The first question I have to ask myself about this book is why it took me nine years to discover it? I am sure that I have seen John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure before on various shelves and in the odd second hand bookshop, but why did the blurb on the back never grab me? I’m not sure, but I know now it was a mistake to leave it so long.
This is a beautifully written, erudite and wickedly amusing little book. It is not a weighty tome that will take weeks to get through (I’m sure I have a copy of Lanchester’s last book Capital, which falls into the category of too heavy to carry back and forth to work and so it has languished, unread, on my shelves for several months).
The book is about a splendidly eccentric character called Tarquin Winot. The name itself deserves to be played with. Is it pronounced like the French with a silent “t” at the end – so that he becomes a drunken “wino” – or with the “t” to simply become “why not”? A wonderful character, a man of learning, a lover of food, with a dark side that emerges gradually. Lanchester was himself a restaurant critic, which must have given him some insight to all things culinary, but in the book he takes Tarquin to an excess of detail. He lovingly describes not just a dish, but exactly how it should be cooked, or precisely how the eggs should be beaten.
Perhaps the most enjoyable element of the book are the many asides. Some might say almost the whole book is one long aside, but I love the fact that in the middle of his description of the culinary complexities of Irish stew, Tarquin takes us on a massive four page digression about his mother, taking in West London, Portofino and a production of Hamlet in the Australian outback as he goes. It is wonderfully funny and the imagery is just right. The mother’s performance as the gravedigger in Hamlet is talked about by the now aged children of the original cast “… as they rock on their porches to watch the only train of the day pass silhouetted against the ochres and impossibly elongated shadows of the desert sunset…”
I suppose that some of the book’s appeal for me came from the locations – they are often places I have been, or even know well. The Parson’s Green Underground station, site of one unfortunate incident, used to be somewhere I regularly alighted from the District Line, while Winot’s English home is in the county of Norfolk, where I holidayed for most of my childhood. Eventually Winot decamps to a second home in Provence, somewhere I loved to visit and talks at length of the market in the town of Apt, where I once spent a happy holiday morning browsing the stalls. All these familiar references make the book more appealing to me personally, and bring the pictures to life. But, who cannot help be intrigued by the strange and unusual character of Tarquin Winot, a subtle psychopath equipped as he is with a copy of the Mossad Manual of Surveillance Techniques – something that is not available in most leading bookstores.
Go and find a second hand copy of this book and enjoy a read of sensual pleasure.