John Lanchester The Debt to Pleasure (1996)
Arson is perhaps the most literal-minded of all violent crimes. Who has not, on passing some large public masterpiece of architecture, or glimpsing an exquisitely ordered and human domestic interior through a ground-floor window (the sheet music open on the piano, the steepling bookcases and expectant hearth), felt an uncomplicated urge to set fire to them?
You know that feeling when you think that you're the only person who hasn't read a certain book that your mates raved about? Well, that's The Debt to Pleasure, in my case. I can't believe I have left this wonderful book unread for so long. It contains everything I love in a book: France, crime, a sociopathic narrator who does a number of things that are forbidden to the reader by a lifetime of social mores...
OK, it's only the end of March, but so far this is my favourite book of the year.
In brief: the narrator of The Debt to Pleasure unfolds the story of his life as he travels from England to the South of France, via Brittany and the Loire. Every detail he gives us of his story adds to the impression that a most sinister purpose underlies every aspect of his journey. As he revisits Michelin starred restaurants and glorious chateaux, we become aware that under his carefully developed persona of the cynical, cultured epicurean lies a murderer most foul who deals with his feelings of jealousy, envy, malice, greed, fear - and even the attentions of minor annoying neighbours - with brutal and sanguine aplomb.
'You said once that peaches remind you of your brother,' my biographer remarked to me a while ago. I pretended not to be able to remember. The truth is that furry fruit does indeed remind me of my sibling, thanks to an unfortunate event that occurred when we were both small - a near-fatal case of poisoning that resulted when I, in an early stab at culinary experimentation, prepared a jam made out of peaches and also out of peach stones, the latter containing, it turns out, cyanogen, a stable compound that, when broken down through contact with certain enzymes (or when, for instance, pounded up using a pestle and mortar), produces the celebrated toxin cyanide... My brother's stomach upset, through acute - his fondness for peaches having already been noted - was (obviously) not fatal, though the médecin, a sombre man with the air of concelaed power and sadness belonging to an Angevin duke in bas-relief, had a worried forty-eight hours, as did my mother. No blame attached.
I think I made a note of something on almost every page of this deliciously cruel, wonderfully literate book.
The structure is interesting: the narrator takes a logorrhoeic delight in the sensuous pleasures of the best foods, and the novel is structured as seasonal menus (although the action takes place in a far more compressed time-span). The food aspects of the book made my mouth water the entire way through. The quality of the food writing (a genre so often so close to self-parodic that the line can be hard to draw!) reminded me of a wickedly perverted Elizabeth David narrative: "the rilettes agreeable fatty and the prunes convincingly plump-but-shrivelled, like scrotums." Similarly the travel narrative of the Englishman who is more French than the French is beyond pastiche.
If you liked this...: it's unique. I'm still in shock. But... France? Murders? Brilliant writing? Patrick Süskind's Perfume. The narrator of The Debt to Pleasure would sneer at this middle-brow book, of course.