Ending the century, Lauris Edmond

Fête Accomplie a New Zealander’s Culinary Romance 
Peta Mathias
Random House, $24.95,
ISBN 1869412486

Here is a test. Do you order your dinner in a restaurant in the French of the menu or do you use the small print translation that follows? Do you talk casually of nouvelle cuisine? (Do you know what nouvelle cuisine is?) Do you allow the names of philosophers like Nietzche whose works you’ve read, or appear to have read, to drop into your conversation? (Do you believe that Nietzche is a philosopher? And does it matter?) Do you believe that art for art’s sake is a true and beautiful idea, whereas art for morality’s sake is vulgar, old hat and worst of all uncool?

Take these questions carefully. The answers may inescapably prove whether or not you belong in the 1990s, and more especially among the aristocrats of the age, those who have divined its true quality. There’s some sort of terrifying fascination about the number 9, particularly as it applies to time, to years, to decades, occasionally to centuries and even more rarely to millennia. The world may end, hurry up, try everything, and quickly too ‑ probably superficially, but that’s of no importance. Indeed superficiality is of the essence. You might say that a 90s decade exists for this, to institutionalise superficiality.

The last one ‑ the 1890s, that is ‑ certainly introduced the idea that there could be profession of pleasure. Oscar Wilde, one of its high priests, described himself as an apostle of pleasure, a professor of aesthetic. “The mind of a thoroughly, well‑informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bricàbrac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value,” he said.

Wilde is so quotable, on this as on most other subject, that it is tempting (“I do everything with temptation except resist it”) to examine his period, its tastes and habits, entirely through his aphorisms. “I want to make of my life itself a work of art. I know the price of a fine verse but also of a rose, or a vintage wine, of a colourful tie, of a delicate dish.” Peta Mathias would agree. She tells us in Fête Accomplie of a life lived according to the most exquisite principles. She would pass my test.

Her world of “love and gastronomy” is, naturally and necessarily, to be found in France. “The French restaurant kitchen is unique in its capacity to provide succour to the intellect and gastronomically curious … conversations ranging from discussing Nietzche to finding the ingredients of a sauce …” Only here could she escape the “parched New Zealand mentality” (of the 80s) into “stimulating conversation” in a Parisian restaurant where food, to those preparing it, became “art, philosophy, pleasure and health”, not to mention “sex, harmony, beauty, excess”.

But this is just a beginning. Before long she is “seated at Hemingway’s table at the Closerie des Lilas bar in Montparnasse, sipping Turkish coffee and telling lies with my friends”.

The other 90s, or its sworn votaries, French and English, had many ways of describing their adoration of style; it was aestheticism, it was the worship of beauty, the discovery of the “ecstasy of the cultivated senses” (that’s Pater, another of its high priests), the “surrender to sensation” (Kierkegaarde). It was also “the Decadence”. Nothing was real, the mask to be preferred absolutely to the substance ‑ which tiresome people thought of as reality. “As for living, our servants will do that for us,” said Villais de l’Isle. London and Paris were very close, the language of French symbolism and the English aesthetes the same. “The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer” (Wilde again).

One of the ways in which Peta Mathias’s book beautifully fits into this century‑old ‑ yet miraculously modern ‑ model is in her analysis of her marriage. A playful affair, marvellously dressed up for, a triumph of style, unalloyed by conventional eruptions like tears and kisses, or indeed by emotion of any kind, except the familiar delight in abandonment to the mood of the moment. “Unlike ethical man, aesthetic man is … caught up in a succession of moods, to each of which he surrenders wholly … he moves from sensation to sensation…” (Kierkegaarde).

“The proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding,” said Wilde. Peta Mathias enacts the principle to perfection. Her two partners are by definition disengaged from the ceremony and the marriage; both have other lovers, he is gay. It is pure convenience. The bride, wearing a black designer dress, travels by metro from Montparnasse to Saint Sulpice; the wedding party is a Fellini-esque scene in which the guests include ancient Russian princesses, artist, diplomats, chefs, babies, dogs. The bride “danced with every man in the room except my husband ‑ no one knew who the groom was”, while two dogs, encouraged by an enthusiastic guest, copulate under a tree in the garden.

Oscar would have loved it. At the end the bride and groom “retired with our respective boyfriends to our respective dwellings to count our presents”. It’s pure Decadence ‑which, according to A E Rodway, was “psychologically the most necessary manifestation of the decade” (the 1890s). He goes on to distinguish between those who were findesiècle and the more pedestrian persons who were merely end‑of‑century.

We might do the same. If you agree that people who make industrially fabricated breads and pastries “ought to be hounded into the deepest recesses of dark caves, there to reflect on their criminal activity”, as Peta Mathias says, you’re clearly findesiècle. Likewise if you are truly inspired by salade nordique with rollmops, smoked haddock, apple balls and sour cream, house‑smoked duck breast thinly sliced with slivers of foie gras on a pyramid of mixed salad greens, mackerel rilettes, crab and fish mousse with beurre blanc.

On the other hand you may not lust after “paseis (spicy meat‑filled pastries), bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod fritters), stuffed grilled crabs, quibe (cracked wheat, beef and mint fritters), and acarajes (white bean and dried shrimp balls)”. And maybe you don’t even care? Sorry, you’re being a bore now darling. End-of-century for you.

Lauris Edmond is a Wellington poet.

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