Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Here's something to keep our one or two faithful readers interested; Fatima and I are both on tough deadlines but hope to be back soon.

It is somewhat de rigueur to be contemptuous about The Secret History, the story of a small set of students of ancient Greek who find it necessary to murder one of their classmates, but I am quite fond of it--it has its faults but attention to detail is not one of them. Food does not figure very prominently; the main characters eat (as Laurie Colwin said about someone else) like dyspeptic middle-aged Brits and are rather more prone to drink. But there is one plot point that revolves very pointedly around something that might be eaten.

Julian, of course, had made the lunch himself, and we ate at the big round table in his office. After weeks of bad nerves, bad conversation, and bad food in the dining hall, the prospect of a meal with him was immensely cheering; he was a charming companion and his dinners, though deceptively simple, had a sort of Augustan wholesomeness and luxuriance which never failed to soothe.

There was roasted lamb, new potatoes, peas with leeks and fennel; a rich and almost maddeningly delicious Château Latour. I was eating with better appetite than I had in ages when I noticed that a fourth course had appeared, with unobtrusive magic, at my elbow: mushrooms. They were pale and slender-stemmed, of a type I had seen before, steaming in a red wine sauce that smelled of coriander and rue.

"Where did you get these?" I said.

"Ah. You're quite observant," he said, pleased. "Aren't they marvelous? Quite rare. Henry brought them to me."

I took a quick swallow of my wine to hide my consternation.

"He tells me--may I?" he said nodding at the bowl.

I passed it to him, and he spooned some of them onto his plate. "Thank you," he said. "What was I saying? Oh, yes. Henry tells me that this particular sort of mushroom was a great favorite of the emperor Claudius. Interesting, because you remember how Claudius died."

I did remember. Agrippina had slipped a poisoned one into his dish one night.

"They're quite good," said Julian, taking a bite. "Have you gone with Henry on any of his collecting expeditions?"

"Not yet. He hasn't asked me to."

"I must say, I never thought I cared very much for mushrooms, but everything he's brought me has been heavenly."

Suddenly I understood. This was a clever piece of groundwork on Henry's part. "He's brought them to you before?" I said.

"Yes. Of course I wouldn't trust just anyone with this sort of thing, but Henry seems to know an amazing lot about it."

"I believe he probably does," I said, thinking of the boxer dogs.

"It's remarkable how good he is at anything he tries. He can grow flowers, repair clocks like a jeweler, add tremendous sums in his head. Even if it's something as simple as bandaging a cut finger he manages to do a better job of it." He poured himself another glass of wine. "I gather that his parents are disappointed that he's decided to concentrate so exclusively on the classics. I disagree, of course, but in a certain sense it is rather a pity. He would have made a great doctor, or soldier, or scientist."

I laughed. "Or a great spy," I said.

Julian laughed too. "All you boys would be excellent spies," he said. "Slipping about in casinos, eavesdropping on heads of state. Really, won't you try some of these mushrooms? They're glorious."

I drank the rest of my wine. "Why not," I said, and reached for the bowl.