I don’t know how you were all brought up, but in my family it was considered impolite to read at table when you weren’t the only person sitting at it. The only relaxation of this rule was breakfast, when it was fine to read the newspapers because no one really had any inclination to talk, or indeed that much to say, that early in the morning. When I married Mister Litlove, I was silently appalled to find him quite incapable of sitting and eating with his attention on the meal, if printed matter lurked within arm’s radius. He would read anything, his book, the paper, mail, magazines, the sides of cereal packets, if it happened to be visible and available. I was scandalized, and more than a bit hurt, and Mister Litlove does try to remember to put his book away these days – although the lure of an active television screen is beyond his power to ignore.
In How to Read Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster explores the meal in literature and suggests that ‘whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion’. Not necessarily communion in the religious sense, but ‘another way of saying, “I’m with you, I like you, we form a community together.”’ The examples he chooses to illustrate this point include Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, when Tom and a lady friend dine messily and sensually, in an unholy but potent expression of desire for communion, and Raymond Carver’s story ‘Cathedral’, in which a shared meal helps the prejudiced narrator overcome his initial distrust of a blind stranger. Sharing your food, Foster suggests, delivers an ‘overwhelming message of loyalty, kinship and generosity’, and that’s why meals in literature can always be read as symbolically commenting on the protagonists’ ability to get along with one another.
Now, Mr. Foster is right, as far as he goes. And if we look back at the example of Mister Litlove and I, we can see that the meal interrupted by external kinds of entertainment is indeed a meal jolted out of its communal framework. But the whole problem with this book is that it never goes far enough. I really feel for the author of this work as I swear he had an editor breathing down his neck the whole time saying: ‘for crying out loud, keep it simple! No one wants your fancy literary critical stuff. Just talk about what the general reader can understand.’ But my understanding of reading like a professor is to open up a book, a plotline, a scene, as far as you possibly can, to push your reading until you cover every detail and angle and nuance. To be attentive to the specificity of a passage, rather than to slap an interpretative label on it and walk away. So if that disturbed meal Mister Litlove and I were sharing was to appear in print, we’d instantly take one step further in the reading of it, and recognize that what was painful was not the interrupted communion itself, but the fact that we so clearly possessed different understandings of what constituted communion in the first place. And from that, we could deduce a fair amount about our different characters. We could see that I was a sensitive, noticing type, who believed in paying attention but probably at some cost of personal resources, and that he was a more laid-back but inattentive individual, free from the need to feel responsible for the emotional contentment of others. (And tune in again to The Litlove Saga! 2pm weekdays on satellite TV. Next episode: Will the surprise arrival of Litlove’s estranged identical twin pose Mister Litlove with an impossible dilemma?)
Meals in stories, then, do indeed tell us a great deal about the relationships of characters to one another, and also to their own desires – how hungry are the characters, and for what? Food is love, that’s a basic rule of humanity, so what kind of love do our characters get and give through their eating habits? Are they offering love to each other, or some kind of substitute for it, and how is it being received? Are we watching a private relation unfold, determined by just the people involved, or are we witnessing a universal attitude? For we could stretch this out a lot further, in that food tells us masses about our relation to our culture. If you read a French novel with a meal in it, you’ll see different attitudes emerging. France closes for three hours over the middle of the day while lunch is being eaten – food is that important in French society. And the meal itself is always a work of art, whether it’s served with rustic simplicity, bread, cheese, a carafe of red wine, or whether it’s a gastronomic performance in a plush Parisian restaurant, the perspective is one of aesthetic appreciation. Eating is a form of artistic and sensual appreciation.
In British literature, by comparison, food was atrocious for most of the twentieth century, thanks to wartime rationing, and so the literary meal is much focused on family and friends coming together. Except of course this is usually to stage a huge row or act of rebellion (bad food probably promoting bad tempers). Teenagers and young men regularly storm out of meals, women prepare food with glassy-eyed medicated hatred in their hearts for their domestic oppression, lonely widows pick at inadequate meals that symbolize uncontainable sorrow. There’s a lot of emoting goes on through food in British literature, perhaps because we tend to be emotionally constipated at most other social encounters. In fact wherever your book takes you in the world, the meal will inform you richly about that society’s traditions and customs, and how their characters relate to them. The thing is to be attentive to difference, to compare the significance set by Islamic women, for example, with regard to the correct preparation and presentation of food, to the modern day Western woman who will snatch half a sandwich at her office desk. What does this tell us about the value the characters set on nurturing themselves? On preserving their communities? On being attentive to their work/life balance? On opening themselves to the sensual beauty of the natural world? On simple pleasures? On satisfying their more complex desires?
Eating a meal in a literary text is indeed an example of people coming together with an eye to communal harmony, but it’s a great deal more than that. It tells us about the characters’ relationship to the way that things are changing in society, and thus to rules and regulations (table manners are always a good, minor indication of this), to their class (nouveau cuisine, anyone, or a burger in a bun?), to pride and pretension, to generosity and nurture. Because eating a meal is the moment when public and private collide, where hidden desires are played out in a performative manner, where upbringing rubs up dangerously close to the person the protagonist is now trying to be. Gender politics are involved (who cooks? Do the ladies leave the men at table with their port to discuss world affairs?), race is involved (who serves at table – and are they adequately fed themselves?), power relations structure every mouthful, from hosts who press excess booze on their guests, to anorexics who refuse every forkful they are given. Yes, meals are absolutely dripping with meaning, and the difficulty is in finding one that would ‘only’ be a meal, where nothing much is happening at all.
So that’s literary criticism – all the things you might notice going on in a text, without getting yourself personally involved. I’ve gone on for quite long enough here, so I’ll come back to this personal side of reading on another occasion, as it’s something I want to explore, too.