February 2019 Club

The Debt to Pleasure – John Lanchester

Lanchester’s 1996 debut novel seems, somewhat appropriately, to be a marmite book – you either love it or hate it. The pompous, gourmand effete narrator, Tarquin Winot, is certainly knowledgeable on his subject – so much so that a good majority of the book contains stream-of-consciousness wordy descriptions of food, embellished by his ponderings on philosophy and art.

I’m afraid it’s rather hard to discuss this book without spoilers, so be please be aware that they are coming up.

I must admit to not reading the introduction so that I could look for clues as to why he was an unreliable narrator. It was only 85% though the book that I finally got a glimpse into his darker side when he relates how his family’s Norwegian cook “accidentally” fell under a tube train, how his nanny met her demise, how his parents were killed in their Norfolk cottage in a freak gas “accident” and how his famous sculptor brother died from poisoning.

Tarquin takes what seems to be a leisurely driving trip to his Provence home, indulging in the cuisine along the way. He “accidentally” bumps into a young honeymoon couple and invites them back to his home. The young lady, with whom he flirts, happens to be the biographer of his late sculptor brother, Bartholomew aka Barry. He is disparaging about her new husband and it’s obvious he’s not fond of him. After an early morning forest foraging trip, he offers the young couple some mushrooms on toast. The final line reads “By the time I got there the murdered couple had gone around the corner onto the main road, leaving behind them a slow cloud of settling dust.” They are gone and the prospect of at least some posthumous fame for his brother is also dead.

Tarquin (born Rodney) muses, and almost justifies his psychopathic actions by comparing the murderer to the artist. He claims that “the artist’s first desire is to leave something behind him…to take up more space.” Whereas the murderer creates an absence, takes something away from the world. He attempts to convince us that murder is natural, that art is unnatural.

He would never admit it, but Tarquin is intensely jealous of his brother’s artistic achievements and international recognition and throughout the novel, you can almost hear his young schoolboy voice saying “look mummy, look what I did”.

Colourway inspiration

Choosing colours that represented this book was a tricky matter. There are plenty of food descriptions, from the change in colour of red mullet as it dies at a dinner party to the colours of ossetra from dirty battleship to occluded sunflower.

Saffron – old Tarquin appreciates the best of the best when it comes to food so I’ve opted for saffron. He informs us that “it takes more than four thousand of the laboriously (manually) harvested stigmas (from the crocus flower) to provide a single ounce of the spice.” Personally, I always think of Iranian saffron as the crème de la crème. I started with a mix of three yellows plus just a touch of a colour called Saffron Spice for the first coat. Extracted the yarn from the pot and mixed up a second coat of mustard with a touch of brown to reduce the orange-yellow to a more golden hue. 

Destroying Angel – the deadly mushroom that Tarquin uses to see off the honeymoon couple is, in reality, just white. But I couldn’t resist the name for a yarn colourway – so I added a bit of artistic interpretation. They can have tinges of tan and yellow and they’re closely related to the Death Cap. I found a photo of some Death Caps that looked almost iridescent, which made Lustrous silk merino the perfect yarn choice. I mixed some neutral beige with a grey to make a mushroom colour and submerged the skeins leaving plenty of white. Onto the white, I sprinkled suggestions of dark brown for loose bits of mud, grey and beige, green for moss and a saffron yellow to tone in with the semi-solid skeins.