Tuesday, April 15

Black Feasts

A few days ago, I linked to an awesome photo Joris-Karl Huysmans, describing him as "the French writer of a 'novel' with only one character and no plot." This novel was A rebours, published in 1884. In the following excerpt, the sole character's early extravagances are described.

Des Esseintes acquired the reputation of an eccentric, which he enhanced by giving famous dinners to men of letters, one of which was a funeral repast.

In the dining room, hung in black and opening on the transformed garden with its ash-powdered walks, its little pool now bordered with basalt and filled with ink, its clumps of cypresses and pines, the dinner had been served on a table draped in black, adorned with baskets of violets and scabiouses, lit by candelabra from which green flames blazed, and by chandeliers from which wax tapers flared.

To the sound of funeral marches played by a concealed orchestra, nude negresses, wearing slippers and stockings of silver cloth with patterns of tears, served the guests.

Out of black-edged plates they had drunk turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, smoked Frankfort black pudding, game with sauces that were the color of licorice and blacking, truffle gravy, chocolate cream, puddings, nectarines, grape preserves, mulberries and black-heart cherries; they had sipped, out of dark glasses, wines from Limagne, Roussillon, Tenedos, Val de Penas and Porto, and after the coffee and walnut brandy had partaken of kvas and porter and stout.

The invitation cards were designed like bereavement notices.


However, if you decide to recreate this black feast, note that it didn't go well for Tarquin Winot, the narrator of John Lanchester's 1997 novel The Debt To Pleasure:

I told her, with that mixture of endearment and melancholy that attends the recitation of the follies of one's youth, about something I did once in what I used to call my aesthetic period. The idea, cribbed from Huysmans, was to serve a menu consisting entirely of black things. This occurred during my brief interval at university, whence I departed after two terms (the NOISE, dear, and the PEOPLE). My room, a banal heptagon in a banal heptagon-shaped building in one of the smarter Cambridge colleges, I had painted (slightly in violation of one or two of the more invasive college regulations) black. Bed, sheets, fittings, lamps, light bulbs--all black.

In my black room, dressed in black velvet, black silk cravat--no need to change the inherent color of the single orchid in my buttonhole--I would arrange for meals consisting entirely of black food: truffles grated over squid-ink pasta, followed by boudin noir on a bed of fried black radicchio. For desert, I wanted to emphasize the essential artificiality of the event, the fact that it was a celebration of art, whim, caprice, set over against the brutal facts of nature and death, so I served crème brûlée, dyed black. Naturally we drank Black Velvet.

Into this exquisite setting arrived my brother Bartholomew, an hour and a half late, in his overalls (in violation of the dress code I had specified) and saying:

"Bloody hell! Anybody dead?"

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