John Lanchester

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Jane Jakeman (review date 15 March 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721

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 beginning that the bouillabaisse or shepherd's pie, or whatever, will result from the subsequent ingredients and operations, rather as if the name of the murderer were disclosed at the beginning of a detective story. A recipe that serves up any ghastly surprises is a failure, whereas this is precisely what the murder story should do.

And here, indeed, the identity of the murderer is not long in doubt. Barely has young Tarquin finished off the pet hamster before we know that we are dealing with a foodie-psychopath. The only subsequent narrative interest is how, and when, he disposes of his victims. These homicidal episodes occur at such long intervals, between feverish bouts of seasonal cuisine, that such faint undercurrents of tension as the story possesses are dispersed in a welter of gigots and blinis, of lupsup and charcuterie.

To give this book its due, it is a very upmarket Year in Provence. Many smart dinner parties will be racing to keep up with Tarquin's table, and adopting buzz-words from Lanchester's frequent multilingual outbursts of thesaurus-like alimentary vocabulary. Why serve a mere stew when you could call it djuredi, or arni ladorigani, or Bulgarian kaparma? As for the recipe-thriller, it is possible to visualize a new literary game of detective stories in culinary genres: the idiot snobberies of Lord Peter Wimsey rhapsodized à la Elizabeth David, or Delia on the solidly crafted country-house mystery.

I can't see Delia, famous for her thorough research, making the slips that pop out here. Given that Tarquin places such a premium on accuracy—this being for him one of the charms of the recipe—and considering how snobbish he is about vulgar yobs, it is odd that he is so slovenly. He, or his creator, might for example have noticed that David Embury, writer on cocktails, has his name spelled in two different ways on one page, or that a menu du joir is a...

(This entire section contains 721 words.)

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tad peculiar. I don't think it's a subtle postmodern irony—more late 20th-century editorial exhaustion.

Great stress is laid on Tarquin's fluent French, so perhaps it's a bit daring of this uncultured slob of a reviewer to point out that a sentence such as "the etymology of 'barbecue' is vaut le détour" has become a nonsense because vaut is a verb, or that a "soi-disant cottage-pie" would be a terrifying creature indeed. And Tarquin, like all those who parade their knowledge, comes a terrible cropper ("arse over tip", as Bartholomew would no doubt put it) when he speaks of jostling crowds of "ignorami". The plural of "ignoramus" is "ignoramuses". Well, it must be, mustn't it, since the word already means, "we don't know?" Even a poor ignorant sod of a chip-eating reviewer knows that.

Richard Eder (review date 14 April 1996)

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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 stews that require sautéing and those that don't, he drops hints of how this actually works.

His first artistic act, as a child, was to smash a papier-mâché elephant his brother had made. His second was to frame his nanny over a missing bit of jewelry so that she would be fired before she could tell on him. She kills herself, and over the years various others—a cook, a tutor, Tarquin's parents and eventually his brother—die in odd assorted ways. The deaths are divulged casually, minor details in the course of Tarquin's ebullient menu writing, philosophizing and peculiarly suspect food-and-travel journal.

Lanchester provides considerable wit along the way, particularly in the gradual undermining of his narrator's urbane tone and his expansive certainty that the world will eventually recognize him as the real genius of his family. He assumes, right up to the denouement, that an attractive young writer who comes to interview him is engaged on his, not Bartholomew's, biography. He also assumes that she is secretly smitten with him.

Tarquin divides his journal with an ideal menu for each of the four seasons. He goes on to discuss the preparation and significance of the particular dishes and drifts from these to updates on the journey, which begins in Normandy, continues to Brittany and then turns southward, ending at his lavish summer home in Provence.

The food writing starts off with conviction and panache. Tarquin gives a lively step-by-step account of how to layer an Irish stew. He discusses the details of fish soups and stews around the world, noting that the English, great fish-eaters, lack a proper version of their own; even the Scots have something called cullen skink.

But then there is an odd droop and trailing off. For curries, he impatiently advises consulting a book. As for lemon tart, the reader is told to go buy one. It is not creation, we remember, that is Tarquin's art, but disappearance; and by the time he reaches his home in Provence, he is writing of poisonous mushrooms and omelets.

As for the trip itself, it undergoes its own undermining. At first it is all food and reminiscence; there is a nice bit about restaurants as the setting for the big emotional transactions of our lives: seductions, ruptures, life-changing proposals.

Abruptly and without comment he ducks into a shop to avoid meeting someone. He begins to refer to his trip with "we" instead of "I." Citing a manual of surveillance, he changes his rental car each day. Before long he lets us glimpse a young couple he is trailing; a little later he has broken into their hotel bedroom to bug it and attached a directional radio device to the undercarriage of their car. We are on our way to Provence and a concluding work of art.

The Debt to Pleasure is elegantly written. Lanchester describes Tarquin's aristocratic mother giving politely disdainful orders to the mouth-breathing Irish nanny, who receives them with the "faintest bat squeak of mimed reluctance." Illustrating the need to follow recipes precisely, Tarquin speaks of a pheasant emerging from the oven "terrible in its sarcophagus of feathers" when the cook failed to notice the word "pluck."

The gradual infusion of poisonous hatred into Tarquin's debonair narration is accomplished with skill and polish. It loses its suspense before long, though; the character, unlike Nabokov's Humbert, is a vessel of surprises, not mysteries. Tarquin is flat, and on a flat landscape the destination comes into sight miles in advance.

The book begins with a reference to Brillat-Savarin, the larger-than-life French chef and exponent of the theory of limitless gastronomic pleasure. He was a man so exhausting that his sisters took to their beds for three months in advance of his annual visit.

The reader may experience some of the same exhaustion in the course of Tarquin's blithely fraudulent account. At the start, the narrator enticingly proposes a game of sorts: Guess what is really going on. By the end, his "let's play" has turned—we've all been thrown in with children like that—into "watch me play."

Frank J. Prial (review date 21 April 1996)

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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 seasonally."

"It seems to me," he says, "that the menu lies close to the heart of the human impulse to order, to beauty, to pattern. It draws on the original chthonic upwelling that underlies all art. A menu can embody the anthropology of a culture or the psychology of an individual; it can be a biography, a cultural history, a lexicon; it speaks to the sociology, psychology and biology of its creator and its audience, and of course to their geographical location; it can be a way of knowledge, a path, an inspiration, a Tao, an ordering, a shaping, a manifestation, a talisman, an injunction, a memory, a fantasy, a consolation, an allusion, an illusion, an evasion, an assertion, a seduction, a prayer, a summoning, an incantation murmured under the breath as the torchlights sink lower and the forest looms taller and the wolves howl louder and the fire prepares for its submission to the encroaching dark."

Prolix? Perhaps. Not many contemporary novelists work with 121-word sentences. But Mr. Lanchester is not just another contemporary novelist.

Tarquin's first menu is for blini with sour cream and caviar, Irish stew and a dessert called Queen of Puddings. In discussing blini, he invokes descriptions of Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Belgian and Polish pancakes, among others, then segues to reflections on wheat, the goddess Ceres, frying pans called placentas, Freud and David Copperfield. Moving to caviar, we learn why chess players should eat it and why a professional taster of Volga caviar will carry a dagger in his boot. Describing an outdoor meal, Tarquin wanders off into the etymology of "barbecue." It derives, he tells us, from the Haitian barbacado, a frame of sticks used to suspend beds and other things off the ground.

Irish stew conjures up a truly Proustian essay on Tarquin's Cork-born nanny and his actress mother. It touches on Brecht, Pinter, Ibsen and Stoppard, proceeds to his own childhood in London and Paris, considers the family's cooks ("a Dostoyevskian procession of knaves, dreamers, drunkards, visionaries, bores and frauds, every man his own light, every man his own bushel"), then gets down to the proper cuts of meat and the best potatoes ("Bishop or Pentland Javelin if using British varieties") and runs through the world's best stews, from the Belgian carbonade Flamande to the tagines of North Africa and the stufato di manzo of northern Italy. Deconstructing his Queen of Puddings, Tarquin complains—he's insufferable at times—that "it is almost impossible, in writing about or discussing it, to avoid the double genitive 'of' which used so to upset Flaubert."

As he makes his leisurely way across the Channel and on through Brittany and the Loire Valley, Tarquin drops tantalizing hints about another side of his life. He wears disguises, for one thing, and there have been violent deaths among people who are close to him. Why does he keep bringing up his brother, a successful painter? And who are the two young people he seems to be following? Suffice it to say that Tarquin is also an expert on mushrooms, those that are edible and those that are not.

To assume a superior air, to be arch for any length of time, is tough going for any writer. It's like playing faultless Mozart. For a debutant novelist, Mr. Lanchester pulls it off amazingly well. Now and then he falters, and there are clinkers. No matter; they just remind us how good the rest of his writing is.

Currently the deputy editor of The London Review of Books, Mr. Lanchester has been a book reviewer, a sports journalist, an obituary writer and, for three years, the restaurant critic of The Observer. One could say, cautiously, that he might think about giving up his day job.

Gerald Howard (review date 6 May 1996)

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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.

At a distance The Debt to Pleasure may look like the latest entry in that portmanteau genre, the novel-with-recipes, made so fashionable by Heartburn and Like Water for Chocolate. Indeed, the book is ostensibly structured as a galloping gourmet's ramble through the seasons as he discourses over-knowledgeably on all things culinary, studding his lectures with opinionated asides, erudite digressions, inflated (if mockmodest) self-assessments and discursive recipes that will send more than a few readers to the market and the kitchen. Even if most readers will twig pretty quickly to Lanchester's cleverly ironic narrative strategy, it must be said that Winot and his creator know their onions—and their shallots and their elephant garlic. In his toplofty way Winot manages to be consistently absorbing and even ecstatic on a groaning board of topics: odes to aïoli, diktats on daubes, bulls on bouillabaisse, reveries on repasts past. And not on food alone: See, for example, his riff on the personalities of French rivers, which finally proclaims with the thunk of authority the Loire to be "France's least obvious and therefore most compelling wine river." Care to argue? Part of the fun of The Debt to Pleasure is savoring how Lanchester, himself a restaurant reviewer and a literary editor, performs his ventriloquism, using Winot as a literal mouthpiece for his own interests and obsessions—another Nabokov specialty, of course.

We've all run into Tarquin Winot types in our lives: the compulsive lecturer who deigns to include us so flatteringly in the charmed circle of his well-buttressed snobbery, who at first strikes us as eccentrically engaging and then only gradually begins to seem more than a little … off. What initially seems to be Winot's poised self-absorption assumes by degrees the aspect of full-blown megalomania. In fact, not since the late Harold Brodkey have we encountered in art or in life such a monumental case of narcissism, so delusional a sense of the world's rapt attention and abject adoration—a lunacy quite impervious to irony or logic: "I myself have always disliked being called a 'genius.' It is fascinating to notice how quick people have been to intuit this aversion and avoid using the term." This hits the essential cracked Brodkeyesque note.

Cocksure, obtuse, increasingly sinister, Tarquin Winot is a brilliant creation—as compelling an unreliable narrator as we've had since Nabokov set the gold standard with Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire. They are alike in the grandiosity of their self-effacement and the monstrosity of their intentions. Like Pale Fire, The Debt to Pleasure's apparent subject becomes increasingly subverted by the narrator's tantalizing asides, oblique revelations and unbidden reminiscences, as Lanchester shrewdly practices his art of indirection. As Winot, writing in "real" time, crosses the English Channel and motors about France, we see, as from a corner of the eye, that he is wearing a wig, a false mustache and other items of disguise. Why? As he stumbles about Inspector Clouseau-ishly, apparently tailing a honeymooning couple, and fills us in on his family past, two inescapable themes emerge: a mammoth sibling rivalry with his deceased brother Bartholomew, a sculptor of large reputation; and the tendency of the people around him to die violent accidental deaths: subway mishaps, hunting accidents, gas explosions, wild mushroom misidentifications…. Pet hamsters buy the farm, loyal retainers are caught inexplicably thieving, and none of it ruffles Winot's composure.

It gradually dawns on us that Tarquin Winot is that familiar type beloved of ironists, the artist manqué. His particular specialty is the disappearing act—he just practices it on others. He loses no opportunity to denigrate his brother's accomplishments, and when questioned by a woman engaged in writing Bartholomew's biography, resolutely ignores or misconstrues her questions (to the point where he can refer to her as "my collaborator") and delivers an extraordinary apologia for what he terms "the artistic project which was to form my lifetime's work." He justifies himself as the murderer as Modernist, practicing "the aesthetics of absence, of omission," and speaks of "genuinely dissolv[ing] the boundaries between art and life, while radically challenging the boundarizing and conceptual structure of old aesthetics." (Artforum meets True Detective.) Later he develops this idea to its fullest extent: In comparison with the artist, "the murderer … is better adapted to the reality and to the aesthetics of the modern world, because instead of leaving a presence behind him—the achieved work, whether in the form of a painting or a book or a daubed signature—he leaves behind him something just as final and just as achieved: an absence." The murderer isn't a failed artist, the artist is a failed murderer—watch for this line of thought in the Menendez brothers' appeal.

Well, it was inevitable that somebody was going to write a high-toned serial killer novel with a literary pedigree, and considering the potential awfulness of such a book, we must be grateful to Lanchester for bringing it off so beautifully. He has conjured up an immensely stylish literary dish and served it with a wit and knowingness that will delight foodies and bookies alike. En passant, he has managed to compose a lovely English bouquet to French civilization; in this respect as in others, The Debt to Pleasure resembles another suave and intricate meta-novel of recent years, Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot.

For almost any other novel that would be quite enough. But there remains the Nabokov problem to be disposed of—or at least raised. How to acknowledge John Lanchester's immense debt to the master without on the one hand diminishing The Debt to Pleasure as a kind of Pale Fire Lite, or on the other suggesting that the book achieves quite (or anywhere near) that level of delirious invention?

This is of course cruel. Few people would have even risked climbing into the ring with Nabokov, let alone given him a respectable few rounds, as Lanchester has. That said, a more fruitful comparison of The Debt to Pleasure may be to the amusingly heartless black comedies made by Ealing Studios in the late forties and early fifties, in particular Kind Hearts and Coronets, another droll comedy of serial murder, albeit without the fancy aesthetics. Poised deftly between pure entertainment and flat-out art, those films, like The Debt to Pleasure, are marvelously civilized artifacts, unflappable exercises in high British comic style. (I kept casting Alec Guinness, then Peter Sellers, as Tarquin Winot in the movie.) That is why, classify his novel as you will, a good many readers are going to be deep in John Lanchester's debt for their reading pleasure.

John Derbyshire (review date 26 May 1996)

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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 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: 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, Lanchester is at least a match for the master. Try his description of a waitress changing the filter of a coffee machine; or the character sketch of the narrator's mother (in a paragraph whose first words are "Irish Stew"); or this abrupt, exhausted lapse into self-mockery: "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, 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 Amis; though I note that 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 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 realize that Tarquin is stalking the newlyweds, and that he 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 etoiles. 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 would 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.

Pat Dailey (essay date 30 May 1996)

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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.

It's delicious to read, though, a fictional feast chronicling the life of Tarquin Winot, an Englishman with a big appetite for culinary observations ("We then sat down to a meal which Dante would have hesitated to invent") and diabolical ideas about how to use mushrooms. Lanchester serves food as the main course, with plot and characters carefully selected to simmer alongside.

Gastronomic pleasures have a long history in the world of storytelling. Marcel Proust, discreetly nibbling a tender little tea biscuit, found that the cake unleashed a lifetime of remembrances, enough for him to fill a book.

Many other writers have been similarly seduced. From Dante's discussion of apples in Eden to Henry Fielding's ribald scenes of seduction, food conveys a larderful of hungers and emotions.

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf wrote of boeuf en daube, with its exquisite aroma of olives and oil, a "confusion of savory brown and yellow meats." Emotions were similarly tangled and confused. Isak Dinesen wrote lavishly of food in Babette's Feast, in which the tragic, red-haired Babette cooked with the passion of an artist for people who barely remembered what they ate. Ironically, Dinesen is said to have starved to death. In Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman, the central character starves, too, unable to eat first meat and then almost anything else. She herself was being consumed, by fears and doubts of impending marriage.

Other authors have stirred food into the fictional stewpot, among them Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, William Makepeace Thackeray, Washington Irving, Lawrence Durrell, Charles Dickens and Nora Ephron, using repasts to explore powerful themes and relationships.

"Food is a provocative and endlessly powerful medium that everyone understands on the most basic level. In Here Let Us Feast, a book of food passages culled from fictional works, M.F.K. Fisher wrote that food is "honest and intrinsically necessary in any human scheme, any plan for the future." People have always feasted, she noted, as a way of admitting that "hunger is more than a problem of belly and guts."

But as readily apparent as it is, food also resonates with layers of emotions and elaborate rituals that move it beyond the obvious. Whether it's used as a meal or a metaphor, food allows a story to unfold in unexpectedly delicious ways.

These are palmy times for food to flourish as a means of expression. Many of us, with our easy access to food wherever and whenever we desire it, have long forgotten hardscrabble times of need and want. A celebratory sense of abundance has spilled into the literary world, where it rests comfortably with our current, cult-like love affair with food.

In Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel begins each chapter with a traditional Mexican recipe, preparations that, like human emotions, are based on the subtle interplay of seemingly disparate ingredients. Throughout the book, which begins with Tita de la Garza being born on the kitchen table amid a profusion of onions, garlic, cilantro and bay leaves, sex and magic are wondrously woven together.

The interior scenes of the kitchen easily overwhelm the exterior ones, and in Tita's richly articulated domestic world, passion is always on the verge of boiling over. "It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved (Tita's) entire being into the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal's aromas," Esquivel wrote, a passage so powerful that it has made quail in rose petal sauce a favorite for Valentine's Day dinners a deux.

Lanchester, deputy editor of the London Review of Books, says that sex, food and passion often share the page for good reason.

"There's an automatic reflex between food and sex, which are two of the most fundamental appetites we have as human beings. It just so happens that food is more socially open and so we write about the food. The sexual aspects and the passions are right there on the surface, thought."

He explains that for him, food, with its myriad meanings, is the absolute center of the fictional world, a means to tell a story and a vehicle for moving it along.

"In writing, there's some discussion as to whether we choose the subject or the subject chooses us," he says. "I was chosen by food because, even standing alone, it reveals so much about emotions and motivations."

Jacqueline Deval, author of Reckless Appetites: A Culinary Romance, a 1993 novel that includes nearly 100 historical recipes, suggests that the truest nature of a book's characters can emerge by examining their relationship to what they eat.

"Food in different social settings gives license for people to behave in certain ways—with greed, pleasure, love, generosity, even at times revenge," she explains. "It's an informal way to get into the depths of personality."

Deval gives shape to Pomme Bouquin, the book's central character, through her examinations of the lives of great writers, including Emily Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence and the French novelist Colette. From the annals of cooking and literature, Pomme has learned "that the finest seduction engages all the senses," most certainly the sense of taste.

Deval says approaching her story from a culinary angle and interspersing it with recipes was "purely self-centered and hedonistic," a way for her to indulge her own interest in food and cooking.

"I thought at first I would write a literary cookbook, but as I researched and wrote, I found that a distinct, strong voice was emerging. It was then that I saw a fictional love story emerging," Deval says, an evolution that shouldn't be altogether surprising.

Colette, who routinely meandered into the sensual pleasures of food, wrote that there are two kinds of love, "well-fed and ill-fed." The rest, she said, "is pure fiction."

S. English Knowles (review date 18 September 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

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 and forth between past and present, anecdote and documentation, but the sensory transitions are seamless. In mid-reminiscence of a sweaty adolescent romance, he might suddenly begin to enumerate the complete range of caviar sizes, all the while reflecting on the palate-arousing character of the champagne aperitif.

Rather than recounting his life story chronologically, Tarquin chooses to structure his memoir seasonally, starting with winter and ending with autumn.

Each of the four sections is anchored at the beginning with a seasonally appropriate menu, which acts as a sort of reference point and landmark for the narrator's otherwise meandering style. A discussion of winter bouillabaisse, for example, provides opportunity for an archival listing of the various fish soups of the world. In the spring it's roast lamb, in the summer it's cold cuts and salads, in autumn it's aioli and the wild mushroom omelette.

Every pleasure, however, has its dark side, just as every peach (as we learn from Tarquin) contains a cyanide-Isced pit. It is the tenuous relationship between sustenance and poison that increasingly begins to obsess our narrator, snagging the polished veneer of his sybarite's tale. Could these rich still-life descriptions be a baroque disguise for some more sinister plot? To the list of appetites evoked in this gourmet adventure one more is now added—that of horror. And of all the delectable genres that John Lanchester expertly stirs into his first novel, it is perhaps the mystery story with which his seduction is the finest.