Gooseberries were always served in the England of my childhood with custard, a disgusting yellow concoction with lumps in it and a skin that sent shivers down your spine. The lumps and skin were evidently regarded in the same light as outdoor team games in inclement weather: that is to say, they were character-building. Meals in England in those days were treated as an ordeal that had to be gone through; nowadays, thanks to an increased awareness of the health implications of nutrition, they are more like medical procedures.
I spent a surprising amount of energy in my childhood evading not just gooseberries but gooseberry bushes. Our garden was terraced, with some luxuriant bushes on one of its levels. My brother and I devoted a lot of effort to pushing each other into them: but since he was the older and stronger, he was the more successful in his endeavors. I came to associate gooseberries with scratches and indignity.
During my adolescence and early adulthood, I forgot about gooseberries, until I read the short story of that name by Chekhov. Written in 1898, it is not one of his greatest works, but it nonetheless had a deep effect upon me because it resonated so strongly with my own life. "Gooseberries" is the story of a minor civil servant, Nikolai Ivanovich, who spends his bureaucratic career dreaming of a country estate, where he will live the life of a landowner and drink soup made of home-grown cabbages. Essential to his dream are gooseberry bushes: "He could picture no manor house, no country idyll, without gooseberry bushes."
His salary is small, and therefore he becomes a miser. To save money for the estate, he dresses in rags and deprives himself of proper food. He marries an old and unattractive widow for her money, which he transfers to his own account, and he allows her none of the comforts to which she is accustomed, so that she is obliged to live in his reduced fashion. Before long she dies, and eventually he accumulates enough cash to buy his estate. There is no gooseberry patch on the estate he buys, and so he plants twenty bushes. The story's climax--if that is quite the word for a Chekhovian denouement--is the first harvest of gooseberries from these bushes:
Nikolai chuckled, and contemplated the gooseberries silently and tearfully for a minute--his feelings too deep for words. Then, putting a single gooseberry in his mouth, he looked at me [the story's narrator] with the glee of a child who has at last been given a longed for toy. "Delicious."
The point of "Gooseberries" is the ironic contrast between Nikolai Ivanovich's mean-spirited pursuit of his goal and the smug satisfaction to which its attainment gives rise. For the sake of his triumphal but petty enjoyment of a few gooseberries--both sour and unripe, according to the narrator --he has inflicted suffering not only upon himself but upon others. In having sacrificed for so long enjoyment of the present for a thoroughly worthless vision of the future, he has become so desiccated and devoid of human feeling that the pleasure he takes is as appalling as the cruelties he has inflicted.
If life imitates art, its mimesis is imperfect. My father was not Nikolai Ivanovich precisely, yet there were enough parallels for "Gooseberries" to mean more to me, perhaps, than to most readers. For many years, my father ran a business that hovered in that large area between success and failure. Fundamentally, money did not interest him much: what he wanted more than anything was the power to dominate and humiliate the small circle of people around him. Heaven only knows what early wound meant that the tyrannical discomfiture of others should have been balm to his soul, for he never spoke of his early life except in the most guarded and censored way. But his conduct in his office was abominable.
He could never be mistaken, there or anywhere else. Once, he gave the handwritten draft of a letter to his secretary and she returned it to him with a word typed differently from how he had written it. She stood by her correction and he ordered her to look it up in the dictionary. She was proved right, whereupon most men would have shrugged and admitted their error. Not my father. "Get another dictionary!," he ordered, and she was despatched to the nearest bookshop to buy one.
He raged at his staff, requiring no pretext to do so except that the mood was upon him. He behaved as if he had been bitten by a mad dog, or suspected that he was surrounded by thieves. He hurled abuse at them and slammed doors. There was always an undercurrent of violence when he was in the office. And he made sure his insults were always uttered in public.
Two men in particular were the objects of his wrath, Mr K. and Mr B. Mr K. was slightly deaf, and protected himself against my father's rage by turning off his hearing aid. Mr B. had not such means of protection and bore my father's insults with patient humility. I did not find Mr K. or Mr B. as contemptible as my father evidently found them. In fact, I much preferred them to him. Sometimes I would walk in Regent's Park with Mr B. during his lunch hour. He was a slow, stolid man with a furled umbrella and shoes so polished you could see your face in them. He had one remarkable talent, which was to look at a page of figures (in those days we still had undecimalized pounds, shillings, and pence) and add them up in his mind, far faster than they could be entered into the adding machines of that era.
He had always been good at figures, he said, which is why the army had employed him to count the bodies on the ground after the Battle of El Alamein. He also told me that he had once shot a German soldier dead, just (he thought) as he was about to surrender, and his conscience had troubled him about it ever since. I learnt from Mr B. that a humdrum exterior does not necessarily preclude interesting memories. And since I suspected that my father had avoided military service during the war from cowardice, I found his incessant bullying of Mr B. all the more reprehensible.
But there was another aspect of my father's character that I found as puzzling as his violent outbursts against people who had done him no harm and upon whose work he relied for his livelihood: he would spend many hours in the garden, tending his plants in absolute silence and solitude. He said that one day he would retire to the country, there to devote himself to gardening and cultivating fruit and vegetables. He wouldn't miss London a bit: nor, apparently, the terrorization of his staff. I didn't believe him.
One day, however, he was offered enough for his business that he never had to work again, and he did retire to the country, entirely on his own. His domineering behavior ensured that he had few visitors, and that those few he had left as soon as possible. He seemed to be under a compulsion always to say something wounding or derisive, and never praised anyone or anything unequivocally, as if it might detract from the resplendor of his intelligence or the perfection of his judgment. He thus spent the last twenty-five years of his life cultivating a garden whose beauty was for his eyes only.
Among his cultivations were fruit, and among his fruit were gooseberries. His harvest was always far greater than he could consume, but there were few people to accept his gifts of the fruit, which consequently went entirely to waste. Thus the end product of all those years of temper tantrums, deliberate humiliation of staff, and uncontrolled passion amounted to countless bowls of picked gooseberries destined to be thrown away. And just like Nikolai Ivanovich, my father found his gooseberries delicious, quite unlike any others.
My father died, and so I thought no more of gooseberries. Then, one day earlier this year, I opened my newspaper and there, in color, was a reproduction of a still-life painting of gooseberries. Not only that, but it was by a late seventeenth-century Dutch painter, Adriaen Coorte, who actually specialized in depicting this humble fruit (as well as strawberries, asparagus, and sea shells). His picture was on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, as part of an exhibition of seventeenth-century Dutch still-life paintings. I resolved to go.
Coorte was not a great artist; great artists do not limit their subject matter quite so strictly. He was not even admitted to the guild of artists that would have allowed him to sell his pictures freely in the town of Middelburg, and he was once fined for trying to do so. But yet his little picture of gooseberries on a stone ledge (now permanently on display in the Cleveland Museum) has a strange power to move the viewer profoundly.
In this, it partakes of the power of the entire genre. It is curious how the minute and loving depiction of humble, everyday objects should so strongly arrest us. I remember the effect that a still life by Juan Sanchez Cotan had upon visitors at the entrance to an exhibition in London of Spanish still lifes. It was as if they had been struck physically: they stopped dead in their tracks, their eyes wide open. A young Japanese woman actually gasped. Sanchez Cotan had painted a quince, a cabbage, a melon, and a cucumber in a parabola framed by a cold gray stone window: that was all. But I have never seen any picture have so strong an immediate effect upon those who saw it.
I was not surprised to learn that Sanchez Cotan was a religious man: or indeed that he joined a lay brotherhood later in life. For his depiction of these humble products of the earth is clearly reverential (in a way that is perhaps only possible in an age of scarcity), an act of worship. He teaches us--as many still-life painters do--to see all heaven in a grain of sand and to be thankful for the gift of life. Even someone completely without religious sentiment--such as I--feels it stirring in the presence of such works of art.
The Dutch, no less than the Spanish, still-life painters were reverential towards the everyday objects of their people's sustenance. For example, the picture of a beaker of beer, a roll, a knife, and a salt herring on a pewter plate by Pieter Claesz is painted not only with brilliant technical accomplishment, but also with the deepest respect for the world about him: a respect alike for products of nature and for those of man. Indeed, the contrast between the intensity of the depiction and the quotidian nature of the depicted is what gives the picture its enormous power. It makes us see the world anew.
There couldn't be a starker contrast, either, between the outlook of the still-life painter and that of people who take our modern material abundance for granted. The latter do not find anything remarkable or worthy of notice in the everyday, and are therefore driven by their lack of powers of contemplation to seek brute sensation. Since the sensational itself soon becomes all too abundant and therefore quotidian, ever-greater sensation must be sought if ontological boredom is to be kept at bay. This tendency is all too clear in Amsterdam itself, among the most liberal (and not coincidentally the most violent) cities in Europe, where there is a constant but self-defeating search for new taboos to break and shibboleths to utter. And lest anyone should refuse to accept the contrast between the culture that produced the Dutch still lifes of the seventeenth century and the Dutch culture of today, which is indistinguishable from most modern cultures except that it is more self-consciously extreme in its rejection of refinement, it is worth remembering that Dutch still-life painting was not an elite, but a popular art (though of course Coorte and Claesz were distinguished practitioners of it): and that if that art had been as popular in America today as it was then in the low countries, American professional artists would have painted approximately 175 million still-life paintings this century.
Adriaen Coorte's minutely observed and portrayed gooseberries are not, therefore, a trivial or contemptible subject matter for art. The sprig of the bush on which they grow teaches us to observe the play of light upon the foliage, to take delight in the variety of shades of green to be seen in the various leaves--no, even in a single leaf. As for the translucency of the berries themselves, so miraculously beautiful, and captured so tenderly by the artist, one feels like exclaiming, as T. H. Huxley did on reading Darwin's Origin of Species, "How stupid of me not to have thought of that!" Except, of course, that it is not thought alone to which Coorte appeals, but to a whole way of looking at things, literally to a Weltanschauung. How stupid of me--I felt like exclaiming in front of his tiny painting--not to have noticed that! Gooseberries were not more translucent in his day than in mine; and yet, through willful blindness, I had not seen this translucency, or if I had seen it, I had not noticed its beauty.
So now I am thoroughly reconciled to gooseberries as a fruit, and will never again think of them as sour and distasteful. They are, after all, an instance of the beauty of the world. And yet honesty compels me to admit that other thoughts connected to gooseberries rise unbidden to my mind. Like Nikolai Ivanovich, I dream of country retirement. I have had enough of my innercity medical practice, and long for peace and quiet, to live in a cultured atmosphere where people do not destroy themselves by evil habits and vile conduct to stave off their existential ennui. It is true that, unlike Nikolai Ivanovich, I have no desire to grow my own gooseberries: but couldn't my longing for la France profonde, for Umbria or Andalusia, just as well be another metaphorical plate of home-grown gooseberries?
And a further gooseberry metaphor occurs to me. In English parlance, to be a gooseberry means to be left awkwardly at the margin of a social event such as a dance or a party. A gooseberry is de trap. And when I look around me, at the culture of modern Britain, I feel increasingly that I am a gooseberry. Is it my age, or is it true this time that civilization really is coming to an end?
Theodore Dalrymple is a doctor, an author, and a contributing editor of City Journal.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 1999|
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