Thursday, 10 December 2009

A Partial Indulgence by Stephanie Theobald

A phantasmagoria of excess and high-art, Theobald’s novel is a riot of indulgence, from food, to sex, to good painting, and of course, alcohol.

High society art dealer Charles Frederick de Vere leads a life of debauchery and opulence but his extravagant existence is quickly unravelling, haunted by his shady past and the death of his lover. As he slowly descends into his own personal hell, his former companions; Boston tough-cookie Carmen and wild spirit Cosima, niece of his childhood friend Ellsworth, drift in purgatory styled as a country home, soaking up ‘pre-meds’ that taste of red wine.

Freddy’s first meetings with Cosima are at Ellsworth’s country pile where the talented artist is knocking out forgeries for the London market. He cooks her eggs and caviar while tantalising her with the French dish of Ortolan:

“Tiny song birds from France. Illegal to eat. You lock them in a box, gorge them on figs and then drown them in Armagnac... You’re supposed to put a cloth over your head when you eat them. To keep in the fumes.” He drinks. “But mostly to hide yourself from the eyes of God.”

However Cosima and Ellsworth are now long dead and Carmen looks set to join them. The increasingly spooked de Vere looks back on his life and his school days with Ellsworth, who appeared one night with a bottle of claret looted from his father’s cellar:

He was holding a bottle of wine. On the label I could see a large letter ‘V’, a golden laurel and the words: Mouton Rothschild 1945 – L’Année de la Victoire. “They blather on about Château Petrus,” he said, starting to open the bottle, “But the day before I go to hell I shall drown my sorrows in a bottle of Mouton ’45.” When he’d pulled the cork out he smelled it. “Still a trace of death,” he said, tossing it into the fire.

The wine leaves a bad taste in Freddy's mouth:

My stupor at the richness of the taste was heightened by the fact that there was something almost disgusting about the wine. “Horrible, isn’t it,” Ellsworth said, his eyes filled with glee. “Funny that they call it victory wine,” I observed. “Why funny?” He frowned. “Why should victory be a pleasant flavour?”

Why indeed? Ellsworth’s penultimate act is to open a bottle of Mouton ’45 on the night he commits suicide...

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