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Food is a powerful muse. Nobody ever accused Irma Rombauer of prosodic virtuosity, but even The Joy of Cooking contains sentences as unexpectedly lyrical as “There is something about a piece of fruit—no matter which—so tidy, shapely, self-contained and full of promise as to appeal to the larcenous instincts in all Eve’s children.” Every cookbook has novelistic aspects (The Silver Palate Cookbook, for instance, is certainly as heady as a historical romance), and recipes are dependable indicators of genre. The suggested dishes in John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure include peaches in red wine, blinis with sour cream and caviar, and “a luncheon on the theme of curry.” The novel’s first sentence—as well as serving as its own capsule review—merits a place in the annals of literary understatement. “This,” Lanchester begins, “is not a conventional cookbook.” (Now the deputy editor of the London Review of Books, the author spent three years as a restaurant reviewer for the London Observer.)
“The classic cookbook,” writes Lanchester, “borrows elements from the otherwise radically opposed genres of encyclopedia and confession.” Pleasure qualifies as the latter, with food its ostensible subject and seasonal menus providing its chapter headings. The novel consists of the “gastro-historico-psycho-autobiographico-anthropico-philosphic lucubrations” of its narrator, Tarquin Winot, a gourmand who undertakes to set down his reminiscences, recipe by recipe, during a journey from England to France. Winot writes about food as if it were animate, cataloging the gastric offenses of “hostile saturated fats and intentful carbohydrates” and “aggressive pickles” all the way to his final destination in Provence.
Pleasure plays on the reader’s instinctual trust of the narrative voice. For that reason, many critics have likened the novel to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. But Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd provides a more lowbrow, but no less apt, comparison. Winot is an old-style aesthete, in the sense that he is both impressively learned and hopelessly effete. But amid his cultured observations (“a winter meal is paradigmatic of the talismanic function of the menu”) fall a number of disquieting details. As Winot crosses the Channel by ferry, the wind tugs at his false mustache; as a child, he buys a little something from the druggist, “Pour empoisonner le hamster de mon frère.” It’s clear early on where the author is headed, but the dexterity of Lanchester’s prose offsets the tiresomeness of the conceit. (Winot himself proposes a novel that sounds remarkably similar to Pleasure: “Only the style of the book would remain consistent, driving, forceful, its stable nature underlying the chaos and limitless mutability of everything else in the narrative,” he explains.)
Winot’s tone is self-consciously Proustian; his memoir evinces a nonchalant assumption of privilege as well as an emphasis on material—and edible—detail. At one point, Winot describes an object as being “about the size of the boxed Pléiade set of A la recherche du temps perdu (the three-volume edition of 1954, with the silly foreword by André Maurois, rather than the portentous, overannotated and illogically divided four-volume edition of 1987).” The cookbook is an excuse for Winot’s digressions—on food, of course, but also on history, philosophy, aesthetics, and linguistics. Writing about buckwheat as an ingredient, for example, prompts the aside, “Buckwheat is not a grass, and therefore not a cereal, and therefore does not fall under the protection of the goddess Ceres, the Roman deity who presided over agriculture. On her feast day, in a strangely evocative ceremony, foxes with their tails on fire were set loose in the Circus Maximus; nobody knows why.” Fortunately, Winot is as epigrammatic as he is erudite. “Scrutiny of one’s fellow customers is one of the unacknowledged pleasures of dining out,” he notes. And more prosaically, “Canned tomatoes seem to me to be one of the few unequivocal benefits of modern life.”
Lanchester suggests without undue belaboring that Winot’s intellectual sophistication and his malevolence are interconnected. He is, in a sense, so articulate that you can’t tell what he’s talking about. Tellingly, Winot’s recipes become harder to follow as his discourse becomes more solipsistic. His scholarly asides repeatedly segue into perversity; for example, an etymological footnote becomes a bloodbath when Winot writes,
The word débàcle suggests the going-wrong of an elaborately conceived plan; a disaster that somehow leaves the principal parties not only having lost what they were aware they were risking, but much more besides, as if an attempt to charm the boss by inviting him to dinner and cooking an ambitious favorite dish of his were to result in the death by poisoning of his wife, the loss of one’s job, collapse of one’s marriage, one’s bankruptcy, turn to violent crime, and subsequent death in a shootout with police—when all one was worried about was the risk of curdling the hollandaise.
Appropriately enough, Lanchester’s writing style is roughly analogous to food—very rich food. It confers many of the same delights and discomforts. He lavishes ideas with adjectives, referring to “the resurging triumphant self-delighting competitive rude health of spring” or “the upthrusting tenacious insouciant virginal snowdrop.” And everything comes in big servings; many of his sentences are a paragraph long. To wit:
Before that, though, I paid a brief visit to Chinon, the home of one of my favorite wines, made out of the tangy, expressive, stalky Cabernet Franc, capable of seeming both playful and fruity in some moods, darker and a touch forbidding in others, though without ever really preparing to challenge the peaks or plumb the abysses (of sensation, of expectation) which grander and more ambitious wines inhabit as their landscape—a wine like a lake, say, changing moods widely according to the play of light across wind and chopping wavelets, and capable of annually drowning a fisherman or two, while never straying from its determining scale of lakeness.
Winot may be diabolical, but he’s eloquent. And it’s difficult to wholeheartedly condemn a narrator who brags about having concluded a discourse on food without once using the word “delicious.”CP