Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Absinthe: Sip of Seduction
Bettina J. Wittels and Robert Hermesch
Speck Press (2004)

Marie Corelli
Broadview Press (2004)
Originally Published in 1890

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

The publication of these two books is indicative of the resurgence of interest in absinthe, that legendary beverage of late 19th-century Parisian cafes, the muse of artists and writers, the Great Aphrodisiac, and the substance of addiction and madness. Its written lore makes it sound like the juice of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, and for many, it has been—and all that that entails.

So what is it, anyway, and why the fascination?

Well, it's a light-green distilled alcoholic liquid mixed with the herb wormwood and served over a special spoon-held sugar cube due to its bitter taste. It was originally developed as a digestive tonic by a fellow in France named Dubied in 1805 or so, and slowly became known and enjoyed until it exploded into the Drink of Choice for Parisians, the fervor reaching its height just after the turn of the 20th century, when absinthe had become the rage in England and elsewhere as well, and in America was (and still is) associated with New Orleans.

So, as you might expect, a lot of inferior absinthes entered the market at cheap prices... and it went downhill, got a Bad Name, and was banned in France in 1915, of course adding to its fascination. Never actually illegal in the UK, or Canada or in the U.S. (though the importing of it is, haha), the new Absinthe Boom is traced by Bettina Wittels to 1993, and is associated with Brazil, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and even France again (where it never really went away). Oh, and Germany, and especially England... and the U.S. Wittels' website, allthingsabsinthe.com, is the place to start for people in search of absinthe's mystique, music, art, literature, and... absinthe, I guess, though Wittels won't actually let you charge it on your Visa and mail it to you in Tulsa. That part gets a bit more complicated.

If I sound a bit strident, it's because I can't seem to even get to review a book like this without skirting the above issues, so the info is all up there and on Bettina's website. The point of all this, for me, is that the culture surrounding absinthe is in itself fascinating and imbued with resplendent creativity and a colorful history... and also a lot of crap. Like the relative quality of the absinthe itself! This book is your primer of the shimmering world that surrounds the Green Faerie and also, to a degree, what to avoid: because that stuff is not really in this book! This is a beautiful and luminous treasury of artistic reproductions and photos and descriptions of antiques, replete with history recounted with a tonal richness that also seeks to avoid the negative side of absinthe's popular legend: which is exactly what the novel Wormwood, by Marie Corelli, is all about.

Yet of course the novel makes absinthe even more seductive. Hey—a great deal of the fascination with the stuff lies in the fact that it's been illegal, and moreover, unlike, say, pot, you don't know where to find it! Or crack. Anything. Yet in the 1880s they did, and the absinthe they were getting was, uh, "cut," in Drug Parlance. And anything alcoholic or hallucinogenic (wormwood) has its own dangers anyway, and if you can get past the histrionics of late-Victorian popular prose, that world, the underside of it, really is exposed in its sordid reality in Wormwood.

But no wonder Corelli was one of the most popular novelists of her day! Yeah, the thing isn't exactly beach reading (well, depends which beach, I guess) and the first chapter sounds like a really bad translation of a really bad imitation of a Baudelaire prose poem, but then—it just takes off. Once you're into it you'll wonder why the hell people didn't keep writing like this! I was going to do a riff on Wormwood similar to my review of Wilkie Collins' Blind Love (reprinted by Broadview last year), but Wormwood really is good, enjoyable in that it's fun! Sure, I know I'm reading it with a sort of campy irony, but what of it? I'm not some limp-pizzled fin-de-siecle Academic like Chris Snodgrass, and I can and have gotten my feet dirty in the worlds of the literature I talk about, and Wormwood is that world. Is Marie Corelli as good as Balzac, as searing as Zola? No. But this novel, of which I'd never heard, was definitely worth bringing out—and as usual, Broadview Press does a great and fantastic job of it, printing the cover's 1870 street-scene photograph in Absinthe Green.

But is Wormwood truly about absinthe? Only nominally.

See, we're fascinated with anything we can't have; and anything that alters one's Reality will keep coming back. Look at acid and heroin in the ‘90s. They have their little Cultures, too, but without the long history and probably for the most part without the great art. Opium? It's huge, in New York, San Fran, and in its diluted form in Vicodin and OxyContin. And people are still boozing. All over the world.

Absinthe, though, escapes the raucous violence of a cracked-up hip-hop culture and seems to aspire to and offer some sense or... refinement. Plus, absinthe is Sexy. Incidentally, so is sex, but okay, I know, we all need the artsy foreplay and it seems the further we get from 1967 (or 1992) the more foreplay we need, and absinthe is foreplay in its most... distilled form. And it's a little dangerous, too. At least that's what they say

: )

Okay. Everybody knows this ain't my first night in on the Turnip Wagon, and they probably know of my novel set in New Orleans or the escapades of my characters in that place or this one. So they're always asking me if I know where they can go to get some Absinthe.

And have I, Kevin McGowin, ever imbibed Absinthe? Well…could be! †How was it? Not as great as the idea of Absinthe, see, but put those two together with a pretty girl on a hot night in a big city and you might just feel like you're up in the air looking down at yourself with a sort of befuddled pity. But no, I don't know where you can get it—ask Bettina. But I'll give you a hint. Dress nice and don't go to flea-bag motels and Eminem shows saying, "Yo, man, can you get me straight with a little Synth?"

No, go to a wine shop. Ask a jazz clarinetist. And, if all else fails, just buy some wine, listen to the jazz, and soak up the green vibes from these books. Have sex, a nice shiraz, save $200!

Or follow Royal Street across Esplanade Avenue out of the Quarter and into the Marigny, and just before you're quite in the Bywater, turn up to Frenchman Street, and you might just get lucky.

Just don't mention my name.


Previous Piece Next Piece