Jan 4 2017

La Dolce Vida: Novelists on American versus French Food in the 1930s

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

La Dolce Vida: Novelists on American versus French Food in the 1930s

First, from George Orwell (1903-1950):

Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it….[1]

According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hôtel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English–no French–and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not…. [2]

While the Frenchman ate, the patron’s wife stood behind the grille of the kitchen door and watched the expression of his face. Next night the Frenchman came back with two other Frenchmen. This meant that we were earning a good name; the surest sign of a bad restaurant is to be frequented only by foreigners. Probably part of the reason for our success was that the patron, with the sole gleam of sense he had shown in fitting out the restaurant, had bought very sharp table-knives. Sharp knives, of course, are the secret of a successful restaurant. I am glad that this happened, for it destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that Frenchmen know good food when they see it. Or perhaps we were a fairly good restaurant by Paris standards; in which case the bad ones must be past imagining. [3]

And from Henry Miller (1891-1981):

The only place to find a good loaf of bread is in the ghettos. Wherever there is a foreign quarter there is apt to be good bread. Wherever there is a Jewish grocer or delicatessen you are almost certain to find an excellent loaf of bread. The dark Russian bread light in weight, found only rarely on this huge continent, is the best bread of all. No vitamins have been injected into it by laboratory specialists in conformance with the latest food regulations…. [4]

Another fact…. Food, when it is not enjoyed, kills. The best diet in the world is useless if the patient has no appetite, no gusto, no sensuality. On the whole, Americans eat without pleasure…. [5]

We throw bones to the dogs and eat the dogs instead of the bones…. [6]

Americans can eat garbage, provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, or any other condiment which destroys the original flavor of the dish. On the other hand, olive oil which the French eschew when preparing salads because it has too strong a flavor, Americans hardly ever use in their salads. [7]


[1] Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London. 1930. XIV.

[2] Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London XIV.

[3] Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London XXI.

[4] Miller, Henry. The Intimate Henry Miller. 1939. Signet Book. April 1959.  p. 71.

[5] Miller, The Intimate Henry Miller 74.

[6] Miller, The Intimate Henry Miller 76.

[7] Miller, The Intimate Henry Miller 78.


May 14 2016

Commentary on Proust – No. 1

bookbread Canterbury

Commentary on Proust – No. 1

Because my bookclub is reading Proust this month, I thought I would start posting some portions of my notes. Let’s start with what other artists and critics have had to say:

Paul Valéry in 1913:

For every man, and from the same materials, several ‘personalities’ are possible. Sometimes coexisting, more or less equally.––Sometimes a childish personality re-emerges during one’s forties. You think you’re the same. There is no same.

We believe that we might, from childhood, have become a different person, lived a different life––We picture ourself being quite different. But the possibility of re-grouping the same elements in several different ways still remains––this calls into question how we see time. There’s no lost, past time, as long as these other persons are possible.[1]

J. Murray in 1926:

What Proust aims at is a mental reconstruction of his past. He tries to recapture all the forgotten sensations that constitute his past life. In this ‘novel of memory,’ as his work has been called, the greatest innovation is Proust’s conception of memory itself. He maintains that, in reconstituting the past, it is not conscious memory but involuntary memory that is the most important factor. It is not the things we have always remembered of the past that keep the past alive in us, it is the things which, having been completely forgotten, are recalled in all their original vividness by some trivial sensation, and not by an act of the intelligence at all….[2]

If we can only recapture the past by recapturing the actual sensation belonging to it, Proust concludes that our past joys and griefs are not always in our possession. But if by any chance we are brought into contact with the whole framework of sensations in which our past joys and sorrows are stored away, then these past sensations can again exercise a great power over us, because for the time being they instal [sic.] within us, as it were, the being we were at the time when they first affected us….[3]

Proust reduces love at most to a mere series of ‘intermittences’ of the heart. He regards it as something relative, and denies its existence as an absolute reality. It is only because we are forgetful or ignorant of the extent to which we are creatures of change that the illusion of love is possible. [4]

Henry Miller in 1934:

I find myself in a world so natural, so complete, that I am lost. I have the sensation of being immersed in the very plexus of life, focal from whatever place, position or attitude I take my stance. Lost as when once I sank into the quick of a budding grove and seated in the dining room of that enormous world of Balbec, I caught for the first time the profound meaning of those interior stills which manifest their presence through the exorcism of sight and touch. Standing on the threshold of that world which Matisse has created I re-experienced the power of that revelation which had permitted Proust to so deform the picture of life that only those who, like himself, are sensible to the alchemy of sound and sense, are capable of transforming the negative reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art. [5]



[1] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1913. N 13, V, 92.) [p. 329].

[2] Murray, J. “Marcel Proust.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (January 1926.) 34–43 at 38.

[3] Murray, “Marcel Proust” 40.

[4] Murray, “Marcel Proust” 40–41.

[5] Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. VIII, 162–63.


May 12 2016

The Prose of Paris: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” versus Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”


The Prose of Paris: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” versus Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”

“Hug me till you drug me, honey.”

––Huxley, Brave New World (1934)[1]

Is Michel Houellebecq’s Sounmission (Submission) (2015) merely a re-writing of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934)? Do these mannish novels, separated by nearly ninety years, bear any family resemblances? One can say, at the very least, that while Miller turned to surrealism in order to cope with the pains of his reality, Houellebecq opted for satire to understand the surrealism plaguing his reality.

One of the theses of Houellebecq’s narrator is the fact that modern citizens of Western civilization don’t fear death—they fear suffering:

People don’t really care all that much about their own death. What they really worry about, their one real fixation, is how to avoid physical suffering as much as possible. [2]

To condition the mind to cope with death, Westerners have resorted to, among other things, music, drugs, sex, and religion. And, most of the time, as Miller’s narrator observes, none of these actions or options remains satisfactory:

Impossible to dream even when the music itself is nothing but a dream…. There is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama.[3]

The “illusion of truth” inhibits one from encountering the truth.[4] The illusion of truth inhibits all experience. This idea is further explored in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a.k.a. Blade Runner (1968):

Out in what had been before the war the suburbs, one could find buildings entirely empty … or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.[5]

Is it too absolute, too definite, to suggest that doubt is the midpoint between dream and experience?

Much of Dick’s Electric Sheep is a rewriting of Huxley’s Brave New World (1931). In fact, Dick’s fiction has been conditioned by Huxley’s. From the latter:

It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge…. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” [6]

Oh untimely death![7] Oh inescapable conditioning! With Houellebecq the narrator’s conversion to Islam serves as the medium of his conditioning. In Dick’s book the profession of the character of Rick is that of a bounty hunter, and this––as well as the possibility that Rick may be an android implanted with false memories of being a bounty hunter––has conditioned him to prefer avoiding direct experience. In Huxley the soma pills inhibit the experiences had by the novel’s characters, which is why they sing things like: “hug me till you drug me, honey.” And in Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry (1927), the conditioning comes via the American brand of evangelical Christianity. It is a brand that strives to bring happiness to the sick rather than healing, but this happiness is just another “illusion of truth” that inhibits experience:

“Can you think of anything finer for a big husky like you than to spend his life bringing poor, weak, sick, scared folks to happiness? Can’t you see how the poor little skinny guys and all the kiddies would follow you and praise you and admire you, you old son of a gun?”

And in a later passage from Lewis:

It was not her eloquence but her healing of the sick which raised Sharon to such eminence that she promised to become the most renowned evangelist in America. People were tired of eloquence; and the whole evangelist business was limited, since even the most ardent were not likely to be saved more than three or four times. But they could be healed constantly, and of the same disease.[8]

Huxley, Houellebecq, and Lewis all use satire to tell their tales, while Dick and Miller, whose texts are not without their moments of comic relief, are for the most part, utterly serious with their styles of storytelling.



[1] Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006. XIII, p. 193.

[2] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 230.

[3] Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. pp.70, 87–88.

[4] I suspect Miller’s “illusion of truth” is akin to Nietzsche’s “seduction of language,” (Genealogy I, 13).

[5] Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. NY: Delrey Books. 2007. I, 3.

[6] Huxley, Brave New World XII, 177; I, 16.

[7] Shakespeare, King Lear, IV, vi, 239.

[8] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter III,” 39–40; “Chapter XV,” 212.


Feb 5 2010

Occupied with Occupations

In a Jan. 29, 2010 column of the London Telegraph, “When Fiction Breaks Down,” John Lanchester argues that readers rarely come across a story that focuses on a character’s occupation because modern jobs are too complicated for novel readers and their writers.

Initially this sounds absurd, but as an American, Bookbread often misses implied or understated references to the institutional caste-class-clashes of merry ole England. Perhaps there is sense to be made of Lanchester assuming the majority of modern day workers engage in their productivity via complicated, non-novelistic jobs.

But just because Lanchester reduces readers of novels to crass careerists (unworthy of mention in fictional long form) doesn’t imply that twenty-first century writers should delve into the peasant’s trough to discover and recover the details of homesteading, as younger readers encounter in the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, Bookbread must countercheck and ask: Aren’t most of today’s jobs uncomplicated, boring, tedious—all the things a writer tries to avoid in his or her writing—and that one of the principle responsibilities of novelists is to enchant the reader by escaping that boredom?

In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov observes:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. . . .The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.”

Yes, sometimes such enchanting requires fantasy and absurdity peppered with philosophy, but that doesn’t mean novelists should omit writing about the occupations of characters that readers can then relate to. Otherwise there would be no need to read about the surveyor’s inability to measure in Kafka’s The Castle (1926), nor The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and Hemingway’s focus on Cuban fishermen, nor the duties of butlering described in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989).

Bookbread was not the first to recognize that nobody works for a living in Ulysses (1922), but because Lanchester’s entire exordium waxes nostalgic—how writers don’t have real bosses—readers quickly conclude the rest of the article contains little beyond remembrances of literary things past, things that really have no relevance to current and would-be twenty-first century writers or their readers.

Lanchester, however, does preach a bit of literary gospel when he explains:

The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad—but it does have to feel true. It has to generate a world of its own and create a satisfying internal order within that world, on that world’s own, mysterious, innate terms.

Alas, Lanchester tries (and fails) to create a formula via Venetian voodoo:

Freud said that the two criteria of mental health were the ability to love and to work. The first of those impulses is amply chronicled in the world of fiction—indeed, exhaustively so, since there are shelves and shelves of books that are essentially all about love. The world of work barely features.


D.G. Myers’s “Sex and the Novel” on A Commonplace Blog goes completely against Lanchester’s Freudian formulation, claiming that when it comes to sex:

Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas.

Myers then creates his own formula in a follow up:

The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The issue concerns what (if any) ideas have been conjured by the word “sex” in a context of twentieth-century English language fiction.  Perhaps (like work) sex in the twenty-first century is something too inane or complicated for novel readers and writers to expose themselves to.

Being that Bookbread comes from the Miller/Mailer school, the question beckons:  Who are we to blame for “genital friction”?  Freud?  Joyce?  Henry Miller?  Bookbread want a scapegoat for the novelistic proliferation of belly slapping.

In other readings:  An essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” Jennifer Schuessler of Sunday New York Times Book Review provides a recent example of a novelist writing about occupations, and becoming bored:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro: “He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and ID number. . . .”

Whatever to make Wallace, at least Schuessler gets it right in her conclusion:

After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more interesting ones?

NYR: Franz Kafka, The Castle / David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982). pp. 5–6