Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001229, Mon, 19 Aug 1996 10:32:20 -0700

John Lanchester's THE DEBT TO PLEASURE
More than one reviewer has termed John Lanchester's new novel THE
DEBT TO PLEASURE "Nabokovian." Since it is a rare issue of NYRB, NYTBR,
and (less so) TLS in which Nabokov's name does not appear as a standard of
comparison, one must take such comments with a grain of salt(s).
Reviewer-critics often use "Nabokovian" as a kind of code word to avoid
actually describing a new novel's style and technique. Below I offer some
rough thoughts on what I see as the Nabokovian elements in Lanchester's
I should like to hear from NABOKV-L subscribers who have read THE DEBT TO
PLEASURE and, also, those who have ideas on what we mean when we say
"Nabokovian" in reference to things that are not Nabokov's.

John Lanchester's first novel, THE DEBT TO PLEASURE (Holt, 1996) carries the
library descriptors:

1. Dinners & Dining--France--Fiction. 2. British--Travel--France--Fiction.
3.Food Habits--France--Fiction. 4. Cookery, French --Fiction.

Lanchester's arch and erudite narrator, Tarquin Winot, is the complete
aesthete, a man-of-means devoted solely to the sensual pleasures of food
and art. He considers himself an artist of "life" rather than of any
narrower field and, in particular,--- a far greater artist than his brother,
Bartholomew. Bartholomew, now dead, had been an internationally
acclaimed sculptor, but sadly deficient in the niceties of life.
Tarquin's book is ostensibly a gourmet's travelogue written from day to
day as he makes his way from England through the Loire region of France to
his second home in Provence. It gradually emerges that he is in fact
following a honeymooning couple. The new bride is a young woman who has
previously approached Tarquin to gather material for a biography of
Bartholomew, the sculptor. Although much taken with the woman, he has
repeatedly put her off, nonetheless occasionally speaking of her as his
"collaborator." He seems to think that the book is to be about him
rather than his brother.
Virtually all of the novel's text describes food with bits of
autobiography, past and present, sprinkled in here and there. The
descriptions are verbally lush and seasoned with much odd historical and
cultural lore. There are also many musings on aesthetics. His views are
exquisite, precious well past the point of vacuity. They are also sharply
at odds with those of his late, enormously respected brother--a man of
relatively rough and ready inclinations who thinks philosophies of art are
"bosh." Buried within the narrator's stream of discourse, there are
embedded fragments of the past. During his boyhood the family servants
have died in accidents, as, later, have his wealthy parents, and finally
his brother whose scultures he regards as merely lumpish and his fame
At length encountering the honeymooners at a village market not
far from his Provence home, Tarquin invites them to stay overnight while he
submits to the oft-postponed interview in which (to the polite
disgruntlement of the young woman) he speaks only of himself.
The following morning, he prepares them a splendid send-off breakfast
containing mushrooms that he has freshly picked.

The sociopathic narrator's language is urbanely arch and his
self-assurance are both reminiscent of Humbert Humbert and Charles
Kinbote. The car pursuit calls Humbert's pursuit of Lo and Quilty, and the
rivalry between the brothers inevitably evokes RLSK, although Tarquin is
trying to ensure that no biography of his brother appear rather than write
one. Lanchester's hero is solipsistic to a degree that makes Humbert seem
a model citizen.
The novel's closest links to VN, I would venture, are in tone and
language. The narrator's archness is often hilarious. Lanchester's
language is not only luxuriant and playful, but his powers of observation
and eye for descriptive detail are first-rate. (Alas, most of the
description is lavished on food rather than the enormous range of human
activity that VN brought into his fictional universe.) Lanchester has
built his novel on a device much used by Nabokov (and many others): a mad
narrator relates his autobiography while dropping odds and ends that
gradually reveal a very different (and grotesque) personal history. At
times Tarquin sounds very like VN's solipsistic heroes. His
graceful harangue on the meaninglessness of "facts" in understanding life
is very Sebastian Knightish. He dismisses wars, assassinations, early
sexual experiences, etc. as irrelevant to the interior life of the artist:

"I am [he says] more interested in the things I cannot remember,
in absences, elisions, vacuities, negativities, voids, aporiae,
nothingness. My own consciousness of my own artistic vocation came to me
in one such moment, when I took a papier-mache model my brother had made
of an elephant, trunk erect and unconvincing mahout and all, and rode my
tricycle backwards and forwards over it."
[Interviewer] "When was that?"
"I'm not sure--I don't remember precisely. About a quarter to
four, I think. Certainly before teatime. That's when my act was
discovered. I am misunderstanding your question on purpose to make a
point." (p. 212)

Tarquin's hyper-aestheticism finally proves to be a proffered
justification for serial murder. It is a reductio ad absurdum.
If THE DEBT TO PLEASURE has a moral, it is a very Nabokovian one: that
true art (unlike Tarquin's "pure" aestheticism) is not solipsistic and
never divorced from human values. Although the term "Nabokovian" will
remain forever murky when applied to new novels, it seem safe to say that
Lanchester's amusing book would have been quite different had
LOLITA and RLSK never been written.

D. Barton Johnson
Department of Germanic, Slavic and Semitic Studies
Phelps Hall
University of California at Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Phone and Fax: (805) 687-1825
Home Phone: (805) 682-4618