Lunch With Elizabeth David Hardcover – 5 Aug 1999
Customers who bought this item also bought
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Roger Williams' first novel, a delightfully inventive interplay of recreation and fictional construct, involved the lives of two 20th-century icons, Norman Douglas--erudite charmer, gourmet, quaffer, scoffer, pederast--and Elizabeth David, who transformed British eating habits with the publication in 1950 of Mediterranean Food. As homage within homage within homage--the author's to Douglas and Mrs David; hers to Douglas (her essay about him is included in her An Omelette and A Glass of Wine); the fictional characters, Eric Wolton's to his seducer, "Uncle Norman", and Cherry Ingram's to Elizabeth David--the novel comes in two parts. The first details the unsentimental education--classical, culinary, sexual--of Eric, working-class Londoner celebrating his 13th birthday in Naples in 1911, and "ravished by Norman Douglas the length and breadth of Calabria". Man and boy take their pleasures lightly as they voyage across Italy's boot, later celebrated in Douglas's book, Old Calabria.
In later years, Eric resigns himself to exile in the Tanganyika police force, recalling that summer as "the best time in his life." And then he, along with Douglas's fashionable entourage--Harold Acton, Graham Greene, Gracie Fields--are summoned to a farewell lunch in Capri in 1951--along with Douglas's friend, Elizabeth David.
The novel's second part pursues a decidedly more fictionalised course: Cherry Ingram's mother had waited upon Elizabeth David in a hotel in Ross-on-Wye at the fag end of winter in 1946. (In the novel she is alone; in reality, she was there with a lover. She described the food as "produced with a kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity's needs".) Now, in the late '80s Cherry delivers a whitefish to Chelsea to a "Mrs David"--bibulous, imperious, and demanding the fish's provenance. This chance encounter leads Cherry into an intriguing pursuit into the secrets of the past--her own, Elizabeth David's, her Neapolitan Donelli in-laws, Douglas's and Eric's.
This fabulation of fact and fiction wonderfully evokes the glories of the Mediterranean, of the privileged mondaine who sought out its pleasures. And yet, taken as a whole, the novel is rather a curate's egg (fact: Douglas ate only the whites of eggs, and Elizabeth David, while visiting him in Capri in '51, claims never to have eaten so many yolks) for it is perhaps less successful in connecting us to that gilded time and place through the unravelling of Cherry and Eric's own stories: the drama of their own lives can never measure up to the allure of their actual heroes. That said, the good parts are delicious and well worth sampling.--Ruthie Petrie
With remarkable daring and resourcefulness, Williams reanimates aspects of the colourful life and milieu of the author of SOUTH WIND- moving from the pre-WWI Sicily to Africa and post-WWII Britain. Douglas is an intriguing and controversial figure. In this fictional but convincingly researched and entertainingly executed portrait, Williams has brought both him and David intriguingly to life. It's more than incidentally a treat for Mediterranean-fixated foodies, and makes you want to re-read or read for the first time Douglas's Capri-based SOUTH WIND. (PUBLISHING NEWS)
Another of this month's confident debuts, a literary work crafted out of the eccentric life of controversial writer Norman Douglas, who, along with his accolytes and better known contemporaries, are brought to life with a light and assured touch. (EDITOR'S CHOICE, THE BOOKSELLER)
Enjoyable... (THE TIMES)
Takes an interesting proosition... and cooks up a deeply satisfying novel. (GLASGOW HERALD)
Top customer reviews
Having then followed the later story of Eric through snippets to his life as a police inspector in East Africa in 1925, two middle chapters are devoted to Douglas stranded in Antibes in the early days of the 2nd World War and enjoying new friendship with the future food writer Elizabeth David, whose spirit is more pervasive than her fleeting appearances. This sets the scene for the concluding chapter from which the novel takes its name, when Eric, David and his other most important friends meet 83-year-old Douglas for a farewell lunch in Capri in 1951.
Unfortunately though, all this accounts for little more than half the book, and the rest is given up to an uninspiring account of two intermarried families in England between 1985 and 1994 with highly tenuous links to Douglas and David. Though one’s interest is retained through ultimately disappointed hopes of unraveling mystery, I am really not sure what the point of it is. One might argue that it illustrates the tremendous influence David had already had on British cooking by that time or that it compares the general if occasionally waspish acceptance of Douglas’s pederasty by his social circle with the uninformed revulsion of our age, but, if so, what a laborious way of doing so. Some of the details of their lives are so mundane and irrelevant to the plot that I began to wonder if the links might be no more than an excuse the author had contrived to tack his own autobiography on to his novel.
While there is serious doubt in my mind as to what if anything holds the novel together, I have no doubt that much the most interesting and controversial theme of the story is the relationship of Eric and Douglas, which will seem deeply alien and indeed alienate many like the modern families depicted who know nothing about pederasty except that it disgusts them. For those who are interested in understanding more, Williams affords insight, naturally of course limited, since this is about one boy and one man, but rare enough to be fascinating.
Lest it be assumed that the upper-class Douglas effectively bought the working-class Eric as his catamite, I should emphasise this was not so. There was never remuneration. Douglas charmed Eric and his parents into believing rightly that their Italian adventure would be educational and beneficial for him, and so much was it so that the adult Eric always looked back on it as his golden age. Far from using greater wealth to get his wicked way, Douglas was then a still unsuccessful writer struggling to find enough for them to eat and at one time living off money Eric was sent by an aunt.
The relationship, depicted with great honesty and delicacy, was neither anything resembling the abuse it would automatically be assumed to be today nor quite up to the ancient Greek ideals of pederasty. Douglas’s attitude to sex was hedonistic (“It’s ridiculous when some trifle becomes a crime just because it used to be a sin, and it only became a sin because some impotent old antediluvian once got jealous of someone else’s pleasure”), though he never failed to honour and value the strong friendship it had cemented. Though he gave a lot of himself to Eric, he sometimes shocked him by his callousness to others, his family especially. Still, his morality at least lived up to the deceptively modest ideals he set forth in his novel South Wind that “the attitude of a man towards his fellows should be that of non-intervention, of benevolent egotism” and “nobody had a right to call himself well-disposed towards society until he had grasped the elementary fact that the only way to improve the universe was to improve oneself, and to leave one's neighbour alone.”
Eric was finally “ravished … the length and breadth of Calabria”, but the sex began playfully months into their already-deep friendship. The immediate effect of “the secret pleasure he had shared with Uncle Norman” was to give him “a confidence and an introspection that set him a little apart from everyone he now saw.” Much later, “thinking back to Italy when the sun shone and, because no one had said what they were doing was wrong, everything they did seemed perfectly right,” he was simultaneously already aware of and disturbed “by the image of himself as an educated pederast’s working-class receptacle.” This ambivalence arising from the contradiction between his experience and how he knew some others perceived it endured without resolution. At the final eponymous lunch to which he brought his dull German wife Helen, when the forbidden nature of the friendship was alluded to in a gaffe, Eric was “crushed between the grand old man and the humiliated Helen, between enormous pride and unbearable shame.”
Williams has made excellent use of Mark Holloway’s magisterial biography of Douglas as well as Douglas’s own books, and his accomplishment in bringing him so much to realistic life is considerable. His writing is suffused with Douglas’s own wit and charm and so much in tune with him that though I would have preferred a more cohesive and emotionally compelling plot, I feel sure Uncle Norman would approve.
Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander’s Choice, a novel exploring a similar sort of relationship, amazon.co.uk/dp/1481222112
In any case the first half of this book deals wiith Douglas and his meeting and travelling with Eric Wolton and their travelling to Calabria. This book, despite what other reviewers say, is not explicit at all and deals with what is now a taboo subject in a very sensitive way. Indeed Roger Williams mentions the now out of print autobiography of Douglas by Mark Holloway as a major source of inspiration and research and that book said that Douglas' young friends, continued to regard him with love and affection all his life and he was always ready to return the affection and help if need be and this is the impression one gets in this book. It also has some lush passages about Capri and the Sorrento peninsula that would rival Douglas' South Wind and Siren Land ( both thoroughly recommended).
Where I have an issue with this book is the sudden lurch from the tale about Douglas and Eric to the present day (well the 1990s) and a story about a woman married to someone with a tenuous (and fictional) family relationship with Eric and Norman. There is a little bit of scene setting before this ladies' story which tells of Douglas' relationship with the cookery writer Elizabeth David and then the book suddenly lurches into this story about this lady and her family and her brief meeting with David. As I say the link with Douglas which I think the author uses as a plot twist does not really work and I would have structured the book as two separate novellas in one volume perhaps. However don't let this put you off reading the book. The writing is excellent and it will have you dreaming of the Med. While you are at it go and try Douglas' South Wind too. The least "heavy" of his books and thoroughly entertaining. You can find it as a free ebook online from sites like Gutenberg. (and perhaps here too, not checked)
Would you like to see more reviews about this item?
Most recent customer reviews