Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Children’s Book by AS Byatt

Not unlike a traveller wandering through a dry county looking for a pub, I frequently find myself reading a book with an eye out for references to drink in the text. The Children’s Book is exceptionally dry, and about the size of a county as well, but even this high density literary work slips in for a metaphorical quick one at least once.

One of the novel’s main characters is a young man named Phillip, discovered sketching in the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum in London. He has walked all the way there from the Midlands, determined to better himself. He gains an apprenticeship with Benedict Fludd, a genius potter who bears more than a passing resemblance to the disgusting Eric Gill.

On a visit to Paris to the Exposition Universelle in 1900, Philip and Fludd spot Rodin’s Crouching Woman amongst the works on show. This seems to stir something in Fludd’s deranged imagination and he later suggests an evening out to Philip, then promptly takes him to a brothel he knows in the French capital. That most erotic of drinks, champagne, is produced:

There was a confusion of smells – orris root, which Philip had never met and found sickly, attar of roses, wine, cigarette smoke and an undertone of human bodily odours. He made out faces through drifts of smoke, faces weary, faces laughing, faces middle-aged and faces very young. The fully and fashionably dressed lady of the house hurried forwards to welcome Benedict Fludd. Champagne was brought, and Philip, now sitting gingerly on a sofa facing a watchful row of ladies, had his first taste of it. It steadied him. He was excited and afraid. More champagne was brought. He was studied and discussed in incomprehensible French... He remembered the Crouching Woman, and primitive desire stirred in him. He drank more champagne and looked at the women.

Philip is sent off with a young lady called Rose. He hasn’t a clue what he’s supposed to be doing. Champagne to the rescue!

She began to teach him the parts of the body, in her language, pouring him more champagne, dabbing his fingers and chin and eyes with it, naming them in French and licking away the champagne.

And so on...

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