[12 July 2007]
Giles Milton, author of several recent works of popular history, has been a contributor to the genre’s trend towards greater and great specificity. Not for this batch of writers the grand themes of Decline and Fall—rather the devil (and book sales) is in the detail and the minutiae. The genre is a growing one and Milton has benefited from its popularity.
Now instead of writing Linen: The Fabric That Changed The World, Milton has taken a departure of sorts into the world of fiction with Edward Trencom’s Nose. The departure is a small one only, for this amusing tale shares a lot of the preoccupations of Milton’s more factual works. In fact, the story of a long line of cheese sellers whose prodigious noses may have changed the course of modern Greek history sounds suspiciously like one of those strange-but-true works we are becoming accustomed to.
The eponymous Trencom owns the finest cheese shop in London, one that has been in the possession of his family since the 17th century. He also owns the finest nose in generations, one that can distinguish the provenance of a cheese down to the cow from which it originated. He is feted and honoured by his fellow cheese-lovers.
He is also that typical literary Englishman; all good manners, absent-mindedness and harmless eccentricity. He’s almost too credulous to believe. When the story opens in 1969, he appears to have never questioned the strange fates that befell his ancestors—particularly odd since most of them met grisly ends. His sexual naïveté also stretches belief somewhat, despite what Ian McEwan’s latest novel would have us believe about English sexual inexperience in the 1950s and ‘60s.
So when Edward Trencom is warned by a mysterious stranger that he is being watched, his first reaction is to be completely baffled. After all, the world of cheese isn’t exactly the world of high espionage and Trencom is no 007. So his second reaction is that of the mild-mannered introvert—to start researching his family history, from which he uncovers many surprises.
Throughout this tale, Milton flits back and forth briefly to inform us of the untimely demise of Trencoms past and to fill in some of the narrative gaps. But our Author’s real passion is for the descriptions of specific cheeses, many that your local delicatessen would never have stocked.
Smell has to be the hardest of all senses to convey using words. Visual descriptions are relatively easy and onomatopoeia can do sound serviceably. But smell? Half the problem is that most of us have quite untrained noses. So while we can imagine the clang of something we’ve heard before or picture a coastline with reference to our experience, imagining the smell of a specific cheese when most of them seem plain smelly—that’s hard.
To his credit, Milton does a sterling job of bringing cheese to life. He also succeeds in illuminating some dark corners of history, particularly old Byzantium and recent Greek events. In fact, it’s this specificity and attention to detail that makes Edward Trencom’s Nose something special—although more for entertainment value than for imparting knowledge.
There’s not much point in the layperson knowing great detail on Byzantine coins, the siege of Smyrna or Greek goats’ cheeses and a fiction book is not the best way to communicate such information. But the inherent oddball charm of such arcane topics communicates the eccentricity of characters such as Trencom and Co. far better than giving them silly hats or manners of speaking. We laugh at the characters, but we are slightly in awe of their knowledge.
The irony is that for a writer such as Milton to make a living (and I presume he makes a good one), they must know a little bit about a lot of topics. In fact, the key to successful popularising of arcane topics is to be generalist oneself.
What it all adds up to is a highly entertaining novel that follows in a long tradition of other highly entertaining but largely inconsequential books about British eccentrics who get themselves in rather a muddle and somehow make it through. P.G. Wodehouse made a long a career out of just such books. Milton’s own contribution to the recipe is his passion for historical oddities. This addition still doesn’t turn Edward Trencom’s Nose into an enduring work of literature, but it does make it worth reading in addition to all the others.
If Trencom has a moral of any sort, it’s presumably that “There’s no place like home” or “An Englishman’s Cheese Shop is his Castle”, which is an interesting stance for a book spiced up with the exotic and the esoteric to take. Perhaps what Milton is saying is that all this history and politics business is frightfully interesting, but that the fine produce of the Orient is best enjoyed at home, in front of a warm fire, with loved ones nearby.
Not a terribly radical message by any means, but one entirely in keeping with the unpretentious, escapist aims of Milton’s work, both fiction and non.