On the fifth page of the forty-eighth section (or thereabouts) of a national newspaper, I find these words:
‘…under no circumstances, Berkoff warned, should one eat before going to the theatre. “Starve yourself,” he advised. “Go pure.” ‘
Berkoff (first name Stephen) is, of course, the bald-headed author, actor and director– famed in my part of the world for his adaptations of Franz Kafka (I’d have preferred to see him adapt Fritz Kakfa’s Super-Psychosis, but that’s a different story). In more recent times, I am informed, Berkoff has been busy writing a book about food, prompting the comment above; a comment which, in my stridently humble opinion, reeks like the garlic of good sense that it is. People really should take more interest in the manner in which they prepare for experiences of an artistic nature. I am not an avid theatre-goer, it must be said, but I think we can safely say that Berkoff’s words ring as true for books as they do for the stage.
Seeing as this is a subject on which I can, if only slightly nudged, bore like no other, I will try to be brief. It might be best, indeed, for me to direct your attentions to a book of essays written in 2002, where so many of my arguments are laid out at glorious length. Entitled Philip Larkin on a Full Stomach and Other Essays (and edited, I believe, by the wilfully obscure Prof A Biffwright) it is as good an exploration of the relationship between reading and eating as I have ever encountered. It also includes a rather delightful preface (written by yours truly). On the outside chance that you may struggle to procure a copy, here are a few of the conclusions to which it comes:
1. An empty stomach can, as Berkoff suggests, be an ally during artistic encounters. On the other hand, one does not always want one’s abiding memory of a book to be the undefeatable desire to sink one’s teeth into a doughnut.
2. Eating aniseed balls whilst reading a novel can significantly alter one’s perception of that novel, almost always in a positive sense. Drinking pineapple juice has the same effect. However, it does remain the case that a bad novel is always a bad novel, whatever one is eating at the time (whereas great novels can easily slip into the mediocre if one is in the vicinity of an egg mayonnaise sandwich).
3. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. The most important thing is not to be afraid to experiment. If you have a hunch that Don Quixote might be easier to swallow alongside a plate of bacon sandwiches, go with that hunch. If you think Jarni Kolovsky will only make sense after a two day fast, fast away.
To this last point I would add that once one has settled on a set of active and appealing conditions in which to read a novel, one must not imagine that the game is over. When one comes to re-read the novel (as, invariably, one must) a new set of conditions need to be found. Only in this way can you really build up a sense of how the power of fiction ebbs and flows with the size and contents of one’s stomach – and the ever-shifting rhythms of one’s culinary fancies.