Literary journalist and critic Laura Freeman writes in this week’s TLS of a subgenre she defines as the “hungry novels” which flourished in the 1940s-50s. Her essay opens with an extended reference to the scene in Brideshead Revisited where Waugh described the lavish pre-war feast in a Paris restaurant engineered by Charles Ryder to be bankrolled by Rex Mottram. Indeed, it was so over the top with luxurious items not available in 1944 when the book was written that Waugh felt obliged to apologize for the excess in a revised edition written in the late 1950s.
She identifies the genre in the following paragraph as encompassing a:
…guilty kind of gluttony. The spam-and-soya-bean period of English literature is full of Hungry Novels. Sometimes the tone is wistful, sometimes resentful. The characters in a Hungry Novel will suffer the indignities of bully beef, spaghetti bits and powdered egg, while dreaming of richer meat. Under the barrage of bombs, the wail of air raid sirens, the crackle of the wireless, an unmistakable base note: the complaining rumble of the author’s stomach. In the fiction of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Wyndham Lewis, Rosamond Lehmann, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and others, written during the war and in the years of rationing that followed, there is a marked stomach sensibility, an obsessive detail of food.
Waugh’s Hungry Novels outnumber the others on the list, beginning with Put Out More Flags, written when rationing had just begun, through Brideshead, to all three novels of the war trilogy, written in the relative prosperity of the 1950s:
Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy follows both Guy Crouchback’s faltering progress through the war and the deteriorating food situation on the home front. When Guy joins the Royal Corps of Halberdiers in Men at Arms (1952), he arrives at one training camp to a mess dinner of “margarine, sliced bread, huge bluish potatoes and a kind of drab galantine which Guy seemed to remember, but without relish, from his school-days during the First World War”. In Officers and Gentlemen (1955), an army adjutant tells Guy: “Austerity is the order now”. A doctor is called in to teach recruits how to survive on seaweed and limpets: “Every bit as agreeable as oysters and much safer”. It is the era of no butter, last legs of chicken and food parcels from America. Guy’s father is sent a packet of Yumcrunch (cereal), a tin of Brisko (cooking fat) and a jar of cocktail onions. A popular joke on the wireless in 1947 had a comedian declare that he has just proposed to a girl: “She’s not at all pretty but she has some friends in the States who send her parcels”. In Unconditional Surrender (1961), Waugh introduces Ruben’s, a wish-fulfilment restaurant that serves Colchester oysters, Scotch salmon, lobsters, prawns, gulls’ eggs, caviar and cheeses from France, “collected by intrepid parachutists and conveyed home by submarine”.
The closest rival to Waugh’s output of the genre seem to be Barbara Pym with three or four examples, and the essay closes with some references to Anthony Powell’s war trilogy. Access to the essay is free and is available here.