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A Reckless Eater

Reading can be very much like eating. (Here we go again...!) Appetite is involved; nourishment, of course. And that ebb and flow of available attention, of capacity for decoding, that dictates the choice between gastronomic outcomes: a plateful of convenient stodge that can be hoovered up from a recumbent position whilst bathing the eyeballs in some correspondingly viscid televisual accompaniment - or, painfully elegant dainties, requiring that special muddling of science and sensuality, precision and passion, wherein the ostensibly-nonchalant placement of one element in relation to its neighbours vividly implies obsession. The latter case ought always to unfold in hushed solemnity. There should always be language to learn - uncertainty, ignorance, pencil outlines to ink in. And ideally, there should be a novice or ingénue who comes to that place, wide-eyed, perhaps wearing a small, tasteful covering of extremely new clothes, to be initiated by a mature, twinkly, rather condescending person who thrills one with his (I'm afraid it's inevitably 'his') breadth of knowledge on the one hand, and his downright awfulness on the other. (The awfulness is as necessary in such interactions as things like fish sauce and asafoetida are in cookery - it sets off the blander components with its rousing piquancy.)

And yet... it tends to work best when the novice is not really a novice - real innocence is rather useless in practice, it is best when put on like a gossamer garment over a sturdy foundation of knowing.

In any case, the dining-table (as, on occasion, the library table) is an altar of carnality in all senses of the word, and you can even quote me on that if you wish.

The small serving of fruited flummery above will suffice to introduce the topic at hand, like to an amuse-bouche (what worrying things those are - I always feel they owe their composition more to thrift and tidiness than a sincere desire to charm the diner's palate - their true antecedent being the vol-au-vent, perhaps, more than the canapé...but heigh-ho).

In short: I have been reading, or rather re-reading, 'The Debt to Pleasure' by John Lanchester.

This is a book that I bought in hardback when it was first published, which is most unusual for me. (I am a Second-Hand Paperback fellow, as a rule.) I'm not sure exactly what prompted me to buy it, unless I just liked the title. Anyway... I remember reading it and thinking it ought to be good, but being... disappointed. It just sort of-- didn't, somehow. Some while later I read Mr Lanchester's 'Fragrant Harbour' and liked that quite well, thinking it 'a much better book' in that homework-grading way one has sometimes when noting with relief an 'improvement in attitude' from an author who has not (in one's narrow, undiscerning-Amazon-reviewer POV) been 'fulfilling his potential'.

I can only shrug and forgive my 18-year-old (and my 24-ish) self. Just as there are frequencies to which, though painful to the adolescent ear, the adult ear is deaf, there are flavours, rhythms, phrasings, shadings, meanings, feelings, that are imperceptible without a filter of Experience through which to sieve them.

(How romantic I am becoming! Somebody throw a bread roll at me, quick, before I offer my companion a glass of madeira that exactly matches the colour of his eyes.)

I can't tell you much about the book without irretrievably spoiling it. But I will tell you that it is, to my current perception, Almost Painfully Good in that richly-concentrated, intense-but-subtle, Turn Of Phrase You Could Squeeze From A Tube way that always gives me the mad-irked-jubilations. (Envy, muddled with generous approbation, pinch of rueful self-summary, topped up with sparkling eagerness - a teasing, refrescant cocktail of the emotions!) Tragically, I am incapable of subtlety (as tragedies go, this is surprisingly bearable), but I hope that my imbibing of this richness might impart a gutsier, bone-marrowy savour to my own verb-stodge. (Hope is ever the refuge of ignorance!)

The book is in one way a culinary travelogue, in another a form of memoir. Also a mild riddle. But most of all, it's a ghoulishly-funny meditation on snobbery, class, failure, narcissism, disappointment, self-creation. Our narrator (our very own twinkly, awful, authoritative but ultimately pitiful specimen) is one Tarquin Winot. A name too much like a caricature to inspire confidence in the reader - forcing the question, Is this book going to be filled with cartoon stereotypes? Happily, no, it isn't. (And the name does provide a choice of readings - 'We know', 'Wino' or 'Why no?', or indeed 'Why not?')

Probably this is not a book for those who have not experienced snobbery from all its angles. I was brought up by snobs (NB: snobs do not 'raise' their children, that word is for poultry, or prize tomatoes) - I Know. I presume to consider myself a non-snob, or perhaps an ex-snob, a recovering snob; for children must first imitate before they can rebel. I've also known what it is to be on the receiving-end of others' snobbery.

(This is often encountered, at least in its most English expression, in the form of the 'Oh.' There is a certain way that snobs have of pronouncing this syllable; it is usually the female snob of middle age or above who manages it best. My favourite example of this was on the occasion of my being taken by my mother Up The Hill to where the rich people lived (we were 'shabby-genteel' rather than rich; able to afford snob 'essentials', such as private education, by selling inherited furniture) to attend a garden party. The matriarch of the piece, looking me up and down with the astute apprising eye of the matchmaker, or livestock auctioneer (I did not have that 'finished' look and manner that snobs want in potential daughters-in-law), put to me The Question - there is often A Question, seemingly inconsequential, that cunningly posed will tell the snob everything he-or-she needs to know in order to establish the askee's place in the sprawling, Byzantine taxonomy of social value.

The Question, on this occasion, was this: "Do you play tennis?"

My reply - a cheerful, categorical, slightly surprised "No" - induced a spasm of opprobrium that the Questioner, for all her snob poise, could not quell.

"Oh," she uttered - the word conveying at a stroke all that one might wish to say about the stubborn eccentricity - nay, temerity - of a young middle class girl proving able not only to abstain from tennis but to admit it, shamelessly. I think this was the moment when I noticed for the first time that I no longer cared what people like that woman thought about... anything, let alone Me.

Anyway... let the Muse of history now draw her veil over this and other Emyable adolescent epiphanies.)

Reading the book this second time, something new leaps out at me: Tarquin Winot reminds me strongly of Charlie Mortdecai - up to a point. The similarities between these two characters are impressive - they are both younger sons, with more conventionally successful elder brothers. They are both observers in their own parental-filial relationships. They are both connoisseurs - epicures - aesthetes. They both possess a deceptively effortless, juicily yummy command of English - as audience-dividingly, toe-curlingly umami as Marmite. They both, beneath a comfy, harmless-seeming, faintly-risible exterior, conceal a dark heart. Both, under their puddingy flamboyance, are merciless - efficient - dangerous.

The important difference is that Mortdecai has a sense of humour - not least about himself. Also, vitally, Mortdecai is not-quite-English. (...I am not-quite-English myself; a certain recusant attitude is inevitable in such cases.) And whilst C. Mortdecai esq. understands snobbery with the instinctive fluency of one who's been steeped in it, he manages to reject its most toxic, heart-eating excesses. This adds up to his being capable of happiness - fulfilment - contentment - in a way that Tarquin Winot could never be. Whereas Charlie is, at the end of the day, snuggly and naughty and slightly fanciable (...in a way; I mean, in a jolly, avuncular sort of way - to those of us who still, in certain wistful moods, yearn to sit upon a lap and be addressed as 'little nephew', despite the encroachment of mature years upon the coltish frame... a forgivable peccadillo?), Tarquin cannot plausibly be imagined enjoying anything, least of all intimacy with another person. In this book, in Tarquin's trajectory (I refuse to say 'journey', though he does take one), there is beauty, appreciated, disassembled and delicately described, but he can't ever touch it - taste it - internalise it. Even the food is that way; his perfectionism somehow numbs the tastebuds.

I found I didn't like the ending much, upon reaching it earlier this morning. Indeed, the book does not end so much as... stop. (The two are, as you of course know, quite distinct.) And yet, now, in typing out my impressions, I'm thinking that it's entirely appropriate. Tarquin is a cunning, not always reliable narrator. Our view of the action is not without obstacles: everything he hands us is tinted by his colourful prejudices - rather like looking through stained glass. At the conclusion of his narrative, we ache to know What Happened Next... and the fact that he disdains to tell us shows him for the miser and adulterer he is, when it comes to the truth.

I suppose our Tarq is an anti-hero, in his way. He really is a horrid person, not likeable in any way, and yet you feel for him and root for him and begrudgingly admire him, in the end. To admire bedgrudingly is perhaps the sincerest admiration, really. (I mean, when someone is straightforwardly admirable, it's hardly worth bothering actually to admire them. Admiration that pings out almost against one's will, on the other hand...)

The moral of the story is one that I personally cherish and try to live by. The healthy individual vibrates this: I Matter, But It Doesn't Matter. The unhealthy person, meanwhile, vibrates this: It Matters, But I Don't Matter. The way we feel, the choices we make, our ability to see clearly, all are dependent on which side of this coin is uppermost in our nature. With all my being I want to embody the former (...wish me luck). Poor old Tarquin embodies the latter - in breathtaking fashion.

Now I shall, with your permission, return my attentions to the imaginary dinner that I interrupted to turn the light of my courtesy upon You. (Gallantry demands that I restore to his pedestal of eminence my most accommodating companion - besides, beauty and patience are not commonly concurrent!) The presence of eyne-reflecting madeira notwithstanding, I think it is to be the Nursery-Stodge type (rather than an epicurean, napery-and-crystal affair), enjoyed in cosy pyjamas, upon a plump divan, with a bad film and Strip Monopoly to follow. (You are probably too young to be told what happens in the Old Kent Road.)

Upon which note: Bisous--! ,

A Reckless Eater


( 6 confidences — Confide in me... )
Aug. 25th, 2013 06:33 am (UTC)
There is so much to comment on here, but really I can't get over real innocence is rather useless in practice, it is best when put on like a gossamer garment over a sturdy foundation of knowing. I love that idea and expression of it!

Good luck, you wonderful reckless eater you!

Aug. 28th, 2013 06:14 pm (UTC)
Thank you Jen, you wonderful reckless reader! ;-)
Aug. 26th, 2013 11:39 pm (UTC)
Lovely entry! You put into words what it is to be a reader, a voracious one. It does feel quite literal at times doesn't it?
Aug. 28th, 2013 06:23 pm (UTC)
(D'oh, didn't I add you back...? Excuse the oversight - rectified!)

Thank you! :-) I have to say, I'm a picky eater when it comes to books, but when I find something I love, then it's definitely voracious-gluttony time. And life without good reading matter = malnutrition.
Aug. 27th, 2013 10:11 am (UTC)
I am fond of books that simply Stop, I grow weary of having every loose end tied up, explained and packaged away neatly. On the one hand, as Woody Allen notes, "you're always trying to make things come out perfect in art because it's real difficult in life", but on the other hand it feels like a falsehood. A template. A template of falsehood? Perhaps my favourite of all books, 'The Castle' by Kafka, simply Stops, unfinished, in the middle of a sentence. While obviously not the author's intention, I can't think of a better way to finish. I always thought of Endings as part of the Template of Falsehood. And in tribute to this, I will now finish this little ramble in a similar
Aug. 28th, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC)
You are so right, there is something to be said for just Stopping! (Along with the books, a lot of movies could do with some of that approach...)

And of course there is no following your mischievous Stoppage, so I'll have to settle for a cheap and cheerful Ending!

"It may end, but it never stops" - Matt Howarth
( 6 confidences — Confide in me... )

Eavesdrop, snoop, and sigh with yearning...

This journal is not a private diary, it is more like an occasional, imaginary column. Therefore, much of it is on public display. However, if you want to read my occasional attempts at creative writing, my Caution Elf tells me I should only show that stuff to my friends. You know what to do. :-)

NB: If you add me in an unsolicited fashion, please introduce yourself. Otherwise I will probably ignore you.

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