Beckett and Joyce on Gorgonzola Cheese

Now, at last, for a literary interlude, I must offer two passages from Irish modernist prose, both of which feature Gorgonzola as their creamy centers.

Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks — his first published prose fiction, if I remember right (1934) — is something like a collection of short stories centered on the character Belacqua. Burning toast to an indigestible blackness is part of the refined, almost scientific lunchtime routine for this obsessive and compulsive youth; after which he sets out for the rotten cheese to complement: Gorgonzola.

Now the great thing was to avoid being accosted. To be stopped at this stage and have conversational nuisance committed all over him would be a disaster. His whole being was straining forward towards the joy in store. If he were accosted now he might just as well fling his lunch into the gutter and walk straight back home. Sometimes his hunger, more of mind, I need scarcely say, than of body, for this meal amounted to such a frenzy that he would not have hesitated to strike any man rash enough to buttonhole and baulk him, he would have shouldered him out of his path without ceremony. Woe betide the meddler who crossed him when his mind was really set on his meal.

He threaded his way rapidly, his head bowed, through the familiar labyrinth of lanes and suddenly dived into a little family grocery. In the shop they were not surprised. Most days, about this hour, he shot in off the street in this way.

The slab of cheese was prepared. Separated since morning from the piece, it was only waiting for Belacqua to call and take it. Gorgonzola cheese. He knew a man who came from Gorgonzola, his name was Angelo. He had been born in Nice but all his youth had been spent in Gorgonzola. He knew where to look for it. Every day it was there, in the same corner, waiting to be called for. They were very decent obliging people.

He looked sceptically at the cut of cheese. He turned it over on its back to see was the other side any better. The other side was worse. They had laid it better side up, they had practised that little deception. Who shall blame them? He rubbed it. It was sweating. That was something. He stopped and smelt it. A faint fragrance of corruption. What good was that? He didn’t want fragrance, he wasn’t a bloody gourmet, he wanted a good stench. What he wanted was a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese, alive, and by God he would have it.

He looked fiercely at the grocer.

‘What’s that?’ he demanded.

The grocer writhed.

‘Well?’ demanded Belacqua, he was without fear when roused, ‘is that the best you can do?’

‘In the length and breadth of Dublin,’ said the grocer, ‘you won’t find a rottener bit this minute.’

Belacqua was furious. The impudent dogsbody, for two pins he would assault him.

‘It won’t do,’ he cried, ‘do you hear me, it won’t do at all. I won’t have it.’ He ground his teeth.

The grocer, instead of simply washing his hands like Pilate, flung out his arms in a wild crucified gesture of supplication. Sullenly Belacqua undid his packet and slipped the cadaverous tablet of cheese between the hard cold black boards of the toast. He stumped to the door where he whirled round however.

‘You heard me?’ he cried.

‘Sir’ said the grocer. This was not a question, nor yet an expression of acquiescence. The tone in which it was let fall made it quite impossible to know what was in the man’s mind. It was a most ingenious riposte.

‘I tell you’ said Belacqua with great heat ‘this won’t do at all. If you can’t do better than this’ he raised the hand that held the packet ‘I shall be obliged to go for my cheese elsewhere. Do you mark me?’

‘Sir’ said the grocer.

And now, from Joyce’s Ulysses: Leopold Bloom considers lunch, while struggling to keep his mind off his wife’s approaching adultery. He’s troubled by the carnivorous gluttony of his fellow customers (“Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!”), and so shuns beef for the moment. Almost settles on a sardine — the last lonely sardine of summer — but then asks at last for a Gorgonzola sandwich. Some critics, the Bloomlovers, consider his decision a sensitive compromise between the thesis of bloody meat and the antithesis of flimsy vegetarianism: a synthesis in the form of an animal food that does not entail the death of the animal. Richard Ellmann, who wrote the fat Joyce biography you will find at your bookstore, thought a Gorgonzola sandwich was the best existential choice, “because cheese is neither vegetable nor meat: it is formed from mammal’s milk without slaughter, and enclosed in bread which is vegetable in origin but reconstructed by man.” And what does Bloom think?

Kosher. No meat and milk together. Hygiene that was what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and war depend on some fellow’s digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mitey cheese.

Not the most immediately decipherable passage — but very nice, I think, and potent. Later, Bloom’s stream of consciousness dwells on

the feety savour of green cheese.

Ah yes.

Pervert.

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2 Responses to “Beckett and Joyce on Gorgonzola Cheese”


  1. 1 Adrienne December 1, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    No one ever offers me the rottener bits of a cheese. It’s a positive scandal, this life I lead.

  2. 2 Chip December 1, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    I’d just like to say that last night I had dinner (Irish stew) at Davy Byrne’s, the pub in Dublin where Bloom ate his gorgonzola sandwich. It’s been redone I’m sure many a time and now exists in a slightly garish moderne-cheape style, almost cafateria-esque; but the food & stouts and waitstaff were great and it was an excellent hopping off point for some pubcrawling that led to the discovery of pubs less changed and Joyceanly-piquant. Gorgonzola sandwich was on the menu last night (there were various acknowledgements in the place to Bloom and Joyce)–I enjoyed that fact, and was tempted, but needed heftier fare for the night stretching ahead.

    PS Thanks for working in *More Pricks than Kicks.* It’s an old fave and one doesn’t get to see it referred to much. I know this is a cheese blog but if you could sneak in the lobster we’d all benefit….


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