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Reviewed by:
  • Literary Gastronomy
  • Alison Armstrong
David Bevan. Literary Gastronomy. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988. 113 pp. No price given.

Literary gastronomy has become a fertile field for critical commentary. This selection of essays analyzes the function of food, eating, and digestion in the fiction of over a dozen modern authors from various Western cultures. Whether as clear as consommé or dense as stew, these essays provide a semiological fare seasoned by various critical perspectives: Freudian, feminist, Jungian, structuralist, and focus on various social bodies: politic, psycho-sexual, anthropological, ontological as extensions of the body which necessarily eats and digests. Bevan, in the final essay, sees Tournier's Crusoe as posing "the question of human relationships . . . devouring ourselves or devouring each other."

Cannibalism is the concern in several essays. Eira Patnaik in "The Succulent Gender: Eat Her Softly" analyzes woman-as-food in several novels including Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman (containing an episode vaguely reminiscent of Marinetti's marzipan woman in "A Meal that Prevents a Suicide"). Roy Boland, in "Freudian Gastronomy in Mario Vargas Llosa's La ciudad y los perros," examines Oedipal raping and devouring of a totem animal. Food/gender connections, dealt with in these two essays, are also examined in Mary Ann Schofield's "Culinary Revelations: Self-Exploration and Food in Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel," in which change of diet and attitude toward food preparation and gender-determined roles brings self-recognition. Sanford Ames examines male addictive excess in "Fast Food/Quick Lunch: Crews, Burroughs and Pynchon."

Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), father of international literary gastronomy, said: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are." We are also defined by how we consume, how hunger is stimulated and gratified. George Bauer, in "Eating Out: With Barthes," explores the semiology of figs as "biographeme" of temptation.

"Eating is our earliest metaphor," Margaret Atwood reminds us in "Introducing The CanLit [Canadian Literature] Foodbook." After the primary act, associations: consummation, communion, cannibalism, poisoning, nurturing, and other implications, both grotesque and uplifting. Noel Thomas' "Food Poisoning, Cooking and Historiography in the Works of Gunther Grass" reveals ironic parodies of the communion reflecting spiritual degeneracy in World War Two Germany (The Tin Drum) and in all history (The Flounder). Bettina Knapp's essay "Virginia Woolf's 'Boeuf en Daube,'" sees Mrs. Ramsay's dinner party as a communion, a numinous moment in which she experiences harmony, balance and transcendent love from contemplation of a dish of fruit, the ritual lighting of dinner table candles preparatory to serving the main course: "Woolf created-to use Cezanne's phrase—'a union of the universe and the individual.'" Union, positive in To the Lighthouse, is shown in other literature discussed here to be an adversarial connection based upon appropriating the world in symbolic acts: communion, a mixture of desire and enforced sacrifice from which a parody of redemption may result, as in Lu Renders' "J. M. Coetzee's Michael K.: Starving in a Land of Plenty," which posits that "a possible alternative to domination and war"— [End Page 863] cultivating the land and eating the fruits of one's own labor—may not satisfy basic hunger in an all-devouring society.

Alison Armstrong
The Cooper Union


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