At the end of last week, Mister Litlove and I watched the movie Julie and Julia and thought it was wonderful. To be precise, we thought Meryl Streep was particularly wonderful as Julia Child, the American whose experience of French cuisine transformed a generation’s domestic cooking habits. Julia Child was a larger than life figure: tall, gangling, rollickingly posh with an extraordinary voice that swooped and swelled and swarmed over its plummy vowels. She was undoubtedly unusual to the point of eccentricity, but Streep plays her in a way that makes her utterly adorable. She is so much… herself. And she is so very engaged. To have that kind of verve and oomph must be amazing. To have such passion and determination and yet to hold it lightly as she does, and to put it to the services of a very vivid and unselfconscious kind of pleasure in life.. ah that is indeed class, my friends.
The other half of the story concerns Julie Powell, who took on as a challenge the book that Julia Child wrote, The Art of Mastering French Cooking, and cooked her way through all 500-plus recipes, blogging as she went, until she, too, became famous in a modern media-friendly way. What united these women was a very genuine desire to do something with their lives, and not in an empty spirit of achievement, but out of a longing for self-fulfillment, the need to have a proper, heartfelt purpose, and a greedy, reveling love of fine, rich food. The film brings this out beautifully, and makes for oddly touching cinema.
All the reviews I read prior to watching the film much preferred the Julia Child storyline to the Julie Powell one. Julie was considered to be self-indulgent and whiny in comparison with the marvelously forthright and resilient Julia. In fact, this misses the point a little. What matters desperately to Julia Child is her inability to have a baby, and the film touches only briefly on this, showing her in one moving scene sobbing violently into her husband’s shirtfront, holding out a letter from her sister announcing her pregnancy. Through her tears, Julia Child declares vibrantly that she is so happy for her, so happy, and the perfect co-existence of these two conflicting sentiments is brilliantly portrayed. Julia Child loves cooking, and exalts in it, but it’s not where she is wounded. Julie Powell needs by contrast to prove something about herself, to herself. She wants to show herself once and for all she is not a mess up, not a catastrophe waiting to happen, not a quitter, not an incompetent. In consequence she does have fairly spectacular emotional meltdowns when the frustration gets to her, although the scene of her lying flat out on the kitchen floor sobbing like a child is actually very funny. And isn’t this more like the reality of hard work and painful endeavour? We might all aspire to transcend set backs and obstacles, but how much more likely is it that we’ll end up in tears amidst the ruins of the latest creative attempt – and shouldn’t we have compassion for that as a genuine form of suffering, too? To cry when we are bitterly disappointed only shows that something terribly important is at stake, and should be a measure of the moral fibre required to keep making the creative attempt, not a lack of strength at all.
My only reservation about the film was in the portrayal of blogging, which continues to be misunderstood. The word ‘narcissistic’ was bandied about a great deal, as usual, seasoned with a little delicate scorn for an audience feasting on the disemboweled leftovers of another’s life. I can’t quite understand why it’s such a leap of the imagination to see how much blogs transmit information, how much they teach us, in the act (so fundamental to all creative writing) of putting words to the common feelings and experience of living. To share the quotidian with honesty and insight is no meagre or useless skill.
And so we get to the sneaky point of this post, which is to say that, by the way, this is my fourth anniversary of Tales from the Reading Room, and that there is much to be thankful for still, both in the art of blogging and of following one’s passions (as they amount to the same thing). Even as a child, I felt that life was a spectacular opportunity, and I just wanted to do something that was equal to the enormity of the gift I’d been given. Teaching literature at Cambridge was for me something of a pinnacle of achievement, and the chronic fatigue that meant I had to take time out of it a bitter and frustrating obstacle. But it was at that point I started blogging, out of a longing to share book knowledge with other people, missing my students as I was and the lengthy, in-depth discussions we enjoyed. Blogging not only brought me back in touch with bookish people, and with the delights of writing about and talking about literature, it also gave me a new way to express myself, and the astounding recognition that I could do something good that grew out of fun and almost self-indulgence, that wasn’t about setting a marine-style assault course for my mind, or striving against the most difficult challenge I could set myself. I had always worked so hard. Now it occurred to me to wonder whether I could actually find something equal to that precious opportunity of life in the path of least resistance.
So you find me now, four years in, trying to turn myself into a proper writer, to go beyond the pinnacle, as I once thought, of teaching literature, and attempting to produce something akin to it instead. I am not very good at talking about writing. You do it, and if it’s not right you do it over; that’s about all there is to it. Mister Litlove (and where would this blog be without him?) fondly imagines that I am some sort of spirit of creativity to whom the odd 1,000 words comes easily, and out of a liking for that image, I play the resident creative genius much in the same way that Marie Antoinette played at being a peasant in Le Petit Trianon. I wish I could say I was Julia Child in writing, when I have more than my fair share of Julie Powell (and one of these days I will lie on the kitchen floor for a meltdown as it looks fun). But I wish I were better at it as I might manage to find more time to post, here in the place where all this strange and still disconcerting change of life took place. Talking about books, however, is still a necessary, no, vital part of my life, and I am very grateful to the blogging friends who visit me here, some of you since the very start all those years ago, some of you relatively recent, but all deeply appreciated and valued. Your virtual presence has enriched me more than you will ever know, and the Reading Room would be nothing without you. Thank you for the past four, amazing, years.