Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

The charms of James Bond’s Vesper

“Once you’ve tasted it, it’s all you want to drink.”

“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean.  They made me feel civilized.”  Ernest Hemingway on martinis, in A Farewell to Arms

Sitting here this morning listening to Adele’s new Skyfall theme song – a definite callback to the heady days of Shirley Bassey after the well-meaning but ill-advised collaboration that was Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die” for Quantum of Solace – it’s a struggle to encapsulate in less than several thousand long-winded words exactly the impact James Bond has had on my life, how he has been a reliable friend in darker times and something of a model for far more men than just I as what exactly it is to be a man.  I can admit that Ian Fleming is probably the third in the holy trinity of writers who have helped me forge my own style, along with Gene Roddenberry and Aaron Sorkin – less in the overall philosophical approach of the latter two but more in how to shape narrative, twist one’s plots and compel readers to turn pages.  But enough about all that.  It’s James Bond Day and it’s an occasion to celebrate literature and cinema’s most enduring secret agent.  Today I’m veering away from the usual heavy stuff and talking about drinks.  In particular, James Bond’s drink of choice:  the Vesper martini.  As originally described in the Casino Royale novel, to be served in a deep champagne goblet:

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

I love martinis.  They are a drink of sophistication and elegance – with a martini glass in your hand it’s natural to find yourself standing a little straighter, feeling a suaveness surging through your veins.  Perhaps they even brace you with enough confidence to approach the voluptuous brunette in the slinky dress at the end of the bar who might just be a Russian agent.  The effort to prepare the martini just right, as opposed to say, simply pouring a scotch over some ice, only adds to its charm.  Admittedly, the definition has gotten a bit fuzzy as they’ve become more popular, to the point where simply putting anything in the right glass is considered a “martini.”  But even though I might enjoy the diversion of a chocolate or berry martini from time to time, when it comes to the martini experience in its purest form, you have to go back to something like the Vesper. 

Ingredients for the perfect Vesper are not as easily found as you might think, making the experience of one a rare sensory pleasure.  The first wrinkle in the ointment is the Kina Lillet.  Lillet is not vermouth, it is what’s called an aperitif wine.  Kina Lillet, unfortunately, isn’t made anymore.  The substitute is Lillet Blanc, and even that can be tricky, but not impossible to track down.  The fortunate thing about it is unless you are planning on having two or three of these daily, one Lillet bottle should last a good while.  Your choice of gin and vodka matter also – I’ve read that the process of manufacturing them has changed somewhat since Ian Fleming’s time, and that the typical Gordon’s or Smirnoff/Stoli/whatever else available commercially are not as strong as they would have been in 1953.  The impact for me seems to be largely in the vodka.  80 proof is the strongest you can purchase in Canada, so I’ve made it a point to stop in at the duty free whenever we’re vacationing across the border and pick up the 100 proof blue-label Smirnoff.  I have noticed, and those I’ve served it to have commented also, that the stronger vodka seems to cut the intensity of the gin somewhat and make for a smoother drink.  Above all, it’s critical that the mixture remain ice cold – a warm Vesper can taste a little bit like lighter fluid.  I find it helps a little to pre-chill the glasses, then pack the shaker with as much ice as it can reasonably handle before adding the ingredients and shaking away.  If one measure as described above = one shot, you will usually have enough to serve two completed drinks (depending how you pour) and don’t forget the critical slice of lemon peel.  Or, you can try the Felix Leiter variation from the movie:  “Bring me one as well, keep the fruit.”  I find that the citrus oils from the freshly sliced lemon are a nice accent though, and after all, the best way to enjoy a Vesper is just the way Bond ordered it.

The quote accompanying the photo is accurate – the Vesper spoils you, it’s that good.  Next to it, appletinis and crantinis and other varieties of fruitinis might as well be watered-down Kool-Aid.  The Vesper is more than a drink; it’s a statement, a marking of one’s territory as a man of refined taste, someone who can cut through the superficial and home in on the richness of life lurking beneath the surface distractions.  There is a world-weariness to James Bond the character – he is essentially a contradiction of a man who is cynical about civilization but still finds it within himself to fight for his ideals of good versus evil.  In his reflective moments, Vesper in hand, the potent potion trickling through his bloodstream, he may find himself questioning the point of it all – why fight on, why continue posing as St. George, when there will always be another bad guy – another dragon – around the next corner?  It is in the fight itself that the resolve of one’s character is proven, win or lose, and like it or not, Bond is not Bond without that fight.  Nor are we.  (See, I can’t escape the philosophical stuff even when I try.)

Happy 50th James Bond – have a Vesper on me.

The last good fight

“Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” – Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’  I agree with the second part.” – William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Seven

“Nothing baffles the schemes of evil people so much as the calm composure of great souls”Comte de Mirabeau

Warren Kinsella is a former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and continues to assist the Liberal Party of Ontario during its election campaigns – to put him in West Wing terms, he’s a wartime consigliere.  I read his blog frequently and don’t always agree with him (not to sound like the Dos Equis guy here) but respect him for several reasons:  one of which is that he says liberals should always be full-throated go-for-the-gut liberals, and another is that he believes in the nobility of always fighting for what is important.  (He is the lone liberal voice on Canada’s pathetic Fox News clone Sun News Network, which gives you a sense of his willingness to take the fight to the enemy’s turf.)  The other day he posited that he thought the human race was evil and beyond redemption.  He cited the examples of the Syrian massacre and a particular website which offers video of disturbing violent acts (which I’m not going to link to for obvious reasons).  Clearly, if you want to go down that route, there are thousands of examples more.  It’s one of those arguments that you’ll always find more evidence to support if you need it – like “politicians are corrupt,” “democracy doesn’t work” or “Jersey Shore is a blight on society.”

I don’t subscribe to this thinking, because it’s the easy way out.  (And in fairness to the usually spunky Warren, he could have just been having a bad day or been thinking about the world his kids are growing up in.)  To me, it’s throwing up your hands and surrendering before you even strap on the first shin pad.  It’s saying that principles do not matter, values are not important and attempting to live a civilized, moral life is futile.  It’s looking at the world’s douchebags living high off the hog and wondering why the hell we’re trying so hard not to be them, with the idea that our way is better for the soul, when we’re getting screwed by the universe anyway while they reap the rewards.  Like the worker ant who dutifully and nobly carries food back to the colony day after day only to be scorched to death one sunny afternoon by a smirking brat with a magnifying glass.  But it’s ground that I don’t believe the human race as a whole can afford to concede.  It’s not a world I want to live in.  Indeed, it’s not a world that would live very long.

On Star Trek and its successors, you’d often find the crew visiting planets where everyone wore the same outfit and shared the same opinion.  Absent was the dichotomy that defines humanity – the extremes of light and dark and good and evil that share contradictory space inside the soul.  The same heart that loves one hates another; the same species that cherishes beauty creates ugliness.  But it’s important not to forget that despite the increasing societal obsession with what is worst about us (fostered by media companies trying to scare you into buying things you don’t need), we have truly done some remarkable things in our relatively short time in the cosmos.  We have forged incredible works of art, literature, music.  We have crafted a society of laws and good governance.  We have cured devastating illnesses and been able to shift the focus of our existence from mere survival to the enrichment of our spirit and of our collective consciousness.  We have even taken the tiniest of baby steps away from our world into the endless realm of possibility that lies beyond.  Why, when looking at this evidence, should we continue to base our opinion of ourselves on the abysses rather than the apexes?  Are we really no better than the very worst of us?  Are we all hovering forever on a tipping point of evil, just one fragile breath away from unleashing our inner Hitler?

No goddamn way.  Call it what you will – even dare to call it faith.  But to say humanity is evil and beyond redemption is to admit I am evil and beyond redemption.  And I am better than that.  I know I am.  I know we all are.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece criticizing the conservative moguls funding attack ads against the President of the United States.  I submitted it to The Huffington Post and was surprised that they liked it enough to feature it prominently on their Politics page.  The response was quite staggering, with what I’d say was probably a 3 to 1 ratio of comments supporting what I had to say versus condemning it.  And the ones who condemned it certainly didn’t mince words.  But I don’t regret writing the piece.  It was something that I felt needed to be said, and a lot of people agreed with me.  (Interestingly enough, not that I can claim any responsibility, an article subsequently appeared in Politico where these right-wing sugar daddies are now complaining that they are being picked on, apparently forgetting that one of the tenets of free speech is the right of everyone else to tell you you’re being a dick when you say something they don’t like.)  I’ve accepted that I’ll never be a billionaire or wield the kind of influence over the masses that some really awful people do.  But my voice will always be my own, and that is something that cannot be purchased from anybody else.  And I will continue to use it to advocate the world I want to see, the world I know we can attain, with every single breath, until I can no longer speak.  It’s like that wonderful poem from The Grey:  “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know.”

The bastards will not grind me down.

Walking after midnight

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.

Were the good old days really so wonderful?  That’s the question at the heart of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, his 2011 movie I was finally lucky enough to see this past weekend.  After a somewhat overlong travelogue opening, a taut, beautifully shot 90 minutes tells the story of successful yet frustrated screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson), trapped in a relationship with high-maintenance Inez (Rachel McAdams), her conservative parents and tiresomely elitist friends.  Setting out drunkenly on his own one warm Parisian night, Gil is picked up by an old car precisely as the clock strikes twelve and finds himself in the Roaring Twenties alongside such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso.  He has his debut novel critiqued by Gertrude Stein, suggests movie plots to Luis Bunuel, inspires Salvador Dali and ultimately falls in love with a beautiful French muse named Adriana (the always spectacularly alluring Marion Cotillard) who is herself pining for a more golden era – the 1890’s France of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge.  Woody Allen isn’t interested in the mechanics of the typical time travel plot – how Gil is able to journey to the 1920’s and back every night remains an enigma that even Gil isn’t that keen on solving.  The magic just happens, and he rolls with it, soaking in the wonder of being surrounded by his heroes, people to whom he can relate with greater ease than anyone in the present day.

It’s a dilemma to which I suspect many of us writers can relate, and indeed, the writers who make up the voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were taken with the message enough to award it Best Original Screenplay despite Woody Allen’s persistence in ignoring all the Oscars he’s ever won.  We are mired somewhat in our admiration for the traditions forged by those who have tread the path before, people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac to name but a very limited few.  We eye with disdain the half-efforts by celebutantes, reality show castoffs and vampire devotees finding wide readership today and question how we can possibly be a product of the same era.  We must belong to an earlier, more golden, more innocent time, where our deepest literary ponderings would find sympathetic ears at every turn.  In the movie, Gil is taken aback when he and Adriana find themselves even further in the past, in the time where she wants most to be, and discover that the literati of that era are dismissive of their present and longing for the Renaissance.  The conclusion eventually drawn by Gil is that the sense of nostalgia is a continuous thread winding its way through each subsequent generation, that it is not by any means unique to the children of today.

Chances are great that if any of us was to experience the timeslip of Midnight in Paris and be transported to that bygone slice of history – to the Capraesque American heartland of the 1940’s, to pick but a single example – we too would not find our nostalgia sated for long; we would see the people around us saddened by harshness of their present and longing for the easier days gone by.  The past is, ultimately, prologue.  As hard as it is to imagine, the people of the 2050’s may look back on 2012 with fond memories, recalling wistfully when gasoline cost only as much as it does now, when we still had polar icecaps and polar bears for that matter, when the kids danced to Lady Gaga and Rihanna, the iPad was the hottest thing going, and the world held its breath waiting for the next Hunger Games movie.  I have lived long enough to see one particular decade of which I have strong memories – the 1980’s – transform from what was normal to what is camp and kitsch; how long before the subtle shirts and ties I wear to work every day become the subject of mockery like leg warmers and acid wash jeans?

The lesson I take from Midnight in Paris is that the past is a nice place to rhapsodize about, but you shouldn’t want to live there, because you likely wouldn’t like it as much as you think you will.  Instead, the past should only help us make better choices going forward, as Gil realizes when Gertrude Stein’s critique of his novel prompts him to make a radical change in his present-day life – for what turns out to be the better.  So as much as I might like to sit in the room while Jack Kerouac pounds out On the Road on his rolls of typewriter paper, share a fireside chat with FDR or float in the Eagle with Armstrong and Aldrin, I do their legacies and the world no favors by waiting around for it to actually happen.  My task is to blend my romanticism of the olden days with the experiences of my own life into something worthy and lasting, both in how I live my life and what I put down in words.  And perhaps, someday in the far future, someone yet to take their first breath on this wonderful earth will wonder about what it would have been like to spend an afternoon in my company.  They may very well – for reasons passing our understanding at this point – see these days above all others as the golden age.  Don’t we owe it to them to try and make this time worth getting nostalgic about?

It ain’t easy

Aaron Sorkin, making it look easy.

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, his seminal book on screenwriting, William Goldman talks excitedly about meeting one of his literary heroes, Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions and Rich Man, Poor Man among many others).  They spend an afternoon together, the young Goldman soaking up as much of Shaw’s wisdom as he can.  As they are about to part, Goldman flippantly comments to Shaw that writing must have been easy for him.  Shaw is struck dumb and becomes incredibly morose, remarking quietly, “It wasn’t easy.”  Goldman spends the rest of the chapter berating himself for having said that, for trivializing in one ill-informed quip a lifetime of Shaw’s tribulation and heartbreak poured out on paper.  Perhaps the most intimidating part of attempting to write anything is the mere existence of the reams and reams of brilliant work that have gone before, and the resulting feeling that you will never measure up because it’s so difficult for you and those other guys could just knock out genius effortlessly.  Staring at the blank screen and the blinking cursor with the spectre of Jack Kerouac feeding rolls of paper through his typewriter because he just couldn’t stop can diminish your verve quite abruptly.

Indeed, writing is one of those paradoxical vocations that people can claim to love in one breath when they are bashing their heads against the wall trying to figure out the right order of words in the next.  While I am presently finalizing my first novel, it is intended to be the beginning of a trilogy – an accidental trilogy, given that when I began writing it, it was only going to be a single work until I found out about word count limits – and while I know how it is supposed to end, I am not entirely certain how to get there.  The other day I had a flash of inspiration and found myself laying out the plot of book two in my head.  Resolving to get at least a workable outline down as soon as possible, I found myself sitting at my computer, utterly stymied.  The words were just not there.  I got up, walked around, got a drink, looked out the window, pet the cat, changed the music and still nothing came.  In that moment I felt about as in love with writing as I am with right-wing conservatism.  An inability to find the words is the wedge that lets all the demons through the door.  Who are you kidding?  You suck at this.  You’ll never amount to anything.  No one will ever want to read this, let alone spend money for it.  When a writer sinks into that well of self-criticism, no amount of positive feedback will help a whit.  One can imagine Irwin Shaw at his typewriter caught in the same spiral, and thus have no difficulty picturing his deep offense at William Goldman’s casual remark.

One of my writing heroes, Aaron Sorkin, wrote 88 episodes of The West Wing over four years – working on his other series Sports Night concurrently during the first two of those years and still maintaining an unsurpassed level of quality that entrenched a collective ideal of a liberal and intellectual Presidency of the United States during the frustrating Bush years.  A recent Vanity Fair article discusses how The West Wing continues to inspire young staffers who work in the White House to this very day.  Yet while he was writing, Sorkin’s marriage broke apart and he suffered well-documented problems with substance abuse, even an embarrassing airport arrest.  I would love to meet Aaron Sorkin one day, shake his hand and thank him for inspiring my own writing.  But not in a million years would I ever dare to suggest it was easy for him.  That would diminish not only his work, but my own – I think I’d be embarrassed to say I was inspired by something that the guy knocked off in five minutes on a cocktail napkin.

Writing is the articulation of the soul, the translation of wordless thoughts and feelings into a permanent form that can be shared with and experienced by others.  It is announcing with a megaphone the baring of your vulnerable heart to the world, and hoping for connection, and though it can be as difficult as physically tearing open your ribcage with only your fingertips, we are compelled to do it anyway.  The drive of a writer to craft his message can leave ruin in its wake – the ruin of relationships, of health, of entire lives – the fate of men like Ernest Hemingway.  At the same time, one has to concede nobility in the idea of this sacrifice of personal well-being to a higher purpose – the creation of a lasting story.  This is not by any means to suggest that all great work should require ear-slicing insanity, only that no one should ever expect to reach this mythical idea of effortless writing, and it’s something to remember the next time the flashing cursor unveils the horrifying sight of the blank page.  It’s hard for everyone, no matter how easy they make it look.

Vroom, vroom, sputter

As our civilization becomes more diverse, and more accepting, we still, like a man dangling from a cliff by his fingertips, cling to the traditional sense of what a man and a woman are supposed to be – what they like and don’t like and what they are supposed to be interested in and passionate about.  I wouldn’t under any circumstances suggest that I’m somehow breaking new ground myself – I’m a white guy who likes girls, it doesn’t get more mundane than that.  But I’ve always had cause to wonder why not being in to the same things that other guys of my generation are somehow makes me one of the “other people.”  What we like or don’t is still acceptable grounds for prejudging each other and defining how we stack up against the societal norm – whatever the hell that is.

I would think that for regular readers my nerdiness has been well heretofore established, what with innumerable references to Star Trek, Star Wars and those nefarious little ponies.  Conversely, I haven’t even a microscopic level of interest in football, hockey, boxing, wrestling, ultimate fighting, nachos, beer (beyond a good pint of Guinness every now and then) or, as I realized while waiting for mine to be fixed, cars.

Does nothing for me, sorry.

We do so love our magnificent machines, don’t we.  But not I.  I recall once walking with a group of friends, maybe four or five of them, from my house to some summertime event.  From moment one of this hourlong trek, the conversation did not deviate from engines, cams, rims, horsepower, makes, models, torque, valves, and god knows whatever else.  Every parked car we passed gave additional fuel – pardon the pun – to this ongoing, intellectually numbing dialogue where the underlying theme, if any, was one-upping each other with increasingly picayune displays of automobile expertise – the ultimate irony being that we were all too young to drive.  I think I got maybe one or two words in, likely nothing more profound than “Yeah” and its more insightful variation, “Oh yeah.”  To me, a car has only ever been a necessary tool for getting from one place to another in a world where we’ve spread ourselves out too far.  I don’t enjoy the experience of driving whatsoever.  I’m impatient with other drivers, I’m always convinced I’m going to hit something, and every whiff of exhaust sends me into a mental tailspin about what we are doing to the planet.  If it has four wheels, sitting in it doesn’t feel like being confined in a decompression tank and it isn’t costing me my firstborn to keep running, I don’t care what it looks like or how many cylinders are blasting away under the hood.

I appreciate that everyone has his passions.  Some are passionate about food, about movies, about designer clothes.  I am most passionate about writing.  The major difference, as I see it, is that I don’t talk incessantly about what colour typewriter or paper stock Hemingway or Tolkien or Ian Fleming used and how many words you can get out of a single strand of typing ribbon (or, rather than dating myself, I don’t know – the accuracy of the Microsoft Word spell check?)  The passion of driving doesn’t compute for me – when you’re writing something you are on a journey of the soul to places and states of being unknown, but when you arrive at the end of a car trip, are you changed?  Have you had an enlightening experience?  Are you somehow physically different because of the type of car you drove up in?  No, you’re just there at your destination, whether you took a Ferrari or a jalopy, whether you experienced the rush of breakneck speed or waddled in at 2 mph.  I understand that there are people who love fixing cars, who love transforming rustbuckets into sleek machines.  That’s fine, and that’s something entirely different – that’s more along the lines of what writing is, the process of creation.  But I still can’t get behind an invention whose existence, like it or not, has led to most of the wars we’ve fought over the last hundred years (and consequently a great deal of our environmental degradation) so Susie can get to the beach in her sweet sixteen present.

It frustrates me that our society needs the car so much.  I accept that it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.  I just don’t get why we should celebrate its trivialities at the same time, or why worship of all things automotive continues to be a prerequisite of masculinity.  And I find a bit of hypocrisy in the “racing fan” who is really just there to see those so-called beautiful machines crash and explode, or in the man who will chide his wife for the effort and money she spends on her hair and makeup while fretting lovingly over every stone chip and rubbing baby oil into his leather seats every night.  Perhaps this entire argument veers toward the curmudgeonly; perhaps one man’s passion will always be another man’s waste of time, no matter what it is.  But there is one major difference.  Drunken writing gave us some of the greatest and most spiritually transformative classics of modern literature.  Drunken driving just kills people.

So there.