Friday, October 25, 2013

FFB: The Cook - Harry Kressing

What makes a book a cult classic? Is it the writing alone? The subject matter? Must a cult novel by virtue of the word cult be something strange or weird or offbeat or...? (pick a similar adjective of your choosing) Maybe all of these criteria go into the making of a cult novel. One thing for sure cult novels usually are treasures of the bookshelf we like to label Forgotten Books. Learning of one through a cult novel's devoted reader for me is akin to the high a mountaineer must get once he's reached the apex after a grueling climb. I only heard of The Cook (1965) through one of the many comments when I asked followers of this blog to offer up titles of books they'd like to see put back in print as part of the giveaway for The Starkenden Quest last week. A very grateful thank you goes to Kelly R for mentioning this book as one of her favorites and one she would love to see reprinted. The Cook was one of the most rewarding reading experiences I've had this year. So utterly unique, deceptively simple, positively hallucinatory.

The Cook starts off like a fairy tale and as its very simple plot unravels it becomes a dark fable on all of the seven deadly sins. Vanity, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Pride, Wrath, Sloth -- all are here, some more prominent than others. Conrad Venn is entranced with the Gothic castle known as the Prominence situated on a remote plateau outside the town of Cobb. Though the grounds are beautifully kept and the imposing presence of the castle is hypnotically fascinating Conrad wonders whether it is inhabited. He travels into town and learns from a tavern keeper of the legend of the castle and the feud between the Hills and the Vales, descendants of A. Cobb, the original owner of the Prominence. Conrad also learns of Cobb's strange will that prevents the Prominence to be occupied again until the two families quit fighting and are joined through marriage. The tavern keeper says the feud is long over, but the Hills and Vales still live apart from one another with little contact. Each family is dying off with the last of the Vales being Daphne Vale, an enormously fat young woman who rarely goes out, and Harold the only son of the surviving Hills her only prospect for marriage. With this legend planted in Conrad's mind and the fact that the two families seem to be obsessed with outdoing each other when it comes to their cooks Conrad takes it upon himself to unite the families and re-open the doors of the Prominence.

Cooking and food and the etiquette of lavishly prepared meals are the strange tools of Conrad's trade. He is a Machiavellian wizard in the kitchen and his nearly magical meals cast a spell over Mr. and Mrs. Hill and their son Harold. He acts as cooking tutor, nutrition consultant and financial advisor. Transformations of both body and mind begin to take place as everyone eats his amazing food. Fat people become thin, thin people become fat. Master becomes servant and servants rebel against employers. All the while Conrad remains untouched, unaffected and his eye is ever on the Prominence. He wants it so badly he can taste it. He'll stop at nothing to possess his castle and become its king.

Kressing tells his story with a mix of black humor and brief explosions of unexpected violence. Conrad is feared and admired by everyone he encounters. With only a hint or a subtle suggestion he gets everyone to do his bidding. He is an untouchable magician, the wise man on the mountain, and always a formidable presence. Even when he nearly severs the hand of a man he intentionally injured he somehow manages to come out the hero of the day. The Hills, the Vales and the entire town of Cobb are at his mercy. He gets what he wants from each person he meets, using them and playing up to their vanities and vices. Conrad always wins; his associates and students often pay a heavy price.

The Cook is a fable, an allegory, a thriller, a satire. It's a phantasmagorical and intoxicating read. Like eating a fine meal in the best restaurant reading The Cook is one of those rare pleasures you don't want to end. It's not surprising to me at all that those who have discovered this book return to it over and over for more tastes of something one just can't get enough of.

10 comments:

  1. Ever since reading Algis Budrys's review of this one in BENCHMARKS: GALAXY BOOKSHELF some 25 years ago, I've been meaning to seek it out, and have yet to do so...that gives you some insight into how things go over here. "Harry Kressing" is a sexual pun of a pseud, iinm.

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    1. Gosh, more like 30 years ago. It's been a busy life, but not really that accomplished, it seems.

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  2. http://neglectedbooks.com/?p=2077 provides the name I couldn't remember, Harry Adam Ruber..."Kressing" might not've been meant to sound so much like a cross between "fressing" (as in "fresser") and caressing, but, all told...

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    1. Very little is known about Ruber who is most definitley the real man behind the Kressing pseudonym. The revelation turned up in a list of correspondence from the Curtis Brown literary agency and is in a document housed in the Columbia University archives which I saw myself only a few days ago. I have read that Ruber supposedly died in Minnesota in 1990.

      Somewhere someone thought that Kressing might be Nicolas Freeling. And it's being perptuated on some little read blogs as well as an online bookseller's catalog for a copy of the US 1st edition of this book. Too bizarre for words, not to mention utterly false.

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    2. I'm beyond thrilled that you sought out The Cook based on my recommendation, and even more thrilled that you enjoyed it so much. I've got to replace my missing old copy, as it's been over fifteen years since I read it, but the feel of it has stayed with me ever since.

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  3. OK. Now I am intrigued and on the hunt.

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  4. Well I'm also fascinated - thank you John (and Kelly) - time to start digging ...

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  5. Never heard of this one before but you have fascinated me, too.

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  6. Midway through it, John and fascinated that although he cooks constantly, he never mentions much of what. Expected recipes galore. I think the Freeling idea might come from his book on cooking. I have it somewhere....

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    1. I never knew about Freeling's interest in cooking until I did research for this Ruber and his book. I like that the dishes aren't often specifically mentioned -- maybe twice? Makes his power over everyone all the more sinister. That everything is so irresistible and delectable they don't seem to care what it is they're eating. Wait 'til you get to the ending!

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