June 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Expert appetite

By Robert Dessaix
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The plight of the connoisseur

I am in Soups and Tinned Veg at my local Coles supermarket, immobilised by an attack of anomie. Why am I feeling like this? I stare catatonically at the rows of tinned soups, quite unable to move. There is no point in discussing Durkheim and the roots of anomie with the staff, I must sort this out myself.

The last time I can remember feeling so severely affected was in Foyles bookstore in Charing Cross Road. I had just asked the young woman at the information desk where I might find the novels of José Saramago. (It is forbidden – and this is significant – to ask questions of any other member of staff.) “How do you spell it?” she said. The first wave of numbness hit. “But he won the Nobel Prize,” I quavered, “he’s Portuguese.” I could see that she was thinking to herself: We’ve got a right one here. But all she said was: “I can’t be expected to know everything.” I stood staring at a pile of Michael Palin for a moment or two, then turned heel and left the shop. An hour later in a backstreet shop with books piled on the floor, a man in his forties wearing a stained sweater refused to sell me a copy of Baltasar and Blimunda, insisting I start with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. The anomie lifted. This man was a kind of connoisseur. When it came to books, he had both knowledge and taste. I didn’t much like The Gospel According to Jesus Christ but I very much enjoyed the experience of buying it.

This is an increasingly rare experience. In the recent BBC series Turn Back Time: The High Street – about the changes to high street shopping between the Victorian era and the ’70s – shoppers in a village in Somerset were treated to the delights (and drawbacks) of buying their bread, meat, groceries, clothes and even hardware from the people who made them. Until, that is, the show re-created the post–World War II era: convenience and technology pushed connoisseurship aside and they were left with … well, versions of Coles and Foyles. What the shoppers mourned in the later episodes was “the loss of personal service”. But what they meant, I think, was the loss of knowledge and taste in the vendors they had dealings with.

 Shopping was now just another chore, like vacuuming or doing the washing-up, whereas in the earlier episodes it had been an adventure, a time for conversation, learning and the exchange of opinions – a brush with connoisseurship. As it still is in a French village or at certain spots in Hobart, where you can discuss your choice of bread with the baker, take thoughtful advice over a cut of meat, buy your fish from someone who caught it or sit with a blacksmith in your backyard plumbing his knowledge of styles and techniques before choosing a design for your arbour. Recently in my local bookshop, the owner said there wasn’t a single book worth buying on the New Arrivals table. We talked about why for five minutes. I was so elated I bought an old Barry Maitland just for fun.

Life itself is increasingly made up of a series of chores, it seems to me. Even watching the ABC these days is a chore. Life may be meaningless (the jury is still out), but surely it doesn’t have to be banal. Even a hint of connoisseurship – of passionately acquired knowledge and taste – can turn a humdrum moment in a shop or an everyday exchange of small talk with a neighbour into a virtuoso performance. It’s the virtuosity that amplifies the moment, prises it open and turns an ordinary little tick of the clock into a sweep through a wonderland.

You don’t even have to be interested in the domain of expertise to take delight in it. For instance, I have no feelings at all about dahlias and few about poultry. Yet a visit to the local dahlia show, swarming with voluble dahlia connoisseurs, is an exhilarating experience, while the annual poultry breeders’ exhibition, an extravaganza of esoteric practices and obsessive love at the showground, is simply not to be missed. I come away knowing little more than I did when I went in – it’s the encounter with connoisseurship that is enlivening. You can even feel vivified by connoisseurship in things you actively disapprove of: in my case, let’s say, pasta, the trinity and Sibelius.

For centuries the word ‘connoisseur’ was almost exclusively used to describe men of taste who knew enough about art to properly appraise a painting – or a wine, a meal, even coffee and cigars (not cigarettes) – and make a judgement about provenance and quality. The eye and the tongue, rather than the ear, let alone the nose. Very sensual. Very male, for that matter. Nowadays I think we can be less precious about what the connoisseur should be passionate and knowledgeable about. Tea, finches, photography, Greek philosophy, Armenian church architecture, Aramaic, Cy Twombly, borzois – it doesn’t matter. It’s the eagerness for depth that is vital, the ability to make nuanced judgements that seduce, banishing banality and giving life a bit of swoop and sweep.

 Some things cannot be rescued by a stab at vast knowledge: cricket, obviously, but also mere accumulations of objects – Toby jugs, Princess Diana memorabilia and so on. To be a proper subject for connoisseurship, taste must be involved. The ABC’s Spicks and Specks program illustrates this imperative: it has lots of knowledge but no taste, so it does not make time unfurl – it makes it sag.

Taste is called taste, presumably, because, as well as implying discernment through experience (you know rubbish when you bite into it), it enhances appetite – arguably the appetite for living itself, like an excellent blue cheese.

We should treasure connoisseurship in ourselves, in others, wherever we find it. Connoisseurship makes you want to know more than you need to for the sheer joy of seeing something small grow voluminous before your eyes. It only survives in pockets in a world where a rooted knowledge of anything is an eccentricity and taste an arcane affectation. It is worth seeking out. Without it life is as drab as shopping at Coles.

Robert Dessaix
Robert Dessaix is a novelist, essayist and journalist. He is the author of A Mother’s Disgrace, Corfu and Twilight of Love.

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