Monday, March 03, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Against the Grain

The previous week's discussion around the topic of potent and intoxicating liquors, Mortdecai makes the following observation. "Any drink which intrinsically mixes grape and grain (black velvet, dry martini, Pimms royale) is usually both interesting and highly damaging".

Just so. It is the dangerous allure of something that is so powerful that it can make our imagination, our wit and our passions run in different, possibly unchartered, and maybe even unhallowed territories that is one of the great things about really drinking. (It's also fun to breach pettifogging injunctions such as the bar on mixing grain and grape). Literature can have a similar, though less physical, effect and it's little surprise that the two go so well together. In which spirit, I urge you to consider this post a powerful and fascinating cocktail of literature and strong drink.

For starters, you might recognise the allusion in the title, Against the Grain being a good English approximation of the title of Huysmans's decadent classic À Rebours. In one brilliant passage, the hero Des Esseintes suggests a synaesthetic manner of drinking in which the tastes of certain drinks mirror the tones and sounds of instruments. He describes the effect of the mouth organ thus:

Dry curacao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its shrill, velvety note; kummel like the oboe, whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; creme de menthe and anisette like the flute, at one and the same time sweet and poignant, whining and soft. Then, to complete the orchestra, comes kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh outbursts of comets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the overwhelming crash of the tubas, while the thunder peals of the cymbals and the big drum, beaten might and main, are reproduced in the mouth by the rakis of Chios and the mastics.

He was convinced too that the same analogy might be pushed yet further, that quartettes of stringed instruments might be contrived to play upon the palatal arch, with the violin represented by old brandy, delicate and heady, biting and clean-toned; with the alto, simulated by rum, more robust, more rumbling, more heavy in tone; with vespetro, long-drawn, pathetic, as sad and tender as a violoncello; with the double-bass, full-bodied, solid and black as a fine, old bitter beer. One might even, if anxious to make a quintette, add yet another instrument,--the harp, mimicked with a sufficiently close approximation by the keen savour, the silvery note, clear and self-sufficing, of dry cumin…

These assumptions once granted, he had reached a stage, thanks to a long course of erudite experiments, when he could execute on his tongue a succession of voiceless melodies; noiseless funeral marches, solemn and stately; could hear in his mouth solos of crême de menthe, duets of vespetro and rum.

He even succeeded in transferring to his palate selections of real music, following the composer's motif step by step, rendering his thought, his effects, his shades of expression, by combinations and contrasts of allied liquors, by approximations and cunning mixtures of beverages. (Much more, here)

It captures precisely the violent strangeness that you'd go looking for in a good literary cocktail. A similar effect can be attained by Hemmingway's Death in the Afternoon (mentioned here previously) which mixes absinthe and champagne and, like its literary namesake, has all the passion, drama and danger of the bull ring. (A recipe for Death in the Afternoon, and other absinthe drinks may be found here).

Yet so far as I know there are few really potent mixtures which combine literature and intoxication in quite this way. (As opposed to cocktails which feature in literature). If you know of any, do let me know. In the meantime, we can take it as read that an À Rebours would be the summit of intoxication, but it hasn't been invented yet. Nor yet have the following literary works been turned into drinks. But they ought to be.

Vathek: William Beckford's Gothic, Orientalist fantasy offers the hellish, seductive nightmare of a dose of delirium tremens. Something evil and mysterious involving arak and green chartreuse would suit in this case.

The Bacchae: Never mind current worries about drunken, out of control women; a drink which captured the essence of Euripides's great Dionysian work would be sure to overshadow them. Imagine something which captured the taste the editor of the Daily Mail being torn limb from limb by ecstatic, vine-wreathed devotees of the god to the strains of unearthly harmonies.

The Third Policeman: a work as rich, and dark as stout and written by one of the great literary drinkers of the last century. Anything in which logic, order, reason, morality and the boundaries between life and death are blurred to such comic effect deserves a drink – probably something which includes a pint of plain.

The Isles of Greece: "Fill high the bowl with Samian wine! Our virgins dance beneath the shade – I see their glorious black eyes shine," capturing that in liquid form – with or without Samian wine – would take a particular type of genius.

So go on, knock yourselves out. What're you having?

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3 Comments:

Blogger Quink said...

I'll have a Psmith in the City, Comrade Dornan

7:39 am  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Based on your description, The Bacchae would have to be a combination of Lambrini and Bacardi, or possibly Malibu.

Puss

12:47 pm  
Anonymous Mortdecai said...

I think, given that I feel down trodden at the moment, a pint of plain might very well indeed be my only man...

Certainly if there's Lambrini, Bacardi or Malibu doing the rounds I'll stick to the plain.

2:23 pm  

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