A worldly Englishman describes his life, his travels, the people he met, his intellectual and culinary pursuits, interspersing his account with witty observations. By the end of the book you get quite a jolt to discover all this time he was murdering.
I don’t want to give away any more than that and spoil the fun of unraveling this twisted tale. But I will say that the character of the narrator is one of the most fully realized, completely insane characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and in reading the novel, we fully inhabit his strange mind. Indeed, because he is telling us his story, and because he is so full of self-delusions, the only way we can get to the truth is through the little hints he drops, the occasional omissions in his tales, the gradual realization that he is deceiving us and the other characters see him very differently than he portrays himself.
This book is both a work of genius and loads of fun – subtle, dark and delicious. And if you’re at all interested in food or cooking – as any civilized person must be – there are many interesting rambles on those subjects, as well.
John Lanchester's The Debt of Pleasure not only deftly answers all the above questions but also, in impeccable and painfully beguiling prose, embraces his readers into the world of Tarquin Winot. Strictly speaking, the book, which is nothing more than a scrumptious culinary reflection in thoughtful menus arranged by the seasons, cannot be deemed as a work of fiction if Winot is a real chef. From his menus, which embody different cultures, capture a man's psychology and thus his impulse to order, and witness the come-and-go of dining trends; Winot related the story of his life to the preparations of food.
The writing is as insatiating and titillating as the menus. Winot retreated to southern France and reminisced, papered his thoughts on the subject of food that evoked his childhood, his parents, his brother Barthomelow the artist, the beloved maidservant Mary-Theresa, and the home cook Mitthaug. Aroma of a particular dish could graciously tug his memory and coalesce the disparate locations of Winot's upbringing. Woven into his painfully and haughtily opinionated meditations on food was disheartening anecdotes of his family. His brother struggled as an artist who, like other artists in history, never felt adequately attended to for his work and died a tragic death of fungus poisoning. His parents, in a multiplying series of mishaps that primarily involved leaving all the kitchen gas taps on and a full-scale leak from the gas boiler, died in an explosion triggered by turning on a light switch.
The lighter side of the book tells of Winot's aspiration to becoming a chef. He attributed such biographical significance to a chance visit to his brother's boarding school in England. The food served was a nightmarish demonstration of culinary banality and a stark confirmation of Captain Ford's quote in 1846 "The salad is the glory of every French dinner and the disgrace of most in England." A more humorous side would be Winot's rash denunciation of sweet-and-sour dishes (lupsup, meaning garbage) that dominated the English dining. As a native of Hong Kong, the notion truly hit home as any violent combination such as the sweet-and-sour taste is immediately deemed as inauthentic.
Read it as a novel "masquerading" as a cookbook, as a memoir, as food critics, as secretive cooking knacks, as word of caution (such as the roasting of apple seeds will release toxins), as an indispensable companion to your conventional cookbook, an eccentric philosophical soliloquy of the culinary art. I vouch that anyone who reads this book will find the recipes zestfully flirting with the tastebuds and liberating the senses. Exquisitely written.
As the story progresses, there is a sense that something is going on just under the surface. Perhaps I'm slow on the uptake, but I was 3/4 of the way through the book before I realized just what was going on - and the ending took me completely by surprise! Great fun.
It is not often that an author postpones his statement of purpose to the closing pages of his work, burying it within the work itself, rather than in a preface, foreword, or note from the author. But that is precisely what John Lanchester has done in this novel.
Habitual preface-skippers will miss out on essential information, as the "preface" is a note from the protagonist, not from the author. And it sets the stage for the tone of the rest of the book.
Tarquin Winot is the anti-heroic protagonist of this book -- he is, in fact, so anti-heroic that he serves as both protagonist and antagonist. Winot is verbose, opinionated, patronizing, self-aggrandizing, and quite too fond of himself. He is also faintly sinister, but the faintness of that impression steadily diminishes throughout the narrative.
(If you can call it that. If James Joyce or TS Eliot were to write a murder-mystery, this book is a good example of what would result. It's a stream-of-consciousness, flashback-ridden nightmare of a story.)
Winot is presented as a gourmet and conoisseur -- but not in a sympathetic way. He is a dark and worrying figure, and the disjointed stories of his earlier life increase the darkness and worry. What begins to emerge is a person whose life has been strangely surrounded by bizarre and inexplicable tragedies. And a person who seems to have both a morbid fascination with death and a suspicious knowledge of the intimate details of the tragedies that touch his life.
This is a hard book to read, and it was only sheer, teeth-gritting determination that got me through the first two chapters. And then I couldn't stop reading, even though I wanted to. I needed to understand what was being hinted at. I needed to know the end, even though it was all-too-baldly foreshadowed. If you can work your way through the page-long periodic sentences with their frequent interruptions and asides, you will, as the author suggests, find yourself waking from "a deep and violent dream," afflicted by "incurable unease."
Self-anointed aesthete Tarquin Winot regales his readers with mouth-watering descriptions of seasonal dishes while recounting various episodes from his life during which a substantial number of people seem to have met untimely and sudden deaths.
As we join Winot he is embarking on a journey from Portsmouth to Provence where he arranges a "chance" encounter with a journalist who is attempting to write a biography of Winot's elder and more celebrated brother Bartholomew (more generally referred to as "Barry") who has become an established artist and sculptor. Engineering this encounter is fairly easy for Winot as one of his favourite books, and one which accompanies him wherever he goes, is the "Mossad Guide to Secret Surveillance".
Tarquin has nothing but disdain for the unstructured output of his brother, or his all too proletarian habits, and does what he can to disillusion the biographer.
The descriptions of the food, and the countryside, and the glimpses we are offered of Winot's opulent childhood are perfectly sumptuous, and the book is a joy to read.
The gleaming banks of seafood on display at the great Parisian brasseries are like certain politicians in that they manage to be impressive without necessarily inspiring absolute confidence.
The process of ripening in cheese is a little like the human acquisition of wisdom and maturity: both processes involve a recognition, or incorporation, of the fact that life is an incurable disease with a hundred percent mortality rate-- slow variety of death.
And in one revealing passage, the author sums up the attitude and approach of the protagonist:
the Loire...is France's least obvious and therefore most compelling wine river, and the fact that is unnavigatable--too shallow and too treacherous to be a means of transportation--it is beautifully unsullied by any human presence...and therefore the Loire is a mirror or metaphor of the human psyche--treacherous, unnavigable, resistant to banal ideas of use, its superficial calm masking unconvenanted depths, hidden velocities.
This describes well the protagonist, Tarquin Winot, who in addition to the characteristics noted above, and who takes the reader through a wonderful exploration of food and recipes, is a murderer. He has either instigated suicide (by framing a favourite servant), or outright murdered people, with considerable forethought and planning, including his parents and his brother. A large part of the story, although it takes a while to emerge, is that Winot is stalking a couple; she is supposed to be his biographer, and when he has them as guests at his house, he feeds them poisoned mushrooms for which there is no antidote, and the effects of which take place some hours after ingestion, thus providing a wonderful alibi. The books ends: "By the time I got there the murdered couple had gone around the corner onto the main road, leaving behind them a slow cloud of settling dust". An intriguing book, very well written, and a fine exploration, almost by osmosis rather than direct exposition, of a pure sociopath. The contrast between the inner and outer worlds of Tarquin Winot could not be more striking, even though he masks the former, even to himself, in philosophic terms, for example when he expounds upon his theory and philosophy of murder and death in comparison to other forms of art.
It takes a little bearing with to allow the book to get under your skin, but it's having an effect as I've spent the evening eating tasty cheese and drinking a rather fine Pinot Gris, in the manner of the (anti) hero of the book. I promise not to murder anyone tomorrow, even if they annoy me...
Narrated by one Tarquin Winot, a snobbish yet brilliant foodie, as he travels to his home in France, this might seem at first to be nothing more than his musings (and highly entertaining these are) punctuated by recipes. But the reader soon observes a megalomania in Tarquin:
'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."
I was hooked from the first chapter where Tarquin so brilliantly recalls taking lunch at his brother's boarding school (which 'my father described as"'towards the top of the second division" ').
As we follow Tarquin, his thoughts on life (some brilliant, some quite mad), his recollections of childhood - parents, artist brother and servants - and much more, we start to see a lot more to him than was at first apparent...
Truly brilliant writing, Lanchester never lets Tarquin's personality for a moment. Like nothing you've ever read - well, maybe our narrator, Tarquin, has a passing (but sinister) resemblance in his pomposity to Ignatius in 'Confederacy of Dunce
Self-appointed (indeed, self-anointed) aesthete Tarquin Winot regales his readers with mouth-watering descriptions of seasonal dishes while recounting various episodes from his life. It is only as the novel progresses that the reader comes to recognise that an unusually high proportion of Winot’s family, entourage and acquaintances seem to have met untimely and sudden deaths.
As we join Winot, he is embarking on a journey from Portsmouth to Provence where he arranges a "chance" encounter with a journalist who is attempting to write a biography of Winot's elder and more celebrated brother Bartholomew (more generally referred to as "Barry"), who has become an established artist and sculptor. Engineering this seemingly fortuitous encounter is fairly easy for Winot, as we come to learn that one of his favourite books, and one which accompanies him wherever he goes, is the "Mossad Guide to Secret Surveillance".
Tarquin has nothing but disdain for the unstructured output of his brother, or his all too proletarian habits, and does what he can to disillusion the biographer. While doing so, we see beautiful glimpses of Winot’s relatively opulent childhood, although even early on there are signs of deeply-rooted dysfunction. Winot’s descriptions of the meals that he recommends at different seasons, and his appreciations of the countryside through which he travels, are perfectly sumptuous.
In Tarquin Winot, John Lanchester has created a grotesque, yet oddly enticing, character, , and the book is a joy to read (or, is in the current case, re-read with heightened – and not disappointed – anticipation).
This book is all of these and many others, relentlessly and endlessly. I am not the intended reader: it's impossible not to be amused and instructed, but for me it's also impossible to be happy when an author is so tirelessly trying to be of impeccable seamless delicately balanced good cheer. I imagine if I was prone to sudden dizzying dips in general happiness, I would find this a balm, but I would only feel good while I was reading. the moment I stopped I'd be unhappy again. Just like it is with any diversion. A novel, I think, needs to want to do more: at the very least its author has to want, every once in a while, for more than just half a sentence at a time, to make the reader unhappy.
A fictional memoir written as a seasonal menu, relating his life to certain recipes. A fantastic use of the English language, it had me picking up my dictionary quite a few times. Also, a lot of cooking terms i was unfamiliar with, and i did have to polish up my french as well.
A gastronomical feat of literary genius.