A prophet is not without honor, save in her own country and among her own people. One of life’s perennial puzzles is why people in the United States do not seem to read the wonderful novels of Alison Lurie, the sharp-eyed rhapsode of Ithaca, New York.
Every good paperback emporium in England stocks Alison Lurie; you will find her even among the horrid throng and press of Gatwick Aerodrome. But in Minnesota I find her slim volumes elusive. We are divided, as is so often the case, by a common language. Perhaps Americans find Alison Lurie too cruel to be entertaining.
Or maybe it is simply a matter of size. English readers are content to fill up for the weekend with the concentrated spirit of a Penelope Lively or the Welsh wit of Alice Thomas Ellis, whereas the American has greater staying power and prefers to imbibe great Proustian draughts, like a Detroit dragon at a petrol pump. Whenever I hear the word blockbuster, it is of the engine blocks of such mighty motors that I think.
Let me, en tout cas, commend to you Professor Lurie’s Imaginary Friends, a tale of a millenarian cult in upstate New York the denouement of which (it would be deeply unkind to reveal in advance) does little for the reputation of the social science known as religious studies (as distinct from theology, Queen of the Sciences, with its lofty truths and profound heffalump traps).
Or my own particular favorite, Foreign Affairs, a novel about an American spinster professor who spends her summers reading in the British Library and has a positively Janeite capacity for observing the rest of the human race. She needs all her powers of penetration. The American characters are straightforward enough; they have one personality each. But the English all have at least two: The posh lady turns out to have a second life as a cleaning woman; even the dogs have multiple personalities. Nothing is what it seems to be. Honest folk who tell the truth are at a disadvantage.
Art reflects life. There are, after all, precious few straight lines in nature. The Monarch butterfly takes a distinctly wobbly course through life but manages to migrate successfully over many thousands of miles. To be sure, the Romans, straightforward folk, laid out their cities as tidy-minded oblongs, making their outlines instantly recognizable from the air, even when (jam seges est ubi Troia fuit) they lie now under farmers’ fields. But the Greeks knew how to marry the apparent irregularity of nature to the elegance of mathematics. Bicycle down Bryant Avenue South between Franklin and Lake and enjoy the Ionic columns that support the porches of many of the older houses. The spiral volutes at the top of each column are an ancient Greek design derived originally from rams’ horns and deliberately patterned in the pleasing ratio of 1:1.618, what they call the “golden section.” There is more in nature than meets the eye.
Which is why it is a substantial pleasure to recommend a straightforward wine that tells the truth. St. Francis “Old Vines” zinfandel from Sonoma County provides (for around twenty dollars a bottle) considerable delight but no surprises. The color is a good dark red, the nose strong and as fruity as black currants. The flavor carries through precisely the promise of the smell; an initial sweetness recalls the clarets of Pomerol. There is a good gravelly center to the taste and afterward there lingers a strong redolence of alcohol (15.8% by volume, according to the label). As the wine sits, the sweetness gives way to simple strength, but it still pleases; it does not bully. It would make pleasant company equally for roast beef or an omelet, even for Welsh Dragon Sausages (recently withdrawn from sale on the orders of the Common Market on the grounds that they contain no dragon meat. Yes, really).
Of course, there are complexities here if you want to look for them. St. Francis was not the pantheistic bunny-hugger of common supposition. Nor is the Sonoma Valley a flat Jeffersonian chessboard. More interesting, the zinfandel old vines have a history. The variety came to California from New England in the slipstream of the Gold Rush, and, in the past few years, DNA analysis has shown that it is actually the Primitivo, a grape that grows prolifically on the coastal plain running up the stocking seam of the leg of Italy; its ultimate origin seems to be a Croatian variety called crljenak kastelanski. Yes, I have spelled it right. But why worry? Pour yourself a glass and settle into a soft chair with Alison Lurie. Together they should see you through a long weekend.