For “professional” reasons I’ve been rereading Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History. She has a new book coming out this autumn The Goldfinch. Actually, it’s so long since I first read The Secret History, that I often felt as though I was reading it for the first time. I certainly remembered that the characters, a bunch of decadent classics students, did heroic amounts of drinking, and Tartt’s descriptions of hangovers are so powerful they can make you feel queasy even when you’re otherwise feeling right as rain. And I did remember a certain amount of fine dining, but I’d never realized how sandwich-positive the book is.
Characters regularly order sandwiches in bars and at lunch counters, which comes well within the bounds of naturalism, but sandwiches somehow do seem to have a more than naturalistic significance:
“While the twins played cards at one end of the table, and Henry worked at the other, Francis sat curled in the window seat with a plate of little sandwiches in his lap, reading, in French, the Memoires of the Due de Saint-Simon … Bunny lay on his stomach on the hearth rug, doing his homework; occasionally he would steal one of Francis's sandwiches ... ” Yes, Bunny is a bad lot.
The twins referred to above are Charles and Camilla (yes really, prophetic I guess), who indulge in incest, and favor cream cheese and marmalade sandwiches, and I really do think there’s meant to be some correlation between transgressive sex and putting odd fillings between slices of bread; although cream cheese and marmalade doesn't strike me as really all THAT odd.
But most crucially of all, a grilled cheese sandwich features at the heart of the plot. These young classicists are trying to arrange a Bacchanalia for themselves. Preparations involve various purification rituals, including a three day fast. Bunny is seen eating a grilled cheese sandwich and is therefore excluded from the festivities, which sets a large chunk of narrative in motion.
Well, I don’t want to make too much of this, but the fact is, Tartt does choose to make the offending food a sandwich, not a slice of pizza, not mac and cheese. And yes, there is something absurd and comical about a Bacchanalia being sabotaged by the eating of a sandwich, it’s easy to think of far more absurd and comical foods; pork pies, kebabs, Fruit Loops ...
Then I found an interview with Donna Tartt in which she says, "Actually, my very favourite things are books. Certainly I didn't give a hoot about shoes when I was a child, or about food either - would have lived off olive sandwiches, if I'd been allowed.”
Now, I know I had a deprived childhood, but I don’t think I even knew what an olive was, and certainly hadn’t tasted one, until I left home and went to college (yes, I was making my own bid for decadence). In any case I’m inclined to think that a child who wants to live on olive sandwiches isn’t exactly someone who doesn’t give a hoot about food, but rather a child of remarkable and fascinating sensibilities. I would have expected nothing else from Donna Tartt. Just another reason to love her. Here she is apparently miming the shape of a giant sandwich.