The Banquet of Esther Rosenbaum by Penny Simpson
Mslexia Woman to Watch for 2009
Berlin, 1929 is edging towards disaster, but seven foot orphan Esther Rosenbaum is serving up a banquet for her circle of bohemians, artists and kabarett composers. Her restaurant, Schorns, is owned by a gay black marketeer, but patronised by Nazis. The revolutionaries who eat there and briefly seized power ten years earlier are distracted by personal feuds and vendettas, manipulated by Bertolt Brecht. Esther, the chef capable of creating concoctions such as chocolate hearts stuffed with saffron pen nibs, has stopped eating, and is reducing herself to bone.
Using a burlesque brand of magic realism, Penny Simpson conjures fantastical elements to show how cookery can be an act of storytelling, and imagination itself an act of subversion and survival.
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Talking to: Penny Simpson
Alcemi: How did your background in the arts – especially opera – affect your choice of settings for the novel?
Penny: It was the visual artists and filmmakers of the early twentieth century who helped shape the settings rather than opera, although I did listen to a lot of Kurt Weill's music – sung by the inimitable Lotte Lenya – as I wrote. The prints of Otto Dix and George Grosz, the experiment and challenge of the German Dadaists, painters like Kirchner; they have all inspired me since art college. And GW Pabst's films Pandora's Box (with the legendary Louise Brooks) and The Threepenny Opera.
A: The Banquet of Esther Rosenbaum draws a lot on the imagination – I hesitate to say fantasy – in a distinctive way. Can you describe what other books – models if you like – you had in mind when starting the novel?
P: I didn't really have a literary model for Banquet. It began with a footnote in a book that mentioned that Brecht's grandmother caused a scandal going to the races with her cook. It stuck with me. That said, I've always liked writers who can map a course between the real and the fantastic – writers like Angela Carter and Patrick Suskind (Perfume), Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum, and, more recently, the extraordinary graphic novels created by Neil Gaimon, particularly The Wolves in the Walls and The Sandman.
A: You use actual historical characters – for example Brecht and a real kabarett composer you drew on for Tucholsky. Was this a help or a hindrance in researching and writing the book?
P: I always think of research as being like a warm-up before doing a work out! It creates a springboard to take maybe the small germ of an idea further still. It shouldn't restrict, or limit at all. There was a point when I abandoned the research notes and just wrote. What was important stayed with me and nudged me to take certain directions; after all, I wasn't writing a history book, or a biography.
Glass chandeliers have melted in the heat of the flames, forming chains as fine as spun sugar. Walking through the auditorium, they clink eerily above my head. Theatr Hoffmann is littered with tiers of scorched velvet seats and the bodies of dismembered plaster angels. Pigeons eye me balefully from their nests...
A: Explain the importance of food, cooking and community in the novel.
P:The book is set in 1920s Berlin, a time when many people struggled to eat. I wondered about what would happen if you didn't have influence, or power, how did the simple process of getting hold of food and preparing it affect your daily life? Food in Banquet is a constant presence; it's usually presented as a gift between people, a means of bonding when so much else is under threat of collapse. It's also symbolic, reflecting the contrast between denial and excess, the extremes between which all the characters live.
Favourite film:Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth.
Favourite artistic era: The early 20th century.
Favourite meal: Mozzarella cheese, vine tomatoes, fresh basil and black olives.
Penny Simpson acquired a taste for opera as a cleaner at Glyndebourne, and is now Head of Press at Welsh National Opera. Trained as a journalist and working mainly in the arts, she was Barclays/TMA Theatre Critic of the Year in 1991. An author of short stories which have appeared in anthologies from Bloomsbury, Honno and Virago, her debut collection was entitled DOGdays. This is her first novel.
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