Study Guide

John Lanchester

John Lanchester Essay - Critical Essays

Lanchester, John

Introduction

John Lanchester The Debt to Pleasure

Lanchester is an English novelist.

Set primarily in France, The Debt to Pleasure (1996) is narrated by Tarquin Winot, a middle-aged Englishman who despises his late brother Bartholomew, a famous sculptor. Tarquin argues that the true height of artistic expression is not to create things but to make them disappear. Although purportedly taking a gastronomic tour of France, it eventually becomes apparent that Tarquin is stalking a pair of newlyweds; Laura Tavistock, the bride, is Bartholomew's biographer. Divided into four sections—Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn—the novel incorporates recipes for each season along with Tarquin's musings on various culinary, historical, and philosophical subjects. He also offers fragments of autobiography, which gradually unveil his psychopathic nature. Critical reaction to The Debt to Pleasure has generally been favorable. Although some commentators have questioned the efficacy of using a menu or recipe as a structuring device for a thriller, most have praised Lanchester's technique of slowly unraveling the true nature of his protagonist. Other critics have compared the novel to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, noting similarities between the two authors in their gradual subversion of their narrator-protagonists. Michael Upchurch stated that "Lanchester has devised a near-perfect package in which to unveil [Tarquin Winot], layer by layer, lending The Debt to Pleasure the tension of a mystery."

Criticism

Jane Jakeman (review date 15 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Dishes to Die for," in New Statesman & Society, March 15, 1996, p. 33.

[In the following review, Jakeman argues that The Debt to Pleasure lacks suspense and suffers from too little attention to detail.]

"Who am I? Who are you? And what the fuck's going on?" The reader of John Lanchester's foodie thriller [The Debt to Pleasure] will inevitably sympathize with the narrator's artist brother, Bartholomew. Hamlet-like, he poses these crucial questions while embedded in a mesh of upmarket gourmandise. Lanchester was the restaurant critic of the Observer, so he has the foodie world at his fingertips in the creation of his murderous anti-hero, Tarquin Winot, for whom haute cuisine is a ruling passion.

Tarquin is a full-blow product of the European great tradition—in food as in literature. He liberally scatters his story with rib-nudging cultural references (hypocrite lecteur), whereas Bartholomew represents the untamed, uncivilized, tomato-sauce-loving force of creative genius. The polarization of our society is thus crudely symbolized by the food preferences of the two brothers. So far, so clichéd; but every thriller is essentially a cliché. The question is what the writer does with the givens of the genre.

Not a lot, in this case. The book takes the form of series of seasonal recipes, and although Tarquin's preface claims an elemental role for the menu (and it is true that all structures can be seen as menus), Lanchester's real and unresolved technical problem is that the plot of the recipe is the opposite of the plot of the thriller.

In the recipe, the outcome is declared at the start. We know at the...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 14 April 1996)

SOURCE: "A Fine Taste for Murder," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 14, 1996, pp. 1, 6.

[In the following review, Eder focuses on the personality of Tarquin Winot, the protagonist and narrator of The Debt to Pleasure.]

When Tarquin Winot was a child, his graceful and beautiful mother took him, dressed in his sailor suit, to dine at La Coupole, Paris' once-resplendent brasserie. Someday he would accomplish great things, she told him.

The assurance of glory, a dazzling mother who promised it and sublime food were the child's peek into a paradise never to be forgotten—and never regained. As it turned out, it was not Tarquin whom the whole treacherous world, including his mother, would recognize as a genius, but his little brother Bartholomew, who grew up to be a celebrated painter and sculptor.

Accordingly, Tarquin grew up to be the anti-Bartholomew, the anti-artist, a lucid particle of anti-matter. His exquisitely nurtured mission was to assert his own anti-universe and cause the real one, at strategic junctures, to go "poof!"

John Lanchester, a British literary editor and food critic, has done Cain and Abel as elaborate parody. In blatantly unreliable tones—urbane wit punctuated by howls—Tarquin begins his memoir as a spoof of highbrow cookbook writing. This leads, in a pastiche of Proust's celebrated madeleine, to a series of variations on food and memory. Gradually another story emerges. Tarquin's comically farfetched—and far too discursive—tale of a revengeful chase through the French landscape. It is a second pastiche: this one of Humbert Humbert's wordy pursuit of Lolita, Quilty and his own delusions through the American landscape.

The Debt to Pleasure opens as Tarquin is about to undertake what purports to be a gastronomic tour of France, in the course of which he will keep a day-by-day diary. His admirers (they will turn out to be imaginary) have persuaded him to do so, he tells us, even though food is merely an avocation—"a shaving from the master's workbench"—and not his real art.

His real art, in contrast to his sculptor brother's vulgar production of objects, consists in imagining things and not producing them. Not creative passion but creative dislike is the highest aesthetic force, he argues: Passion puts you at the mercy of reality, dislike keeps you free.

Tarquin's art, therefore, is not to create things but to make them disappear. Bit by bit, as he spins out theories and tendentious recollections, sets out seasonal menus, discusses the difference between...

(The entire section is 1095 words.)

Frank J. Prial (review date 21 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Movable Feasts," in The New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1996, p. 9.

[Prial is the wine columnist for the New York Times. In the following review, he relates the events of The Debt to Pleasure and praises Lanchester's writing ability, made more impressive by the author's status as a "debutant novelist."]

Tarquin Winot, an English esthete and gourmand, remembers the time when, as an impressionable 11-year-old, he was taken to lunch at his older brother's boarding school. It was a meal "Dante would have hesitated to invent." In particular, he recalls "the jowly, watch-chained headmaster" plunging his arm into a vat and emerging "with a ladleful of hot food, steaming like fresh horse dung on a cold morning."

"For a heady moment," he says, "I thought I was going to be sick."

It was a defining experience in young Tarquin's life. "The combination of human, esthetic and culinary banality formed a negative revelation of great power," he explains, "and hardened the already burgeoning suspicion that my artist's nature isolated and separated me from my alleged fellowmen." Tarquin, now having achieved a self-confident and extremely loquacious adulthood, is the central figure—almost the only figure—in The Debt to Pleasure, a dazzling and delicious first novel by John Lanchester.

"I decided," Tarquin tells us, "to take a short holiday and travel southward through France, which is, as the reader will learn, my spiritual (and for a portion of the year, actual) homeland. I resolved that I would jot down my thoughts on the subject of food as I went, taking my cue from the places and events around me as well as from my own memories, dreams, reflections, the whole simmering together, synergistically exchanging savors and essences like some ideal daube."

By now, anyone familiar with the literature of food is beginning to murmur "Brillat-Savarin." And with good reason. The French lawyer and philosopher, whose 1825 treatise The Physiology of Taste is still the greatest of all books on food, is Tarquin Winot's muse. Brillat-Savarin called the sections of his book "meditations", Tarquin Winot speaks in terms of "culinary reflections." And what remarkable reflections they are. He informs us that "the primary vehicle" for transmitting them will be menus, "arranged...

(The entire section is 992 words.)

Gerald Howard (review date 6 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Bulls on Bouillabaisse," in The Nation, May 6, 1996, pp. 66, 68.

[In the following review, Howard remarks favorably on The Debt to Pleasure and compares the novel to Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire.]

Ever since Humbert Humbert made his indelible assertion in Lolita, we've been counting on our murderers for a fancy prose style. Not only does Tarquin Winot, the tart-tongued and mesmerizingly daft narrator of John Lanchester's "gastrohistorico-psycho-autobiographico-anthropico-philosophic" tour de force The Debt to Pleasure, not disappoint, he even provides a Lanchestrian corollary to the Nabokovian proposition—and an educated palate.

...

(The entire section is 1181 words.)

John Derbyshire (review date 26 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Food for Thought," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXVI, No. 21, May 26, 1996, p. 5.

[In the review below, Derbyshire praises The Debt to Pleasure, calling it "original as well as witty and brilliant."]

The veil and the mask; the blizzard of allusions; the dawning realization that our charming, erudite, terrifically cultured narrator is, in point of fact, barking mad—this territory looks familiar. John 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...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

Pat Dailey (essay date 30 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Food Has Become a Tasty Plot Device," in Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1996, p. 1.

[In the essay below, Daily discusses the prominent role that food has played in numerous literary works and cites A Debt to Pleasure as the most recent example of this trend.]

"This is not a conventional cookbook," suggests the preface to John Lanchester's new novel The Debt to Pleasure. And despite carefully worded directives for making flawless lemon tarts and meltingly tender roast lamb, an entire chapter devoted to aioli, the potent French garlic sauce, and as thorough a discussion of bouillabaisse as exists anywhere, it most clearly is not a cookbook.

...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)

S. English Knowles (review date 18 September 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Debt to Pleasure, in BookPage (online publication), September 18, 1996.

[In the following review, Knowles comments favorably on The Debt to Pleasure.]

"The role of curry in contemporary English life is often misunderstood" according to the decorously correct standards of Tarquin Winot, protagonist of John Lanchester's debut novel. In this combination memoir, food lexicon, and aesthetic philosophy, Lanchester treats us to a travelogue of the appetites, where cultural and culinary trivia arise from dusty corners worldwide to be commented upon and cataloged by his narrator's ever-tart tongue. Tarquin Winot's polished storytelling skips back...

(The entire section is 342 words.)