Monday, October 18, 2021

'The Tested Recipe for Suet Pudding '

Nice to discover a piece by A.J. Liebling I had never seen before: 

“Laurence Sterne established the two standard types in British military fiction when he created Corporal Trim and Uncle Toby back in 1759. The corporal, not too strong on top but full of unassuming courage and kindly instincts, worshiped his superior officer even for his eccentricities; Uncle Toby, quite silly, but brave and unassuming, too, felt for the soldier the same affection he would for a large retriever.”


That is Liebling’s lede from his 1949 review of Alexander Baron’s World War II novel From the City, from the Plough, in the New York Times. Tone is everything. What could have been a show-offy piling-on of literary allusion is instead witty, deft and accurate. Liebling suggests a new way to look at Tristram Shandy and English literary history, by way of Tennyson and Kipling, all in the form of a wisecrack. The review is an hommage to Sterne’s way with a digression. More than a third of the review is behind us before we get to the book under consideration.


Throughout Liebling’s work, whether on food, France, combat, Louisiana politics, boxing or newspapers, book-minded readers will hear echoes of his mentors, including Sterne (the subtitle of Normandy Revisited is A Sentimental Journey), Stendhal, Cobbett, Defoe, Pierce Egan, Villon and Borrow, among others, who constitute a raffishly idiosyncratic countertradition. Liebling doesn’t like Baron’s book, but any cretin can say that much. Liebling has a better time of it, and so do we, his readers:


“The formula resulting from the collaboration across two centuries of three of the most popular and sentimental British authors who ever lived is like the tested recipe for suet pudding included in the cookbook of the Royal Army Catering Corps. Not even a beginner can fail with it provided he follows directions and that he can find anybody who likes suet pudding, which outside of England is unlikely.”


I’ve said before that if I could have been born as any other writer, I would have chosen Liebling, who knew how to enjoy life and on most occasions wrote superbly, despite gout, uremia, depression, nagging money problems and crazy wives. If you’re new to his work I would suggest you start with Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962), followed by Normandy Revisited (1958), The Sweet Science (1956) and The Earl of Louisiana (1961). After that, you’re on your own.


Liebling was born on this date, October 18, in 1904, and died on December 28, 1963.

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

There's probably no book I've dipped into more often over the years than The Sweet Science, to reread a chapter, a page, a paragraph. It helps that I grew up loving boxing, as both my parents did. My father used to talk about the Marciano-Moore fight as if it were the combat of Achilles and Hector before the walls of Troy.