, and the London librarian then gave them the library to film it
and had the most wonderful time and thinks they're the most wonderful people.
Never read this bit of script, so all that was quite comical, but not really

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: A.S. Byatt, speaking at the Free Library of Philadelphia as part of
their author series "Rebuilding the Future."


BOGAEV: Coming up, a review of new and old writings on food. This is FRESH

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Books about cooking and the love of food

Food, glorious food. We love to eat it. Some of us even love to make it.
Naturally, book critic Maureen Corrigan loves to read about food. She just
feasted her eyes on the new Modern Library Food Series, as well as two new
food memoirs. Here's what she's digested.


`Yummy.' That's the word that kept forming on my lips as I read, in turn, the
four beautiful new paperback reprints that constitute the just-launched
Modern Library Food Series. What is it about food writing that immediately
puts me in a relaxed, happy, even giddy frame of mind? Certainly, it's not
the food itself because I almost never take advantage of the recipes scattered
throughout the pages of food memoirs. All that shopping and chopping and
cooking, only to have the meal vanish in a few minutes. No, reading about
good meals is much better than cooking them. The act of reading lasts longer
and, to me, so do its pleasures. There's a delicious sensuality inherent in
the subject of food, combined in these memoirs with a vivid sense of place and
a delight in craft.

I also love food writing for its characteristic nostalgia. Most food writers
remember every mouthful of juicy pork tenderloin or syrupy strawberry tart
they ever consumed. Their best meals are always somewhere in the past, when
food was fresher and their palates virginal.

Nostalgia certainly coats the 1943 classic "Clementine in the Kitchen," by
Phineas Beck, whose real name was Samuel Chamberlain. This is the
memoir/cookbook that helped initiate the French cooking craze that swept
America for the two decades after World War II. Reading it, I can see why.
For Beck, French food magically conjures up a prelapserian world before the
war, a world filled with sleepy stone villages and street markets where leeks
and pink-eyed rabbits, macaroons and apricots overflowed the outdoor tables as
they had since the Middle Ages.

The Becks were an American family living in a cathedral town in France during
the 1930s. Clementine was their Cordon Bleu cook, the merry genius who
initiated them into the lip-smacking glory of snails and truffles. The only
slightly off taste in this story derives from Beck's patronizing way of
referring to Clementine. He habitually calls her `the family's most prized
possession.' That past-freshness date language made me wonder what
Clementine, whose recipes in cooking inspired this milestone memoir, thought
of it. I'm also curious about whether the Beck family's most prized
possession shared in the book's royalties.

No such cynical questions intrude upon the enjoyment of reading the 1934
memoir "Life a la Henri," by history's first celebrity chef, Henri
Charpantier. Charpantier, with a dash of help from a professional co-author,
is the master of his own story. And what a story. Charpantier lived almost
a hundred years. As a young boy, he waited on Queen Victoria, and he ended up
running a famed Hollywood restaurant with movie stars as his friends and

On the pages of his memoir--as he must have been in life--Charpantier is a
charmer. Here's how he begins his story. `What I am going to do now, I, who
invented crepe suzette for the prince who became Edward VII, is to give the
recipe for myself, for Henri Charpantier. It's a marvelous recipe, not easily
duplicated, composed of a mother lost and found early in childhood, lucky
breaks, a hasty marriage and emigration and financial ups and downs.'

The two other books in the Modern Library Series consider food as a science,
literally. I found "Cooking with Pomaine," which was first published in
France in the 1930s, a little dried out since it mostly consists of recipes
with commentary by famed chef Edouard De Pomaine. Historically speaking,
though, the book rates recognition because Pomaine revolutionized French
cuisine by simplifying it and by applying the logic of chemistry to the art of

"Perfection Salad," by Laura Shapiro, is a book I first reviewed--gulp--nearly
two decades ago, and I've remembered it fondly ever since. Shapiro unearths
the fascinating history of the domestic science movement in America at the
turn of the century, the movement that strove to professionalize housewifery
and make cooking sanitary and scientific. It's also the movement that gave us
such American culinary innovations as home ec classes in high school, white
bread, processed cheese and packaged soup. As Shapiro notes, the women behind
the domestic science movement recognized that food was powerful. It could
draw forth cravings and greedy desires which had to be met by a firm hand.
Their goal, as a group, was to transubstantiate food, containing and
controlling food, draining it of taste and texture, packaging it. These were
some of the major culinary themes of the domestic science movement.

`Food is powerful.' That's the basic belief of all four food books reprinted
in the Modern Library Series. That belief is also affirmed in the captivating
introductions to these books written by famous chefs and food writers, like
Alice Waters, Elizabeth David and Michael Stern.

The overall editor of this new series is Ruth Reichl, former New York Times
restaurant critic, current editor in chief of Gourmet magazine and author of
the best-selling food memoir "Tender at the Bone." Reichl has a new memoir
coming out in April called "Comfort Me with Apples." And like its
predecessor, it contains exquisite meal-related moments, such as the time when
M.F.K. Fisher, the presiding genius of all food writing, arranged an
enchanted forest picnic tryst for Reichl and her lover.

But be forewarned. Because the second memoir deals with the breakup of
Reichl's first marriage, the death of her beloved father and the loss of a
child, there's a bitter strain here that wasn't present in the first book.

I'm ending this binge by nodding at another superb food memoir, Nora Seton's
"The Kitchen Congregation," which has recently come out in paperback. Seton
is a delicate writer who searches through taste and smell for memories of her
mother, who died young. `She made life practical and pretty at once,' Seton
writes, remembering how her mother would tie on her apron with a jaunty bow as
she was preparing to whisk flour into gravy or lug a roast to the oven.

Seton, like Reichl, also lost a child, and her memoir is a testament to the
potency of food to restore, slowly, even the most numbed body back to life.
As Seton acknowledges, time, along with the lentil soups, the lavender honey
and the fresh bread that a family friend cooked up for her, cauterized the
wounds that could not heal.

Food is powerful, and so is most of the writing in this marvelous mishmash of
food books.

BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

Coming up, a review of a tribute album to the work of Teresa Sterne. This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Nonesuch Records releases "Teresa Sterne: A Portrait"

Outside the recording industry, Teresa Sterne is not a household name. But
classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz doubts that anyone listening doesn't own
some recordings that Sterne was responsible for. Just before she died last
December of Lou Gehrig's disease, Nonesuch, the company she ran for many
years, put together a tribute album to her called "Teresa Sterne: A
Portrait." Here's Lloyd's review.


Teresa Sterne's friends and colleagues knew her as Tracey and admired her
imagination and professionalism as a record producer. But it turns out that
most people who knew her didn't know she was also a musical prodigy.

She was born in Brooklyn in 1927, and grew up in a musical family. Her mother
was a professional cellist who gave up performing in order to further Tracey's
career. Both her father and her uncle were violinists. Barely into her
teens, she performed with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony.
Amazingly, the acetates from some of her early performances still exist, and
they make up one disc of the new two-disc set.

She had a lovely, glistening touch of great delicacy and freshness, which you
can now hear in some wonderful performances of Bach, Mozart, Liszt,
Rachmaninoff and her mentor, the Dutch composer-conductor David Brukman(ph).
Listen to her playing this scintillating bit of Bach's "Italian Concerto,"
recorded when she was 11.

(Soundbite of Bach's "Italian Concerto")

SCHWARTZ: Sterne evidently felt guilty about having a solo career. She
called it being a parasite. She took up stenography and typing, and
eventually became a secretary to the legendary Seymour Solomon, founder of
Vanguard and Bach Guild Records.

In the early '60s, she was hired by Jack Holtzman to run his fledging
record company Nonesuch, then only a year old. She seemed interested in every
kind of music, from Stephen Foster to Elliott Carter, and was a genius at
matching artist and repertoire. And she had wonderful taste in performers.
She cultivated the late mezzo-soprano Jan de Guitani(ph) and her partner,
pianist Gilbert Kalish, beginning with their memorable album of Stephen Foster

The brilliant Debussy and Schonberg piano recordings by Paul Jacobs were under
her aegis. She produced William Bolcom and Joan Morris' landmark recording of
turn-of-the-century parlor ballads, which launched their extraordinary series
of classic American song albums. And she practically single-handedly invented
the Scott Joplin revival by getting baroque specialist Joshua Rifkin to do an
album of piano rags.

(Soundbite of piano music)

SCHWARTZ: Sterne also started the ear-opening, mind-expanding, Explorer
series of world music long before it was called `world music.' If you have
any of old Nonesuch recordings of Javanese gamelon music or music recorded in
Turkey, Bulgaria, Zimbabwe or the Bahamas, by native performers, chances are
they were produced by Tracey Sterne. This rhythmically infectious effecting
selection was recorded at the University of Rhodesia in 1972.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of music)

SCHWARTZ: When the recording business started to fall into the hands of
international conglomerates, the inconceivable happened: Tracey Sterne became
a dinosaur. The bottom line wasn't what interested her most, and she was
fired from Nonesuch to the outrage of everyone who cared about recordings as
art. Many of the performers she supported left Nonesuch in protest.

The climate, though, has changed again. Robert Herwitz(ph), who took over
Nonesuch five years after Sterne left, is responsible for this tribute album.
Sterne's own input was indispensable. And at least she got to hear the discs
before she died.

BOGAEV: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix. He
reviewed "Teresa Sterne: A Portrait" on the Nonesuch label.

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

(Soundbite of "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
floating like a vapor on the soft summer air.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I sigh for Jeanie with the light, form strayed.
far from the fond hearts 'round her native glade. Her smiles have vanished
and her sweet songs flown, flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and

Now the nodding wild flowers may whither on the shore while her gentle fingers
will cull them no more.

Oh, I sigh for Jeanie with the light brown hair, floating like a vapor on the
soft summer air.

(Soundbite of music)


BOGAEV: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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