The MW files: Poetasting

(First published in Man’s World, July 2002)

Edgar Allan Poe is not a respectable taste to admit to these days; indeed, there is evidence to suggest this was always so. W H Auden admired him, as did Jorge Luis Borges and Baudelaire; but Henry James expressed the critical sneer best when he asserted that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection”.

Let us give thanks at this point for the joys of ignorance. My first reading of Poe came about in the most propitious manner. I had not read James on Poe, so there was no austere dismissal of the luridly bound volume that a well-meaning visitor left behind, in order to soften an early bout of malaria. The first story was ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. I had high fever and that peculiar, restless but relentless wandering of the mind, which is one of the hallmarks of malaria.

As the delirium of the prisoner in the pit intensified, I matched him step for step; as he descended into unspeakable horror and insanity, I descended into the fevered clarity of true delirium. The sheets were damp and wrung out with sweat; the summer heat was stifling; the room seemed to close around me as I read: “A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart… I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. I felt nothing; yet dreaded to move a step, lest I should be impeded by the walls of a tomb. Perspiration burst from every pore, and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead…”

By the time the story ended–it is not especially long, perhaps twelve pages, and at thirteen I was a fast reader–the blood was pounding in my temples, and with the intensified hearing imparted by a certain kind of fever, I could hear the shrill call of the crows squabbling outside. It was brilliant. It was exhilarating. To read Poe, creator of febrile, delirious fantasies, while in the throes of fever, was perfection itself.

The years passed; I read James, and much as some people repudiate all knowledge of Richard Bach and Khalil Gibran once they discover Wittgenstein, I disavowed Poe. Indeed, I was gently condescending about him, perfectly willing to admit that as the virtual creator of the modern detective and for a certain atmosphere, he had some modest claims to fame. But that early taste for his highstrung fantasies, the product of disordered nerves matched with the equally wild, compelling drawings of Aubrey Beardsley lingered in the background, as memorable and as unnatural as the sharp metallic taste of blood in the mouth.

Then at a cocktail party, I encountered a man of a familiar type, the kind who has worked very hard to acquire the trappings of taste and expertise in the absence of a talent for either. He was a most superior being, and as he discoursed knowledgeably on wines who had had the pleasure to make his acquaintance, everyone else in the room was respectfully silent. “The names of wines,” he was saying, “are clues to their origin. There is one that comes from a small town in Spain–I cannot quite recall the name, let me think, it will come to me in a moment…”

He threw his head back and I found myself saying automatically, “Amontillado.” Spain has produced other excellent wines; it was a guess. “Yes, yes,” he said, a trifle put out, “Amontillado. The wine is of a peculiar nature; it hails from–but let our fair expert here enlighten us on both aspects, hmm?” “The town of Montilla,” I said. I was beginning to develop a dislike for this man. “It’s a pale, superior kind of sherry rather than a wine as such, but of course you already know that.” “Of course,” he said. We eyed each other with politely concealed dislike. The conversation turned to more general matters, for which my host privately thanked me later. My gauche interruption had three repercussions: I made an enemy, I acquired a completely undeserved reputation for being an oenophile, and I rediscovered Poe, this time without embarrassment.

‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is a minor story, but in addition to the nightmare quality that Poe always conjures up, it leaves behind, in its minor but insistent key, an oddly lingering impression. It concerns a murder, but Poe is so uninterested in the bones of the murder itself that he disposes of victim, motive and murderer’s identity in a casual opening line. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” That is all the reader needs to know, or will get, by way of motive.

Fortunato and his murderer have in common a love of wine. “Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit,” comments Poe’s narrator. “For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and the opportunity–to practise imposture upon the British and American millionaires.” With that line, he captures a kind of pseudo-enthusiasm that is still in vogue; indeed, it’s spreading in India as wine becomes “the new Scotch”. Fortunato is “in painting and gemmary…a quack–but in the matter of old wines he was sincere”. This is identified for us as his weak point.

The plot is skeletal. The narrator is a Montresor–a family both ancient and possessed of great pride, the family coat of arms depicting a huge human foot of gold, crushing a serpent under its heel. He collects wine, much of which is stored in the same family vault that contains the remains of generation upon generation of Montresors. He has exercised caution, not broadcasting his resentment so that Fortunato will be lulled into a state of unsuspecting ease. As carnival, he meets Fortunato, who is dressed in the motley garb of a jester, and tells him of his new acquisition: a pipe of Amontillado, about whose authenticity he has some doubt.

Already intoxicated by drink and roistering, Fortunato cannot resist the temptation to exercise his expertise. His murderer leads him through the damp vaults, their cavernous walls bedewed with moisture and nitre, stopping to sample wines along the way, and to let the chill seep into Fortunato’s constitutionally weak lungs. Befuddled by the drink, weakened by his complaint, Fortunato doesn’t realise what is happening; even when Montresor begins to wall him in alive, he is under the impression that this is an elaborate joke.

The chill of the story, like the chill of the catacombs, seeps slowly but surely into the reader’s heart. Like the true connoisseur, all other thoughts are banished from Fortunato’s mind by the necessity of testing the Amontillado. His skill leads him unsuspecting into the trap laid for him. Montresor’s clever assumption of diffidence and unconcern ensures that he stays well within the jaws of the trap.

It is a strange tale. At every turn, the murderer gives his victim the chance to escape. Luchesi can be applied to; Fortunato is busy. Fortunato replies contemptuously, “Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.” Once inside, he turns and looks at Montresor, with the eyes of a victim who doesn’t yet know his plight–“two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication”. Again, Montresor offers him a way out. His words are deliberately chosen: “Come, we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You will be missed.” Fortunato declines, and the first bottle, a Medoc, is uncorked. The wine, a fullblooded red, warms their bones, briefly. Montresor offers Fortunato, again in the guise of concern for his health, yet another opportunity to turn back. Around them, the vault drips dampness, oozing unhealth as though it was the physical embodiment of Montresor’s rotten, diseased soul. Fortunato refuses again; they drink again, from a flagon of De Grave.

As they descend further, the foulness of the air increases; in parts, the catacombs have deteriorated, revealing bare bones along the walls and in promiscuous heaps. Fortunato is led to a recess, so deep that he cannot see inside. “Here is the Amontillado,” says Montresor, and invokes, for the last time, the magic name of Luchesi, Fortunato’s unworthy rival, which has been dangled in front of him throughout the story as a lure. “He is an ignoramus,” are the last words that Fortunato says as a free man. From here on, he is chained; and then Montresor begins his hideous task, scrabbling among the bones for bricks and mortar. “The Amontillado!” Fortunato cries, twice. Then the wall starts to go up; by the first tier, the intoxication has begun to wear off. “The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man.” They speak of the Amontillado one last time, after the wall has risen high, when Fortunato still holds on to a final shred of hope that Montresor will relent.

But the cask of Amontillado is never breached. It is a moot point whether the cask ever existed, though in a cellar stocked with Medocs and Graves, it is possible that Montresor had, in truth, Amontillado.

It is an interesting sherry to drink; pale gold in colour, with a refinement absent from the usual bottle of Bristol Cream. If they had drunk it after the relatively robust Medoc and the intoxicating dryness of the De Grave, it would have offered an intricate, not unpleasing, finish, releasing a medley of tastes. At its best, Amontillado is supposed to contain the languor, sunshine and sweetness of Spain.

I drank it on two occasions and found that it contained all that; but lurking behind the sunshine was a faint damp reek, reminiscent of old bones, brickwork, perhaps a slowly decomposing, undisturbed corpse. When they come my way, I never say no to a Medoc, or indeed to a good Graves; but for some reason I have never acquired a taste for Amontillado.

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