I was in my mid-twenties and just beginning work on my first book when I was invited to dinner with some older and very distinguished writers. I was excited, and a little curious as to why they would possibly be interested in me. Then an email arrived naming the restaurant. My stomach lurched at the words. They had chosen the most fashionable – and expensive – place in London.
We sat down and I anxiously scoured the menu for the most affordable dish. I was not long out of university and had barely enough for a starter. The novelist next to me said he would have just one course. But my relief was interrupted by a cry of ‘Nonsense!’ from across the table and a flurry of orders to the beaming waiter. While everyone else tucked into their salmon and shellfish and I contemplated my lonely salad, I was transported to Paris and a short story I had read there a few summers before.
‘The Luncheon’ by W Somerset Maugham is and always will be Paris to me. Although Maugham wrote about dozens of places, he was born in the French capital and his easy familiarity with it was such that he could evoke it through the smallest detail. In ‘The Luncheon’, the narrator describes a day two decades earlier when he met with a woman at a restaurant he could ill afford on the Left Bank. She had written to tell him that she admired one of his books, was going to be in town and would very much like to lunch with him at Foyot’s.
Foyot’s stood at the end of rue de Tournon, overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg. Until it was demolished in 1937, it was among the most glamorous hotels in the city, hosting everyone from Gertrude Stein to members of the Sénat, situated next door. The writer in Maugham’s story lives in a squat apartment in the Latin Quarter with views over a cemetery. He has eighty francs to last him the rest of the month.
His new companion arrives after a morning at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Her unwillingness to venture more than a few hundred yards for lunch ought to have sounded early warning bells. She clearly had no intention of shifting.
When I was in Paris that summer, I seldom stayed in the same quarter for more than a few hours. I walked and walked, too mesmerised by the beauty to feel the heat or exhaustion. After the Luxembourg I would think nothing of crossing the Seine for a croissant in the deuxième before making for the Musée Rodin or the Tuileries. Maugham’s heroine is quite different.
‘I never eat anything for luncheon,’ she declares upon receiving the menu. ‘I never eat more than one thing.’ There is no salmon on the menu, but she would like some, so he enquires about its availability, and the waiter says that the first of the season has just arrived. Would Madame like something while she waits? No, she reiterates, she only ever eats one thing. Unless they have caviar. She can always manage caviar.
The impecunious writer orders the mutton chop. She orders champagne. Soon she is reproaching him for choosing such a filling meal when he might have had just one thing, like her (‘I am only going to eat one thing,’ he protests). He begins to relax in the belief that she is sated. But then the thought of giant asparagus enters her mind. He is obliged to ask the waiter again.
When I read this story I was staying a few streets away from the former Foyot’s on Boulevard Raspail. The main restaurant of my hotel was closed for August, but I dined in the brasserie, where everything was served with mashed potato. Night after night the waiter convinced me that the pomme purée of today was very different from that of yesterday. He would describe potatoes with such poetry that I had to have them. Parisian waiters are a special breed of salesman. The one in Maugham’s story does nothing wrong, except to be so rhapsodic and obliging. When the poor writer prays for him to keep quiet, he smiles and begins to wax lyrical about the tenderness of the asparagus.
I watched with admiration as the French women in the brasserie tucked greedily into their food. Maugham gives the impression of mild revulsion as he describes the asparagus being ‘thrust’ down the woman’s throat ‘in large voluptuous mouthfuls’. In another story, Maugham presents ‘Three Fat Women of Antibes’ breaking their diets to devour fried potatoes and chocolate éclairs. In Paris, I shamelessly followed suit, jostling with the slim women who crowd the chocolate shops of Saint-Germain to capture the last éclair.
In London, at the writers’ dinner, I looked on longingly as the others ate their puddings and I sipped my camomile tea. I thought of the woman in ‘The Luncheon’ snatching a peach from a basket brought by the head waiter, ‘an ingratiating smile on his false face’, after polishing off a final coffee and ice cream. In the story, the bill comes and the writer is left without a single franc. When our bill arrived everyone fell silent. As I reached for my purse at the end of an otherwise happy evening, the elderly woman at the end of the table declared, ‘Let’s split it.’
As the memory of reading Maugham in Paris returned, I could only smile. I may have eaten the most expensive salad in the world, but it had saved me from the fate of the lady of ‘The Luncheon’. She soared to twenty-one stone.