This time of year poses a problem of digestion – or should I say one of indigestion? I am not speaking merely of the physical challenge of overconsumption of seasonal delights such as mulled wine (the raw acidity of supermarket Spanish plonk covered up with sugar and spice), mince pies, cocktail sausages and so on, but also of metaphysical indigestion. There is too much to take in; we all tend to overdo it; and in December the accumulated effects of 12 months’ relentless acceleration from a January slow start finally catch up with us; struck by the sense that another year has rushed past without us noticing, we try to make up for it with a last-minute frenzy of socialising.
The Austrian doctor Franz Xaver Mayr believed that the ailments of modern man and woman – that is relatively affluent woman and man, with more than enough to eat – could mostly be explained in terms of digestion. Most diets get it wrong because they concentrate on the physical composition of what is ingested, not on the body’s capacity to digest. There is no point in eating all sorts of “healthy” foods, breads stuffed with unrefined grains, raw fruits, if all they do is end up fermenting in an overloaded stomach. Hence Mayr’s eccentric and killjoy-seeming advice to eat stale spelt rolls and chew every mouthful 30 or 40 times.
We’re all mad for experience, we live for “experiences”, but how much experience can we digest? The other evening I went to see the mesmerising Michael Gambon in Samuel Beckett’s most overtly emotional play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which a reclusive 69-year-old writer, perhaps for the last time, records his retrospect of the year. You could say it is the dramatic equivalent of one of Dr Mayr’s stale spelt rolls. “What’s a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool.” Krapp’s best moment over the past 12 months has been when he “revelled in the word spool”.
But of course the play has more to offer than that. At the heart of it is the recollection of a transfixing moment, a moment when the younger Krapp might have been happy or in love – though, this being Beckett, he undercuts that possibility by letting us know, the second time this tape is played, that Krapp and the girl he is drifting with in a punt had just agreed “it was hopeless”. But that irony is itself undercut by the lyricism of the thrice-repeated fragment, the most affecting moment in all Beckett’s drama: “We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.”
It is a moment of ecstasy, a moment out of time, and you could say that all the rest of his life Krapp has been doing little more than replaying it, attempting to digest it.
Perhaps only a writer, and only a writer of Beckett’s stamp, could imagine that as a plausible scenario of a life – possibly even of a life, for all its apparent poverty, redeemed. What Krapp calls “spiritual indigence” is not an obviously attractive option.
But I wonder if it might be an idea to redress the balance between experience and digestion somewhat in favour of digestion. I don’t know about you, but I am often haunted by fragments of conversations, or truncated conversations. Some of the best moments of the year have been conversations at supper parties, or in restaurants (I am thinking especially of my reliable local, Galicia in Portobello Road) – times warmed by wine and friendship, when sparks are struck, connections made, new avenues suggested. Over these convivial dinners, what seems impossible in normal daytime hours and thinking suddenly comes to life: we have founded new political parties and avant-garde journals, and established a commune in the Peloponnese.
The trouble is that though the wine (and I heartily recommend the very reasonable Albarino they serve at Galicia) releases the imagination, it can dull the recollection. By the next day, or the day after, that conversation is little more than an agreeable blur. Perhaps we should all become Boswells or Eckermanns, carrying round a notebook to record our friends’ sayings.
A while ago, a friend and I set up a weekly gathering that came to be called Crust. We offered homemade soup and bread (not necessarily dry or stale) and a style of conversation and listening rather different from the dinner-party mode where you have to switch topics every few minutes for fear of boredom or, still worse, accusations of earnestness.
Crust was not perfect. A few friends of mine turned up once and vowed never to come back. Others walked out in the middle, when things became confrontational. But some of the gatherings, when people shared what is often not shared, remain in the memory. They were perhaps like the advent candles that are still lit in German houses at this time of year, modest beacons of human warmth in the cold and the darkness.
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