Jefford on Monday: Lessons from the laureate

Jefford on Monday: Lessons from the laureate

Andrew Jefford looks at winemaking lessons from one writer’s work.

A stuffy seminar room; a warm afternoon; a discussion of Henry James.  Which novel?  Portrait of a Lady?  That I can’t quite remember: it was almost 40 years ago.  Some of the students had lost interest; one or two may have been dozing.  A single student, though, had buried his teeth in a typically long and convoluted Henry James sentence and, like a terrier with a teddy bear, he wasn’t letting go.  He was trying to disentangle the relevant and subordinate clauses, reconcile pronouns with antecedents, and thereby expose exactly what it was that James was trying to say.  The knotty thickets of the sentence, though, defeated him. “What does he mean?” he kept asking.

I thought back to that moment at around midday on October 5th this year, when my brother texted me to say that the fellow student in question, Kazuo Ishiguro, had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2017.  Bear with me for a paragraph or two, and I’ll explain why this tale might belong in a Christmas Day wine column.

The Ish I knew back then (even his wife Lorna calls him that) was a laid-back ex-housing charity resettlement officer whose plan to become the British Bob Dylan hadn’t yet worked out, but whose rejected radio play had landed him on the recently created Creative Writing MA course at the University of East Anglia.  (I was a student of the taught MA course from which the Creative Writers took two modules.)  Ish’s stories were quiet, strange, oddly uneventful – but they had internal coherence; they compelled.  He soon emerged as the most talented student of the six that year, and Faber & Faber signed him up; his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, followed two years later.  Six more novels have followed, including the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day.

If you’ve read any of them, and compared them to other contemporary novels, you will be aware of their distinctive differences.  The language, to begin with, is simple, and apparently artless.  They are literary novels so devoid of literary flamboyance as to barely seem ‘literary’ at all – an enormous plus for many readers.  You never need scurry for the dictionary.  Translators love his work (and he has said that he writes with translators in mind).

Moreover the novels are indeed artful.  The words may be simple, but they are unerringly chosen.  His greatest artistry, meanwhile, lies in narrative itself, in storytelling, since he contrives to implicate the reader in the unfolding of the tale to a much greater extent than novelists of the more evidently ‘masterful’ kind.  The effect of the unintimidating, highly accessible surfaces of his stories is that reader swiftly slips beneath the waters and becomes the discoverer of what lies beneath; it’s the reader who does all the realizing, who lives in the story, rather than being a seated and passive spectator at the novelist’s great show.

Added to that modesty of style is a curiosity and an empathy for those whom the tale describes, even when (as is the case for Stevens, the butler who is the central character in The Remains of the Day) they are unlikeable, and the architects of their own downfall.  Ish has always been a great asker of questions, an enquirer into people’s lives; it is, indeed, quite hard to out-manoeuvre him into revealing a little more about his life than he had just managed to get you to reveal about yours.  The imagined other, not the writerly self, lies at the centre of his work; and that cast of others is deeply realized and nourishing, as readers soon grasp.

A work of art, of course, is wholly a creation of the human mind, whereas the winemaker simply stewards the transformation of one product into another.  Winemaking is craft, not art.

The two processes are, though, similar to the extent that both artist and craftsman have to make an endless suite of significant choices whose results will be reflected in the final work, the finished object.  There is an aesthetic element to the appreciation of wine; and a great wine is much more than a felicity of nature.  It is indeed a crafted object.  What conclusions, if any, might we draw about the crafting of wine in considering the achievements of this year’s literary Nobel laureate?

A lack of flamboyance would be a good starting point.  It is very easy in winemaking to turn up the volume, to introduce intrusive elements or to heighten contrasts in order to produce a showy result, and such wines will often stand out in tastings just as a dazzlingly written novel draws critical attention to itself.  This is not it itself a culpable strategy: great novels have been written in this way (think of the verbal incandescence of Moby Dick) and wines of this sort can be enjoyable to taste and add to the brightness of life.

Drinkability, though, is another matter, and the profounder satisfactions of wine emerge most clearly in those where the surfaces are not too distracting, and the contrasts not too brightly drawn.  Having the courage to do nothing is often the most taxing skill of the winemaker – supposing, that is, that she or he has first gone to infinite pains to ensure that the raw materials, the grapes themselves, are as perfect as season and place permit.  That would be the equivalent of choosing simple words — but assaying them for every ounce of meaning.

A second lesson from Ishiguro’s work would be the primacy of narrative – and the equivalent of narrative in a novel is the expression of place and of origin in a wine.  What matters most about a novel is its story – what it tells us; and what matters most about a wine is also a sort of narrative, a narrative of place.  Place, in the end, is what distinguishes all serious wines (the equivalent of literary novels) from one another; that is the origin of their diagnostic uniqueness, for which in certain cases we are prepared to pay so much.  Any strategy that takes you off the story, or effaces the sense of place in a wine, is a setting aside of high vocation.

The difference is that novelists chose their narratives, whereas winemakers in the main don’t chose their places – but fidelity to that narrative, that sense of place is primordial.  The ideal here is one of limpidity, of transparency, of honesty and of truth to origin; that is what, as winemaker, you are giving the world, just as a novelist gives his or her written narrative to the world.  It is up to the world to make of both what it will.

The final lesson?  The Nobel citation referred to the ‘emotional force’ of Ishiguro’s work, though the Swedish committee then went on rather gloomily to point out that this “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”  I would put it in a simpler and perhaps more positive light: Ishiguro is a deeply though subtly compassionate writer.  In his acceptance speech, he said that “for me the essential thing [about stories] is that they communicate feelings.  That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides … stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me.  Can you understand what I’m saying?  Does it also feel this way to you?”

There is a kinship here with what winemakers give to their drinkers.  Thanks to its alcohol content, wine has an emotional force, and works on our feelings; but there is something more.  The alcohol inside fine wine does not have the same effect as that in white cider, vodka or superstrength lager, even though it may be chemically identical; it is clothed in much else.  Through its astonishing allusive force, it constantly evokes the natural world, and our sensual memories and recollections of that world.  By grace of alcohol, it does this emotionally – thus it’s barely an exaggeration to say that a great wine can evoke in us a compassion and a loving engagement with the natural world itself, as novelists do for their characters.  Skilled winemaking is that which brings beauty and subtlety of allusion to the foreground, awakening that compassionate engagement with our sensual environment.

I hope you (and Ish) enjoy a wine of that sort today.

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