Food for Thought
The Debt to Pleasure
by John Lanchester
The veil and the mask; the blizzard of allusions; the dawning realisation that our charming, erudite, terrifically cultured narrator is, in point of fact, barking mad — this territory looks familiar. Mr. Lanchester, reading reviews of his book, is going to get mighty sick of the adjective "Nabokovian."
It would be an injustice to him to make too much of these echoes. The Debt to Pleasure is original as well as witty and brilliant, and the voice we hear — this is a first-person narrative — has a self-assurance and ruthlessness never attained by the old Slav illusionist's haunted exiles. On internal evidence, there seems to have been some drinking from common wells (Proust, Conan Doyle); but this is a book that deserves to be taken on its own merits, which are numerous.
Leaving matters of content aside for the moment (and The Debt to Pleasure, more than most novels, delivers its narrative satisfaction by an exquisitely-timed revelation of what is going on, so that the more fastidious reader might care to skip the last two paragraphs of this review), the book's style and structure are curious and striking. It is laid out in four sections named Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn. Imbedded in each section are recipes appropriate to the season, extravagantly garnished with a mass of culinary, literary, historical, philosophical and geographical musings into which the narrator has adroitly slipped fragments of autobiography.
Now, you either like this kind of thing or you don't. (De gustibus … but no, I am going to eschew cheap gastronomic metaphors.) The late Kingsley Amis famously didn't, and it must be said that if you agree with his dismissal of Nabokov — in a nutshell, that the old boy was a show-off — you will probably not like this book.
Personally I couldn't get enough of it. In the matter of textural felicities, Mr. Lanchester is at least a match for the master. Try his description of a waitress changing the filter of a coffee machine (p. 139); or the character sketch of the narrator's mother (p.14, in a paragraph whose first words are "Irish Stew"); or this abrupt exhausted lapse into self-mockery (p. 233):
Please imagine here a passage which evokes the comparative experiences of mushroom hunting all over Europe, with many new metaphors and interesting facts.
As a storyteller, Mr. Lanchester is out on his own. There is a passing resemblance to the muted menace of King Vlad's early Russian stories, but none of the mellow wistfulness of those later American novels that so irritated Mr. Amis; though I note that Mr. Lanchester's protagonist, like Pnin, nurses a melancholy affinity for failing small businesses, introduced here with a deft Tolstoyan flourish. (Is it not Anna Karenina, now I come to think of it, that includes a recipe for jam?)
The narrator, Tarquin Winot, is single, middle-aged, English. After a night in a Portsmouth hotel he crosses the channel to Brittany, whence he traverses France to his summer home in Provence. The novel purports to consist of rambling notes he has made on his journey, organized around gustatory themes as described above.
Tarquin's elder brother Bartholomew, recently deceased, was a painter and sculptor of some fame. A pretty young woman named Laura Tavistock has been appointed to write Bartholomew's biography and has met with Tarquin for purposes of her research. Now Laura has married Hwyl, a Welshman, and they have gone on a honeymoon tour of France — a working honeymoon for Laura, who has arranged the tour to take in some of Bartholomew's works, on view at various places in that country.
Slowly we realise that Tarquin is stalking the newlyweds. In place of a guidebook he carries the Mossad Manual of Surveillance Techniques. From his autobiographical asides we learn that practically everyone who ever caused the least annoyance to him — brother, parents, nanny, cook, exchange student, tiresome neighbor — has met an untimely death. We begin to be alarmed for the honeymooners — correctly, as it turns out.
Tarquin is, in fact, a psychopath of terrible cunning and utter moral emptiness. He would dispute the latter point, and indeed goes to some pains to lay out a philosophy — or at any rate an aesthetic — of the murder-as-an-art-form variety. This is not very convincing and probably is not meant to be. The real art on display here is literary and the quality is (aw, hell) trois-étoiles. This reader — Francophobe and gastronomically challenged — was caught by the first sentence ("This is not a conventional cookbook") and held rapt to the last (which I should give the game away altogether by quoting). Buy the book and read it, but be warned: it owes nothing whatever to Like Water for Chocolate — dwells in fact in a different solar system, in orbit around a darker sun.