Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pink Cake and Kidneys

”Please, sir, I want some more?”--Oliver Twist

Earlier this winter, I taught Katherine Mansfield’s devastating short story, “Miss Brill.” In it, Miss Brill, a middle-aged, unmarried woman, thinks about her Sunday treat of a concert in the park followed by a slice of cake purchased at the bakery to eat at home. On special Sundays, she allows herself a slice of the one with almonds.

This notion of special Sundays is devastating; it prepares us for the story’s cruel end: for, what makes a Sunday special to a person living totally on her own except her own say-so, and the notion that she is so measured in her pleasures, doling them out slowly and carefully, makes her taunting from the young lovers really hurt. She is defenseless.

This cake made me think of other cakes in modernist literature: there is the pink cake that Miss Kilman covets in Mrs. Dalloway, the cake that the protagonists wins by guessing its weight in Greene’s Ministry of Fear, the crème puffs that the young girl delivers from her garden party to the family who’ve just lost their son (father?) in Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” Not unrelated is the bloody lobe of a kidney that Bloom hopes the girl at the butcher’s won’t buy in the Calypso episode of Ulysses.

All this scarcity reminds us of the difference between that world--the world of England and Ireland a century ago--and ours. When was the last time you went to a shop and found that the person in line before you took the last of anything you wanted to buy? Our abundance is so great that we have forgotten the feeling of scarcity.

There’s an essay in here somewhere. Would that I had the time to write it.

Are there other cakes or pastries that you have noticed? I’m collecting them for that rainy day when the essay can be written.


Rachel Hollander said...

The story "Clay" in Dubliners has a lonely lady (Maria?) buying cake -- quite similar to your Mansfield example. I'm an English prof at St. John's and have been lurking and enjoying your blog for a while now.

-- Rachel Hollander

Rachel Hollander said...

Oh, and if you ever write the article, you would surely have to include the Seinfeld episode about the last chocolate bobka...

Unknown said...

Thanks, Rachel, for delurking to offer those tips!

I think there are some cookies in Beckett's Murphy, too??

But the Seinfeld I don't remember at all--in spite of having watched it a lot--so I'm very grateful for that... :)

Jessica Ferri said...

I'm in love with your blog, and I've added you to the top of my "literaries" list. Where do you teach?

This post was lovely. There are of course Proust's madeleines.

Rachel Hollander said...

I was thinking about Beckett -- in Endgame Nagg and Nell share what is perhaps the very last biscuit, whereas Godot just has carrots and turnips, right?

Anonymous said...

The birthday cake in Carver's via dolorosa, "A Small Good Thing".

lucy tartan said...

In "The Group", Kay's servant brings her a cake which Kay can't bring herself to serve to her holiday guests - she thinks it is too plainly brought from a Harlem bakery.

Anonymous said...

And then there is the artist Wayne Thiebaud: