For a couple of centuries now, at least since the likes of Henry James and Dostoevsky, the literary world has been in the grasp of the psychological novel. All the major masterpieces since then have been, in some way or another, a psychology-centred work. Gone are the days of the adventure novels, of Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn, or the picaresque novel of Cervantes, and the world-encompassing epics of the 18th century. Literature, much like art, and indeed society, has shifted focus from the external to the internal.
People read novels, mostly, to peer into the heart of man, his deepest darkness, his secret space, his innermost flaws. And of course, this has its merit. Novels deal with people, humanity, and the private side of man is catapulted into the limelight by the novel form far more than in any other art. But has the modern novel become too obsessed by the private and not enough by the public?
Modern life is more public than ever before. We rarely get any time for true isolation. Even when we are alone we connect to social media, our phones, online games, and so on. It’s almost as if we are terrified of our own company. We constantly need to be told what to do, even when alone. These are hold-my-hand times. But there is an argument to be made about the relationship between the public and the private. Or, to put it more broadly, the external and the internal.
We are all islands. No matter what the dictum says. But the reality is we spend most of our times on continents. So our inner troubles, pleasures, desires, have to accommodate themselves to the external, the outside, loud, intrusive world. Our private thoughts (I’m resisting the temptation to say ‘soul’ at this point!) directly influence how we interact with the external. And as novelists, we should look into this, arguably psychological, point; observe how man’s soul (shit!) influences his behaviour. And vice versa.
Unlike in the case of Intelligent Design in schools – we should give equal time! One does not preclude the other. We spend too much time in the external world to justifiably ignore it in favour of the exclusively psychological.
Naturally the two are not mutually exclusive. But bloody hell – the world is a beautiful place! And equally horrible. You can’t tell me there are as many things going on in the world as there are inside your head! Who among us has a Syria or a Taj Mahal inside their minds?
When I was growing up the novels I read elicited in me a fascination with the world outside me. Who I was was my own problem. As a kid I read and re-read The Jungle Book, imbibing me with a lifelong enchantment with nature, tigers, India and its colonial history. Don’t ask me to remember how Mowgli felt about it all. I just wanted to be him!
Later on I read Hemingway, Conrad, Greene; novelists who take you all over the world, show you exciting, dreadful things, how people live and die, and how, yes, the uber-public, the powers that be, crush the individual mind.
Novels formed me not merely in expanding the empathic capability of my mind, allowing me into the hearts, desires and passions of other men, fictional, though shadows of their creators. It gave me a hunger, a curiosity for the world, its food, its drink, its feasts, its troubles and its stories. In a word, it made me hunger for the superficialities.
Don’t let’s focus too much on who a person is, lest we ignore what it is that person loves, eats, desires, has seen, wants to see. Our desires help make us who we are, don’t they? Sounds like piffle. But true piffle.
And to un-piffle the point, to back it up, prove it, I’m writing a list of the good stuff that you find in many a great novel. Superficialities that jump out of the page and occupy the zeitgeist.
And know also, that as a writer, I am abandoning the purely psychological novel in favour of something more Baroque, more superficial, more blasé!
Jack Rose in The Sun Also Rises
“At five o’clock I was in the Hotel Crillon, waiting for Brett. She was not there, so I sat down and wrote some letters. They were not very good letters but I hoped their being on Crillon stationery would help them. Brett did not turn up, so about quarter to six I went down to the bar and had a Jack Rose with George the barman.”
Hemingway and cocktails, need I say more?
Daiquiri in Our Man In Havana
Wormold, the hapless vacuum-cleaner salesman-cum-spy liked his daiquiris in the morning:
“’I still don’t see…’ Wormold cooled his mouth with his morning daiquiri. Seven minutes to get to the Wonder Bar: seven minutes back to the store: six minutes for companionship.”
Mint Julep in The Great Gatsby
One of the most crucial scenes in this greatest of American classics takes place in a stuffy, hot hotel with lots of mint juleps:
“Open the whiskey, Tom, and I’ll make you a mint julep. Then you won’t seem so stupid to yourself….Look at the mint!”
Gin Rickey in The Great Gatsby
Come on, in a list like this Fitzgerald had to appear twice. What point am I trying to make again? To hell with it!
“Tom came back, preceding four gin rickeys that clicked full of ice. Gatsby took up his drink.
“They certainly look cool,” he said, with visible tension.
We drank in long, greedy swallows.”
“The Cheesy Symphony” (not a cocktail!) in Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris
Few people know and remember that the great naturalist, French writer Emile Zola was a greatly talented and passionate food writer. In his book The Belly of Paris he takes us on a working-class, sensory tour of Paris, describing the charcuteries, cheese-markets and food stalls of the great city. Here’s a beautifully-carved fragment from the novel that has come to be known as ‘The Cheese Symphony”:
“Beneath the stall show-table, formed of a slab of red marble veined with grey, baskets of eggs gleamed with a chalky whiteness; while on layers of straw in boxes were Bondons, placed end to end, and Gournays, arranged like medals, forming darker patches tinted with green. But it was upon the table that the cheeses appeared in greatest profusion. Here, by the side of the pound-rolls of butter lying on white-beet leaves, spread a gigantic Cantal cheese, cloven here and there as by an axe; then came a golden-hued Cheshire, and next a Gruyere, resembling a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot; whilst farther on were some Dutch cheeses, suggesting decapitated heads suffused with dry blood, and having all that hardness of skulls which in France has gained them the name of “death’s heads.” Amidst the heavy exhalations of these, a Parmesan set a spicy aroma. Then there came three Brie cheeses displayed on round platters, and looking like melancholy extinct moons.”
Oysters in A Moveable Feast
Yes. Hemingway again. Shoot me. Tell me this passage isn’t more exciting than a self-reflective, Proustian rant:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Fernet Branca in Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson
I’ll be honest I’m not entirely familiar with the novelist. But I am familiar with Fernet Branca. And this is a beautiful, lyrical, poetic, witty novel. Fernet Branca is none of that. It’s more. A syrupy, medicinal, grotesquely soothing liqueur.
“By then we had finished a bottle of Fernet Branca and even the electric light was beginning to have a brownish tinge.”
Cuban music in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love:
You’ve seen the movie, you’ve heard the song, but have you read the novel by Oscar Hijuelos? You should!
Bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon
“All supposed exterior signs of danger that a bull gives, such as pawing the ground, threatening with his horns, or bellowing are forms of bluffing. They are warnings given in order that combat may be avoided if possible. The truly brave bull gives no warning before he charges except the fixing of his eye on the enemy, the raising of the crest of muscle in his neck, the twitching of an ear, and, as he charges, the lifting of his tail.”
The Day of the Dead in Under the Volcano
Malcolm Lowry’s booze-addled, autobiographical, rambling romp in Mexico could be hailed for introducing mescal into the Western pantheon. But it is also memorable, poignant, in exploring the dark, endemic wonders of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
“Far above him a few white clouds were racing windily after a pale gibbous moon. Drink all morning, they said to him, drink all day. This is life!”