Narrated by one Tarquin Winot, a snobbish yet brilliant foodie, as he travels to his home in France, this might seem at first to be nothing more than his musings (and highly entertaining these are) punctuated by recipes. But the reader soon observes a megalomania in Tarquin: 'I myself have always disliked being called a 'genius'. It is fascinating to notice how quick people have been to intuit this aversion and avoid using the term." I was hooked from the first chapter where Tarquin so brilliantly recalls taking lunch at his brother's boarding school (which 'my father described as"'towards the top of the second division" '). As we follow Tarquin, his thoughts on life (some brilliant, some quite mad), his recollections of childhood - parents, artist brother and servants - and much more, we start to see a lot more to him than was at first apparent... Truly brilliant writing, Lanchester never lets Tarquin's personality for a moment. Like nothing you've ever read - well, maybe our narrator, Tarquin, has a passing (but sinister) resemblance in his pomposity to Ignatius in 'Confederacy of Dunces'
Some reviewers here have complained that this novel is quite slight and unsubstantial. To me, that misses the point - things which are slight and inconsequential can be incredibly enjoyable.
Tarquin Wynot, the narrator, is an erudite, snobbish, foodie, psychopathic murderer. Sounds a bit 'Silence of the Lambs'? Not really. Wynot bumps people off for a variety of reasons but never just for fun. His fun he gets from the food and wine he so meticulously describes throughout the novel.
Like Tarquin's cooking, the prose is a fanciful, indulgent, and showy. Often fantastically funny, with a swift pace that still takes time for plenty of impressive asides, I found this unputdownable not necessarily because I wanted to know what happened next, but because I was enjoying myself too much. It is the literary equivalent of a meal in a very good but self-consciously experimental restaurant. You may not want to eat there everyday, you may think some of the combinations were a bit over the top, but you have to admit it was dazzling.
Finally, it is telling that when Lanchester published 'Capital' to much critical fanfare in 2012, this was the book, despite being his first novel and published in the nineties, that several reviewers held up as the measure of his full abilities. Unfortunately, I don't think he's lived up to the potential of 'The Debt to Pleasure' so far, but then it's a very high standard to have set yourself! If you enjoy 'The Debt to Pleasure', the meatier, more homely 'Mr. Phillips' is not a bad second course.
One of my greatest pleasures is eating, so I must cook. I savour, therefore I cook. I like tasty food made with fresh ingredients that address all four of our tastes - salt, sour, sweet and bitter - to create a complementary whole. Of course, there is now the fifth taste, unami, the expanding universe within soy sauce, that can amplify other inputs. I have just made an English pie, with chicken, mushrooms, a little diced bacon, seasoning and fresh herbs. It was moistened with stock and an egg before being baked in my own short-crust. Fresh gravy and vegetables alongside is all it will need. It thus has sweet, salt and bitter, but lacks sourness. A squeeze of lemon on the vegetables will compensate.
For the expansion, take one novel closely related to cooking and read. Do try the recipes, but proceed with care. Cook things right through before committing to taste. John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure is my recommendation. It's a highly original, highly informative cookbook written by one Tarquin Winot, an expert in the field.
In one of the most original books I have ever read, John Lanchester creates a real anti-hero. Too often the concept is ironed onto a character who is just a naughty boy doing naughty, often repulsive things, the concept of "hero" being often ignored. Tarquin Winot, the anti-hero of The Debt to Pleasure, is a brilliant and learned cook. He is also highly creative, using ingredients that only those who might cook with a purpose would choose to use. He is also something of a psychopath, perhaps. That is for you to judge. But he has survived to write his cookbook and apparently savours his retirement, courtesy of those he has fed.
The Debt to Pleasure is a superb novel. Tarquin's narrative draws the reader, perhaps unsuspecting, into his world, evoking an empathy with and for the character. That we have as yet only partially got to know this brilliant cook only becomes apparent as we proceed through his life, a life he has peppered with his personal peccadilloes. But above all, Tarquin Winot is both a planner and a perfectionist. His culinary creations are thought through, drafted like dramas to provoke particular responses, to achieve pre-meditated ends. They are also successful, appreciated by those who consume his concoctions, and eventually they succeed in precisely the way that he plans and executes.
Throughout, John Lanchester's prose is a delight, as stimulating to the mind as his character's creations might be to the palate. Florid and extravagant it might be at times, perhaps too much butter and cream for some diets. But The Debt to Pleasure is a satisfying, surprising and eventually fulfilling read. Tarquin fulfils both aspects of the anti-hero and ultimately we are left to grapple with the nature of self-obsession and selfishness.
One's reaction to this book will, in large part, be predicated on how one reacts to cleverness and dark humor. For, while written with indisputable skill, Lanchester's novel is more than anything an exercise in droll, urbane, (dare I say smug) cleverness-at it's best (or worst, according to one's taste). Within the deliciously witty, snide, nasty, condescending, and rambling meditations of one Tarquin Winot lie dark kernels of truth regarding his true nature and past. Tarquin is both genius and gourmand, so his writings are loosely arranged around a seasonal menu, with tangential discourses on the various ingredients and much more. While his descriptions of food are certainly evocative, there's much more going on than a simple foodie travelogue. It's obvious quite early on that he's a pampered egomaniac, and indeed, after a while, his self-absorbed ramblings begin to grow wearisome. However, mingled with these are broad clues as to true megalomania and psychopathy. All of this emerges as he recounts an interview he grants his brother's biographer. That some reviewers found the book disturbing or unsettling seems rather odd. Well-cultured and well-spoken psychopaths are hardly a new phenomenon in either literature or real life, and that's essentially what Tarquin is. It's possible that this disquiet comes from the reader becoming enamored of Tarquin and then finding out his true nature at the very end, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. For all Lanchester's skill, Tarquin's "secret" is fairly evident quite early on, via a number of extremely broad hints, so that readers who are paying any kind of attention will quickly realize that all is not as it might seem. In the end, it's a fairly clever and certainly well-written character study, with a dark secret that is unearthed rather too soon for the book to be entirely satisfactory. Still, it is clear Lanchester is a writer worth watching.
John Lanchester gives us a study in pretentiousness, self-denial and deranged envy that would sit proudly on any psychologist's bookshelves, while keeping the reader gripped in this most unusual novel.
Part travelogue, part diary, part recipe book... wholly entertaining. All that and elements of a whodunnit turned on its head make this one of the most interesting books you'll read for a long time.
What starts off, apparently, as the snobbish diary of a nobody becomes compelling very quickly in ways the reader certainly doesn't expect. The dark humour is perfectly observed and often laugh-out-loud funny; the meticulously-concocted (and utterly convincing) recipes make for mouth-watering platforms of action and opinionated soap-boxing by the main character; the hints at a murky past leave you curious to find out just what is going on as Tarquin Winot travels south on what appears to be some sort of quest; the plot drives forward through unconventional means until you're utterly engaged by the insane thoughts of one of modern fiction's most devilishly intriguing creations.
The Debt To Pleasure is not a conventional novel. The narrative does not develop along conventional lines. The fascination is not always for what happens next but rather for what is going on in Tarquin Winot's mind, and how to unravel his deluded understanding of his past, his relationship to those around him and his philosophy of life from what might, by the rest of us, be called 'the truth'. The story is written in the first-person, and that person is clearly bonkers.
An easy read, it works on many levels, entertaining, enthralling and inviting us into the mind of a man who can't distinguish invention from reality, or even right from wrong. The past, desires, hatred, envy, unfulfilled ambition, sibling rivalry and the amorality of a psychopath are used like ingredients in a dish that leaves you with a very satisfying aftertaste.
If you have a day on a boat or plane to read this, then you will probably find it consistently hilarious. If you read it as a daily serial, however, you may well find that it is a book with 10/10 for technique and satire but 2/10 for content. It reminds me of a Miles Kington column or Swift's 'Modest Proposal..' and the single joke, good though it is, really does not last for over two hundred pages. Each page and each jab at the foibles of the food and art worlds (amongst others) is individually brilliant, but I feel like I have been snacking on canapés when I was invited to dinner. It is almost worth buying the book for the Marmite reference alone.