With so many books to read, a book has to be really special for me to read it again, but The Debt to Pleasure is that special. It is a misleading book, one that starts out as one thing and then with slow, incremental steps, the reader discovers that it is really something else. I wondered if the book would hold up when I read it with full knowledge of where it was going to go.
Such is John Lanchester’s subtle artistry that I can say it does. In fact, is a distinct pleasure to read the book with the knowledge of where it will end because the hints and signals don’t slip past and I can see the construction of the story. The first time I read it several years ago, an unease and discomfort built slowly and there was this dawning realization that there was far more to this book than commentary on travel and cuisine by a pompous crank.
This was published about five years after Peter Mayle’s Toujours Provence and in a way feels like a sendup. The narrator, Tarquin Winot is an English gourmand who travels from England to France, chronicling the sites and foods of his journey to his home in Provence. He writes with epicurean detail about the food along the way, providing recipes and opinions.
Along the way, he tells anecdotes from his childhood and it becomes clear that he has encountered a lot of very unfortunate people. Even as a child, it seems, our narrator was someone it was unlucky to know. But he soldiers on, undeterred by the loss of his nanny, a family cook, and the French tutor, always insouciant in the face of such hapless adversity. He has more experience with inquests than the average child.
Along his journey he see a honeymooning couple and takes an interest in them, perhaps because they are interested in his late brother’s life, visiting the sculpture gardens and displays of his brother’s artwork. In fact, his interest becomes untoward, spying on them, tracking their movements across France until they finally arrive at his home for a few delicious home-cooked meals by our gourmet cook.
I remembered this book with such fondness. The writing is completely in the mode of our snobbish, pretentious, and oh-so-unreliable narrator. There is this arch knowingness coupled with absolute unawareness that can’t help be comic. It is biting satirical unfeeling of a strange and fascinating psyche. That I can read it a second time, completely aware of the twists and complications is a testament to its art.