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Anthony Bourdain is dead – No more “food-poetry”

Anthony Bourdain is dead – he killed himself. His body was found in Strasbourg, France, on Friday, June 8, 2018. He was 61 years old. My first question, rhetorically, was – Why, for heaven’s sake? I remember once talking to someone about him, going on about what Anthony Bourdain likes and doesn’t like and his wife and his books…and my friend looked at me and said, “So you’ve met, have you?” Of course we had not, not even at a book signing. I didn’t know the man at all. I was guilty of feeling a personal connection between myself and an author, since I’ve read so many of his books, watched him on TV and followed him on social media. I was as illogical as someone who goes off on an overseas trip to try to meet a fictional character in a real-world setting.

A cookbook for a happy and unhappy family

I did not know Anthony Bourdain, or why he he would want to kill himself. Yet, from his previous publication, a cookbook of family recipes, Appetites – A Cookbook, you could have read as plain as eggs are eggs that his family life was not all happiness, and that, according to his co-author Laurie Woolever, he was angry/sad.

From Appetites – A Cookbook: “Sausage and pepper hero – “…the whole thing is a greasy, soggy, unmanageable mess that generally falls apart in my hands before I can eat it. And within an hour of consumption, I’m shitting like a mink. i know this from the first whiff, yet I am helpless to resist. Knowing full well the inevitable intestinal upheaval that will result, I sleepwalk, zombie-like, to my fate, willingly, happily towards nasty deliciousness.” The text is not meant for impressionable kiddies. “Shitting like a mink”? “Nasty deliciousness”? This is for grown-up people with grown-up digestive systems. (p.68)

In the introduction to Appetites, Bourdain talks about the lifestyle of his (now) former wife, his parenting role, his daughter, and his frequent extended absences from his family – and he confesses that the human heart is still a mystery to him. According to Laurie Woolever, the intention was to write a “dysfunctional family cookbook”, with an edgy or anarchic tone – typical Bourdain style. He introduces the book with a quote by Leo Tolstoy, taken from his novel Anna Karenina:

“‘All happy families are alike.’ Tolstoy clearly never spent time with my happy family.” (Anthony Bourdain, Appetites, p. xiv)

Those who know the quote also knows that it goes on to say: “…every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That same friend of mine jokingly punned his name, calling him “Anthony Mondaine”. The demi-monde was a group of late 18th century Europeans who lived hedonistic lifestyles, usually in a flagrant and conspicuous manner. The term demimondaine referred to a woman who embodied these qualities. In his youth Bourdain might have been one of the demi-monde, but as he matured, so did his writing.

How much of Anthony Bourdain was in his writing?

If one accepts that in Bourdain’s writing there is a high level of authorial presence, then one could indeed see the workings of his mind and his personality, even though he wrote non-fiction. And in that mind, there was always anger, rebellion, scorn, passion, a deep appreciation for the best in food and cooking, and, perhaps, loneliness.

The question is whether the degree of authorial presence matters.

Authorial presence

Let’s say the author has written an enthralling description – in emotions, actions, thoughts and motivations – of a drug user. What is the link between drug use and the author? To which extent is the author like their creation? There is a constant push-pull in novels, and to a lesser degree, in memoirs, of “authorial presence” – how much of the author personally is represented in the novel. Is it their words, their ideas, and their take on a subject on the page? Or are they mere skilled interpreters, observers, researchers and imitators? How hard is it to take on the character? The degree to which authors reveal themselves in their novels is on a sliding scale of complete authorial presence, or none. 

The problem with an author “pretending”, is that readers, if they have themselves been in the trouble or the situations that the characters are in, will recognize whether the descriptions are true to life or not. (As in Anthony Bourdain recognizing that James Frey’s descriptions of his addiction and recovery are fake.) And if they’re fake, it’s no crime – it’s fiction after all – but the book will not go down as well.

With authors who have very different lives from the characters they have created, or/and write under pseudonyms, it is more difficult to assess the degree of authorial presence and authority. Also, in some types of literature, like Science Fiction, it is very difficult to create a character or situation with which the reader can empathize. As I explained in my piece on “What makes an AI human?” it is the closeness of the characters’ depiction to our own human experiences, that makes it possible for us to “like” them when we read about them.

Feeling as though we’ve met

It seems as though it is impossible to separate authors from their creations. Having slogged through so many books, read each one carefully, annotating and looking up as I go, I feel as though somehow I am connected to the writers. Frankly, I am usually a bit star-struck. Again, it is what Jean-Paul Satre calls the “pact of generosity” (pacte de générosité) between writer and reader.

I have only met two of my hero authors – Julian Barnes and Iain Banks. Seeing Iain Banks behind a heap of books at the end of a mighty long queue, all red-bearded and rough, and finally hearing his Scottish burr myself, just made me admire him more. Meeting Julian Barnes (admittedly under very strange, stressful circumstances) and seeing those sharp, pale-blue eyes, and his look that is as piercing and cool as the way he writes, made me realize that I am in over my head with this reviewing business. I felt small, and quite the fraud.

What would I have thought if I had ever met Anthony Bourdain? I would have had in mind that famous photo of his where he is stark naked, holding only a big meat bone in front of his private bits. I would have thought him handsome. People say he was charming, funny and open-minded. Who knows? It’s too late now. His life, as well as his authorial presence, is over. There will be no more books, no new programmes, no new “food poetry”, no poetic, stream-of-consciousness rapping about food. I, for one, am sorry that he is dead. No, I never met the man. But from his books I got to know him just a little.

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