Monday, November 24, 2008

Eating a novel (Books - Possession by A. S. Byatt)

When the two women in Roland's life, Val - the girlfriend more of habit than of passion - and Maud Bailey - a colleague in literary scholarship at a women's study program in Lincolnshire - prepare him dinner, you know who they are and where he stands with each of them.
When he got home that evening he could smell that Val was in a mood. The basement was full of the sharp warmth of frying onions, which meant she was cooking something complicated. When she was not in a mood, when she was apathetic, she opened tins of boiled eggs, or at most dressed an avocado. When she was either very cheerful or very angry, she cooked...

Val put before him grilled marinated lamb, ratatouille and hot Greek bread. He said, "Shall I get a bottle of wine?" and Val said, disagreeably and truthfully, "You should have thought of that some time back; it'll all go cold." They ate at a card-table, which they unfolded and folded again, after.
Maud Bailey gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples. They talked about Tales for Innocents, which Maud said, were mostly rather frightening tales derived from Grimm and Tieck, awith an emphasis on animals and insubordination.
The first meal is middle class, domestic, heavily seasoned, labored-over. The second is whipped together with some thought but not too much preparation, is lighter, composed of simple piquant flavors - fish, crisp apples, the bite of a blue cheese - and doesn't permit a pause in the conversation, which is about each scholar's interest in a poet named Christabel LaMotte. Each meal is redolent with pertinent character detail, but also forwards the plot, and A. S. Byatt dispatches them in a few rich, choice sentences. Possession, which I am re-reading for the first time since it was published around 1990, is full of writing which shows, hints, and evokes rather than simply tells. She relishes the job of letting the details of the character's everyday living and the writing of the poets they study expose the story little by little. Relishes it like good food.

I must admit, if an author dare to write about food, I pay attention. I don't necessarily mean write in great detail of exquisite meals as did A. J. Liebling or M. F. K. Fisher, whose writing I love since I love good food. But I mean including the sensoral details of quotidian existence and including them as the story. As a way to tell the story of who someone is, how they lived on their way to meet somebody and do they deeds that form the plot of our story. Surely they washed, dressed, travelled from point to point in the course of this story - and surely, if they are still living after a few days, they ate. I love when storytelling is skilled and rich enough to weave its cloth of life instead of considering plot a departure from it, occassionally dipping in to describe something since, as a writer, they know they must to earn our belief. This is what good French film does with such skill, and is why I like it so much. People brush their teeth, have to actually park their damned cars in a spot not conveniently sitting in front of the building they will enter for the next plot point, and they eat. If an author dares to write about food with any detail then I pay attention because a) they have to really do the work of imagining themselves in exquisite and intimate detail into the life of someone to know what they'd have in the house, buy at the market, enjoy eating themselves, or think of preparing for someone else; b) they have to take the risk of having a sensory experience for us which could, rather than deepening our involvement in the story, take us right out of it if we find their experience too different from our's or wrong in our estimation for the character's. It's like writing about listening to music. It can be merely descriptive and boring, or we can have a reaction like 'the Libera Me in Verdi's Requiem isn't... fill in your adjective here.' Or c) because I enjoy the smells, tastes and textures of food and wine enough that the writing of it serves as a barometer. If I want to eat, it's good.

I want to eat.


Sheila O'Malley said...

I love Possession so much I can't even tell you.

And I love Val's journey, in particular. You think she might be peripheral, or a stereotype - but she emerges by the end as a real person in her own right. I love her.

Ted said...

I find myself only having images in my memory and an overall idea what happened, but not memory of specific plot points or characters so I'm really discovering this book all over again. I know how much you love it. It'll, no doubt, give us a good conversation over food and wine the next time we meet!

Unknown said...

I've been saving this one for a future re-read. Saving it for so long, that I'm actually a little afraid the book won't live up to my memory of it.

Your article makes me think that it will. Maybe a second read at last in the new year.