Harvest continues on. Even though summer lingers on, you can start to see autumn starting to crinkle the edges. The nights feel cooler, and the grapes hang heavy on the vines.
I’ve been getting caught back in sleepless nights; not because of the baby, who wakes quietly, sweetly, without fussing, in the night around 4 a.m to eat and slips back to sleep almost immediately. This is just run of the mill insomnia…the sleepless nights that have continued throughout this year. In French, they call it “passer une nuit blanche”, or “passing a white night”…those nights where you stare at the ceiling in the dark, uncomfortable and exhausted, waiting for sleep to come.
It’s a good description for sleeplessness, “white nights”…makes me think of the bleary eyed disorientation of being so far north that the sun never sets, when it’s still light at midnight. And even though my room is dark, insomnia hones my eyesight and my senses to the fragile blue light of the street peeking through the horizontal slats of the shutters, to the green light from our clock, to the light from my phone blinding me each time I check the time, again and again, as the hours slide by.
I finally got up and read for a while on the sofa, finishing my book. It was called the Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. I really liked this book a lot, even though it’s taken me ages to get through it. It’s set in the 1970s, and centers around a young artist in her twenties named Reno, who is a land artist, obsessed with speed and motorcycles, drawing lines in the salt flats of the desert. The book is populated with stories, conflabulations, lies, romance and absurd characters…the character of Reno is like a ghost, flat and dispassionate, a blank screen onto which the men around her project their desires. The sentences are crisp and precise, even if sometimes the author crosses a line into pretention…but even then, it’s not clear that the pretentious sentiments and the awkward wording isn’t just the uncertain expressions of Reno tiptoeing into adulthood.
A lot of the reviews referred to the main character as alternately dumb, passive and blank…but I saw her differently. There’s a whole section about Reno getting photographed as a test subject for projectionists in movie theaters, her skin tone serving as a color swatch, a way for them to calibrate their equipment, and I think Reno serves as a blank swatch or a marker for all the male characters in the book. She is always an observer, a passive follower getting swept along, always a blank symbol to people rather than a complex person herself. Everyone uses her as a movie screen to project their own desires and dramas, a foil, an audience for their absurd monologues…and so she is repeatedly used and discarded by the people who are supposed to care about her. She even says at one point that it’s embarrassing to appear to want anything too badly, and thus she hides her artistic ambitions, hides her passions, and serves up a blank mirror to the people around her.
Best of all, there are these juicy passages, these beautifully apt descriptions that you can FEEL, this wonderful prose. An example…as Reno approaches the salt flats on her gleaming new Moto Valera motorcycle for the speed trials:
“On the short drive from town out to the salt flats, the high desert gleamed under the morning sun. White, sand, rose, and mauve—those were the colors here, sand edging to green in places, with sporadic bursts of powdery yellow, weedy sunflowers blooming three-on-the-tree. . . . Pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.”
I was awake, restless and sleepless, and so I was there to hear M’s alarm sounding in the dark at 4. I snuggled up against his back…bed never feels as good and warm and wonderful as when you have to get up. He finally rolled over and stumbled downstairs to make coffee.
They are harvesting muscat and chardonnay right now. Delicate white grapes, fragrant and sweet, always the first to ripen.
You have to harvest at the perfect moment, when the fruit is ripe, and the way you test that is: you go down to the vineyard and pick 100 grapes, randomly throughout the vines, and send them to a lab to test the sugar content. We went down in the evening last week with the baby to gather the samples. There is quite a lot of Chardonnay, spread out over four separate large parcels of land…I think I ate as many as I picked. Sweet and beautiful…the colors are almost like a translucent jade, with the slightest blush of rosy violet under the skin.
I discovered this week, too, that in France, many vineyards plant a row or two of plain table grapes in with the wine grapes. Why? So the workers always have something to eat on hand during harvest. 🙂 It’s true! And when we finished preparing the lab samples of Chardonnay, we picked great dripping elegant heaps of green table grapes, filling the inside of a wooden crate.
The grapes are pressed almost immediately after being picked, and I brought the baby to the cellar to watch. My father in law bought a new pressoir this year, and I watched the clear white grape juice pour into hoses, the skins and empty branches filtered out and left behind. It’s fun to talk to the older people in the village; M’s grandmother remembers people actually stomping the grapes in big vats with their bare feet, the way they have for centuries.
This is the harvesting machine. M learned to drive this machine this year (although I think he’s expecting to run over a few vines.)
As M says, you work hard all year for this moment. It’s exciting and timeless and tiring and wonderful.