by James Simpkins
I realize that the very title of my article this week may be an open invitation for the snarky reader who may want to take the cheap shot for the clear path to the ironic it leaves open. You know what? Go ahead. After the past couple days, I think food writers may deserve it every now and then…especially novelists.
This past Monday at the Instituto de Cervantes in New York City Four European writers: Christoph Peters (Germany), Agnès Desarthe (France), Jesús Ruiz Mantilla (Spain) and Clara Sereni (Italy) came together for an evening of readings and discussion called "Eat Your Words: When Authors Speak of Food", moderated by highly acclaimed American writer Mark Kurlansky, a guy who has written a lot of books I won’t bother to name aside from Salt. Being someone who writes about food (and who lives a scant two hours from NYC) I thought I would go. Besides the lovely wine and passed hors d’oeuvres that were served in the garden and the Spanish government’s gorgeous real estate on 49th and 3rd, the event did next to nothing to inspire me, let alone inspire me to buy anyone’s book. It turns out these ‘paperback writers’ are based more on Proust than Lear, and that, in the opinion of this writer, is not a good thing.
The format of the event itself was rather nice; each of the authors read from their works in their original language so you could hear it in the original tongue, then a piece of the book would be read in English-for some reason, they were not always the same piece, but whatever…unless you spoke five languages fluently, you were bound to miss a little. I found Peters (the German) most enjoyable to listen to and Mantilla’s self-deprecation was a hoot, if a bit graphic (he told us his head was so big be “broke his mother’s fallopian tube” coming out), while Sereni’s grandmother-who-knows-best was a crowd-pleaser and Desarthes seemed to brood like a Parisian, though I’m still not sure where she is from. She would only say she was born into a “multicultural family” and said at one point she “does not claim any country”, apparently stealing the title from Kurt Vonnegut’s last work. Like I said...brooding. (Here is a link to a photo of each of them and a description of their books)
There were two
items during the evening that piqued my ire more over my enjoyment: 1) That ALL
of the authors waxed melancholic about eating!—perhaps humanity’s greatest joy;
and 2) that I thought Desarthes’ (no country lady) answer to my question
bordered on self-abnegation, and was pathetic. The short, curt version
of what each author’s book focused on was: Food consoles Mantilla for being
fat, Sereni's appetite/hunger develops out of personal pain, Peters has people
try and fail to come together through food, and Desarthes protagonist opens a
restaurant as a substitute for Magdalenian sex. The tone of each writer, including
Kurlansky himself, was less than jovial. Later, I asked
someone else if I was just imagining this and with their affirmative response my suspicions were confirmed.
As a chef and new
food scholar, I LOVE food; I LOVE cooking; and writing about them through some
dark muse would be a disservice to what food provides me. While I won’t pretend
that it’s all smiles on my end, if I were to write a book to share with the
world, it would be a (mostly) happy work. It seems like we don’t need any more metaphorical rain in our time, especially eating a meal.
Call me crazy.
Towards the end of the lecture, I was able to ask the about the tag line of the event, “New Literature from Europe”. I was cringing a little bit from the moody nature of the group, but decided to ask anyway. Being a guy who studies the (mid) 19th century, I wondered if Ms. Desarthes would provide an opinion on how the use of food in writing has shifted over the last hundred years or so, what with our new food culture and all. Her answer: It hasn’t. What?
Desarthes first pointed out that the authors
did not come up with the name of the event, then dropped a couple of doozies. First the ages-old line (from the
book of Ecclesiastes) “there is nothing new under the sun", then she suggested that Marcel Proust and
Virginia Woolf had set the literary bar too high; all we could do was
wallow in their shadow. No. She. Didn’t. Yup...she sure did.
Does everyone have to drop
Does everyone have to dropProust's madeleine moment from Swann’s Way? (here's a great article on this very thing), and then the two-fer with Virginia Woolf besides? Wow. Look, I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway, and it was ok, but still even great writers have faults and areas to improve on, right? Woolf herself once gushed: "My greatest adventure was undoubtedly Proust. What is there left to write after that?" I could pull her hair, too.
Just like Desarthes, Woolf was using self-deprecation, and ironically her efforts to place herself below these literary giants ends up putting herself by proxy in the same camp. Are we really to believe that Woolf, queen of snobs, would honestly kowtow to the the ramblings of Proust? That madeleine scene takes three pages... I think John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is much more sublime.
My point to all of this is twofold: 1) Sure,
people compensate with food and that’s fine; my coffee is
currently compensating for my not having gone grocery shopping; given the acute hunger I'm having, it is doing this even poorly. Therein is my point--compensating with food is still just compensating. Giving characters in novels real dilemmas and real solutions that involve food is very different than having your character live through a certain way of cooking or eating. That produces neuroses in time/space, and the same in the world of print. Attending “When Authors Speak About Food”, 2) I was
hoping these contemporary paperback writers would speak about food and eating in ways much more reflective of our burgeoning gastronomic culture and the good ol' American past time of pleasure. Then I remembered--they're all European.
Then I remembered--they're all European.
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