Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Balzac, Lolita, and Coffee

Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac informs me that today is the deathday of Honore de Balzac--"a death," Keillor says, "that was probably fueled by his coffee addiction."

I can relate to Monsieur Balzac.  While I don't drink "between 20 and 40 cups of intense Turkish coffee every day," I can't begin my morning routine without a steaming William Faulkner mug of cream-laden joe.  Four sips and the morning cobwebs evaporate; nine sips and I'm limbering the fingers, tapping words into the bulk of Fobbit; twenty-one sips and I'm gone, man--three-quarters of the way to Jittersville.

For the past year, my addiction has been fueled by Tap 'Er Light Coffee Roasters here in Butte, Montana.  The java beans are hand-crafted to bitter perfection by a wonderful couple, Ed and Susan Renfro, who also run the town's bike shop, Bad Beaver Bikes.  The coffee is just a side gig for Ed and Susan, but my tastebuds believe they should go pro.  They may be great at tinkering with sprockets, but they're even better at blending African, Hawaiian and South American beans into wake-up calls like Madison Morning and Dark Angel.

Sadly, there's no website for Tap 'Er Light Coffee, so you'll have to make the trip here to Butte for a taste of caffienated heaven.

Balzac probably would have found Butte's coffee too tame for his deep-espresso habit (but then, the French generally scorn American tastes, so Ed and Susan shouldn't take it personally).  But whatever he was drinking, it seemed to work.  Mr. Keillor reminds me that in his 51 years of life, Balzac produced nearly 100 novels, short stories, and plays--collectively known as La Comedie HumaineCoffee was key to that prodigious output, the Writer's Almanac notes:
Balzac suggested drinking strong coffee on an empty stomach as a writing method.  He said: "Everything becomes agitated.  Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages.  Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder."
Much as I've always wanted to, I've never read a single word written by Balzac.  I have a goodly portion of La Comedie Humaine sitting on my bookshelf right now, but all those novels remain unread.  Until I double-checked my Library Thing account, I thought I had read at least one Balzac.  Nope, not a single word.  I must have been getting him confused with Zola.

Today, the Writer's Almanac also reminds me that I haven't read Lolita, which was released in the U.S. on this day in 1958:
It had been published first in France, three years earlier, by Olympia Press, which mostly published erotica.  The first Olympia edition of 5,000 sold out quickly, but it didn't get any serious reviews until Graham Greene got his hands on it and wrote a review in a major London newspaper calling Lolita the best book of 1955.  Then it got so much interest that the British Customs started confiscating copies coming into the country, and it was banned in various places on counts of pornography.

American publishers were reluctant to publish Lolita.  The story goes that one of the young editors at Putnam had a girlfriend who was a showgirl in Paris, and she heard about Lolita and recommended it to him.  That editor took it on, and when it was published, it set off a huge controversy.  But it was also an immediate best-seller — reviews calling it filthy and pornographic certainly helped its sales — and it sold more than 100,000 copies in one week, the first novel that had done so since Gone with the Wind.

When someone asked him why he wrote Lolita, he said: "Why did I write any of my books, after all?  For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions."
One of these days--One.  Of.  These.  Days.--I will crack the spine of Nabokov's novel and make my way past the first paragraph (which, admittedly, teases me with linguistic delights that lie in wait, crouched in the pages to come):
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.  Lo-lee-ta:  the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo.  Lee.  Ta.

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