Madeira

I stepped off my bus this afternoon halfway through Mason & Dixon‘s last chapter. No way could I have gone home and socialised with people at that point. I sat down on the first available bench and finished it. The thing is though, finishing M&D in public isn’t exactly like finishing Lot 49 or Gravity’s Rainbow or any of the other books. The final few chapters of M&D must be the tenderest, saddest pages in Pynchon. So I was a bit of a blubbery public spectacle. But whatever man, it’s a brilliant book.

Pynchon Madeira

The drinks list for Mason & Dixon is of course all ready to go now, and it sure does features some stunners. The “Cock Ale” will be one to look forward to especially (I’ll leave you to look up the recipe, which Pynchon does give in moderate and disturbing detail). But two drinks really dominate the action: corn whiskey and Madeira. Dixon proposes early on that the world divides into grain people and grape people. Dixon’s the grain man, Mason the grape. The book itself seems to start out on the side of the grape, with a glass of Madeira in every character’s hand. It’s the first drink show up, right on the second page (labelled page six):

…smoke ascends from Chimney-Pots, Sledging-Parties adjourn indoors, Taverns bustle,— freshly infus’d Coffee flows ev’ryplace, born about thro’ rooms front and back, whilst Madeira, which has ever fuel’d Association in these Parts, is deploy’d nowadays like an ancient Elixir upon the seething Pot of Politics,— for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.

And it keeps coming up through the first episodes of the book, showing up five times before page 300. After that, it starts to fade out of the adventure. By the time we reach its final appearance on page 566, it’s being literally shifted out of the way:

They make their way to a Corner with a Clavier, from whose top Dixon must remove a Madeira bottle, two cold Chops, and a severely tatter’d Periwig in order even to lounge against it.

Grain pushes Grape more and more to the sidelines as the line-drawing expedition progresses “as, the further West they go, the more distill’d Grains, and the fewer wines, are to be found.”

Like the book, I’m starting out with Madeira on the side of the grape. The one I have here is a five year aged Malmsey, which is the sweetest of the four possible varieties. Sweet it is, with an acid finish. Tastes overwhelmingly of raisins. If you’re seeking sugar, it is very enjoyable. Would be great, I’m sure, with ice cream. Pynchon describes Cape Madeira at one point as “a thick violet Liquid one must get thro’ six or seven Bottles of even to begin to feel at ease,” which just sounds to me like a huge sugar headache. I’ll seek out one of the dryer varieties next time.

Oh, and why is it Madeira our crew are always drinking? According to Wikipedia (my favourite phrase), the 18th century was the “golden age of Madeira.” It’s a very robust style, happily surviving exposure to oxygen and extreme temperatures, which must have helped it get to everyone in those wilder times.