Teresa Präauer: Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert
A review by Katy Derbyshire
Seeing as this is an old-school blog, I must start with a full disclosure: ten years ago I went Dutch with Teresa Präauer, drinking beer, Fernet Branca and pastis. It was a delightful evening, cementing my view of the Austrian author as a very cool person. In order not to dim that rosy glow, I didn’t read any more of her work, despite having loved her first two novels, Für den Herrscher aus Übersee and Johnny and Jean – until now.
Foolish? Obviously. Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert is fucking fantastic. Translation rights have sold to Pushkin Press, so you’ll be able to find out for yourself at some point. It was nominated for the German Book Prize and shortlisted for the Austrian and Bavarian Book Prizes.
The scenario: a woman has a new Danish dining table in her newish flat. She invites over her male partner, a married heterosexual couple, and a Swiss man and his girlfriend, but the latter can’t make it. So there are five people around the oiled-wood table for that quintessential middle-class activity: a dinner party. Green salad, quiche Lorraine, crémant: “At some point, everyone in their circle of friends had stopped drinking either champagne or Sekt, though both were sparkling wines, and now only ever drank crémant.”
As you might expect, Präauer works with the beloved trope of getting her characters drunk and seeing what happens. You’ll know it from Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage (which I despised), or from Eugen Ruge’s novel In Times of Fading Light, or indeed from mainland Europe’s favourite British skit, Dinner for One. It’s a fun thing to watch; as Byron wrote: “…it was first silent, then talky, then argumentative, then disputatious, then unintelligible, then altogethery, then inarticulate, and then drunk.” However, Präauer takes a playful sledgehammer to the proceedings in several ways.
First of all, she lets her narrative break down and start again a few times, each time adjusting it to banal reality. So instead of punctual arrivals, smooth conversation and complicated recipes, we get latecomers, awkward silences and, well, quiche – to name just a few variants. What appeals most to me, though, is that our hostess is new to all this bougie hosting business. Her anxious perfectionism arises from class insecurities, and we see the guests mainly through her eyes, although she’s not a first-person narrator. Präauer gives us snapshots of the hostess’s mother and grandmother cooking and eating very differently – hence the “wrong century” of the title. There are food memories of her own, addressed in the second person: not having any salt when you moved into your first flat, cooking frozen fish with tinned tomatoes, your grandparents distilling fruit brandy in their cellar, eating yoghurt with walnuts and honey on holiday in Greece.
We end up with a portrait of today’s concerns, the things middle-class people talk about at dinner parties: women in jazz, empowerment, language, lipstick, parenting, utopias or lack thereof. We see how the hostess wants her home to be, her precise style choices all terribly now. (Remember all that tiresome interior décor stuff in A Little Life? Like that, but meaningful.) We get an eyeful of how heterosexual relationships work these days, with some norms eroding but some firmly in place. We get the disputatious, the altogethery, the inarticulate and the drunk, as the narrative itself gets increasingly raucous and sexy. It’s ironic and knowing – and it’s all very funny, in all its permutations.
There’s one chapter towards the end that I might have done without – a little too explainy for my taste – but the ending itself made up for it. This is a book for foodies and for those who aspire to be great hosts and fall short, for anyone riddled with self-doubt in social situations, and for people who like watching other people get drunk. It inspired me to search in my phone for photos of food, hence the pictures accompanying this review. In other words, it’s fucking fantastic.