BOOK REVIEW / Thin end of the veg: 'The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing & Imprisonment' - Maud Ellmann: Virago, 7.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT DOES not take a genius to recognise the intimate connection between sex and food. Lord Byron's dislike of watching women eat, which was well known among his friends, speaks volumes about his fear of female sexuality. He once wrote of an Italian opera singer: 'I only wish she did not swallow so much supper . . . a woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and champagne, the only true feminine and becoming viands.'

MaudEllmann quotes from this famous letter of Lord Byron in The Hunger Artists, citing it as the sole piece of evidence for her claim that 'eating was traditionally seen as an unseemly and regrettable necessity for women'. She immediately fast-forwards a century to the First World War, when 'fat women . . . became the scapegoats for the guilt America was suffering about its late and grudging entry into the War'. The reader has scarcely had time to digest this apercu when Ellmann is off again, effortlessly vaulting 60 years into the late 1970s: 'In a sense the war had come home, for now it was our bodies that were under siege, rather than those of the Vietnamese; and only the most unremitting vigilance could save us from the chemicals bombarding us from every supermarket shelf.'

Phew. There was poor old Jane Fonda, innocently imagining she was teaching women to firm up their flesh when, according to Ellmann, 'the rhetoric of fitness resonates with disconcerting echoes of the war in Vietnam and suggests that the forbidden pleasures of American imperialism have resurfaced in the very discourse of their exorcism'. The healthy diet recommended by Fonda 'corresponds to that of the pre-war Vietnamese peasant; as if we could atone for the defoliation of that country by stuffing our own bodies full of leaves'. Inevitably, Ellmann pounces on a connection between America's obsession with dietary fibre and a longing to restore the country's failing moral fibre.

It is a feature of this preposterous book that Ellmann repeatedly ignores subtle, non-verbal connections - such as the way Byron's sexual disgust displaced itself on to the act of eating - in favour of a species of hermeneutics which worries every food or writing metaphor into a state of exhausted collapse. The central and deliberately startling comparison in the book is between the Irish hunger strikers who starved themselves to death in Long Kesh prison in 1981 and the heroine of Richardson's Clarissa, who starves herself to death after her rape by Lovelace. Ellmann is struck by the way in which the attenuation of the hunger strikers' bodies was accompanied by a growing need to pass secret messages among themselves, while Clarissa's letters became longer and more frequent as her bodily frame is enfeebled.

'The thinner the body, the fatter the book,' Ellmann argues. 'It is as if the lilliputian diminution of the flesh entailed a corresponding brobdingnagian inflation of the word.' I do not know whether she holds the converse to be true, in which case the slim volume under consideration bespeaks a pleasing plumpness on the part of its author; certainly the notion that words take the place of food is of limited application to writers, finding its most obvious contradiction in the stout figure of Mrs Humphry Ward, queen of the Victorian triple-decker.

At almost every point, Ellmann sacrifices clarity for cleverness. At the end of the first chapter (entitled 'Autophagy'), she announces that her purpose is 'to substitute a more encompassing poetics of starvation for the phallic poetics of desire', and rushes on to argue that language and the body are at war. Rejecting the notion that writing is an affirmation of the human spirit, she insists that 'writing voids the mind of words just as starving voids the body of its flesh, and both express the yearning for an unimaginable destitution'. What writers are up to, she claims, is nothing more than affirming 'the supremacy of lack' - a suitably vacuous conclusion for a book which strives in its small way to encompass death, the universe and everything.