pierre laszlo

Citrus review by Tim Longville

A book review by Tim Longville, in Hortus, 23(2), summer 2009, pp. 113-8

This book, unfussily but handsomely designed and produced (good paper, print given room to breathe, a central section of colour illustrations on art paper, sharply printed at a good size), is not about either gardens or gardening. But it is a book about plants and people and how the latter have used the former - for pleasure, profit and ‘psychological relief’ (including that provided by religious symbolism) - and therefore of considerable interest to any curious gardener. Its author is a retired professor of chemistry who has lived, taught and engaged in research all over the world, including in France, Britain, Belgium, Brazil, America and New Zealand. So, unsurprisingly, there is much in his pages about the biology and chemistry of his chosen group of plants - a group which of course includes all the many varieties of oranges, lemons, grapefruits and limes but also such relative oddities as calamandrins, kumquats and uglis. (At the end of one of the more formidable of those episodes of chemical analysis, he adds with characteristic charm - and the equally characteristic gentle teacher-ly hint that you could do better if you tried -, ‘You are forgiven if you skipped the last paragraph.’ Not all of the Professor’s scientific detail is formidable, though. Some is simply, ah, fascinating. For example, if I understand him correctly, the effects of Viagra are apparently increased by a regular intake of grapefruit, since that fruit contains chemicals [bergapten and bergamotin] which deactivate an enzyme in the small intestine which otherwise damages such ‘medications’ before they get into the bloodstream. Cue a rush on grapefruit once the news gets out?)

Professor Laszlo is far, however, from being ‘just any old scientist’: he is a French scientist and a sophisticated one, of a certain generation and a certain style: which means that he is equally interested in (make that passionate about) people, food and art. For him, the long history of citrus connects, as he says, ‘arboriculture and culture’ and takes anyone sufficiently interested ‘back and forth across the bridge between the material and the mental, external and internal riches, fruit for the mouth and fruit of the imagination’.

Hence the book’s many snapshots of social and economic history, as citrus fruit moved over the centuries from the east to the west, from being food for the few (a sign of aristocratic wealth and power) to food for the many (a sign of the spread of democracy: or at least of capitalism). Much of the history he provides is detailed and precise but he is also happy to indulge himself and his readers in some playful theorising. So, for example, he proposes the possibility of the transmission of knowledge of the advantages of orangeries (he invents several possible ‘means of transmission’, each more unlikely than the last) from the palaces of the Chinese Emperors to Louis XIV’s Versailles. Then he neatly pricks his own deliberately fanciful balloon with the final comment that the reader could view his theory as ‘the seed of the plot for a novel, in the tradition of The Name of the Rose or The Da Vinci Code’. 

That he is as fascinated by history’s factual nitty-gritty as by his own fancies is demonstrated, however, in the book’s many vivid sketches of individuals. Some are as famous as Louis XIV, others are almost completely forgotten, but all have made significant contributions to the impact of humans on citrus and citrus on humans. Among the forgotten (at least to this reader), two examples will have to stand for many. William Saunders was originally British, trained at Kew, went to the U.S.A. in his mid-twenties, owned nurseries, became a landscape architect (designing, among many other large commissions, the military cemetery at Gettysburg) and, eventually, superintendent of horticulture at the newly formed U.S. Department of Agriculture. As such he was responsible both for introducing Poncirus trifoliata, the Japanese bitter orange, to America – and, by sending three examples of the Brazilian navel orange to the entrepreneurial Mrs Eliza Tibbetts, for indirectly founding the entire Californian citrus industry. And that industry was able to flourish and expand in part because of the irrigation innovations of George Chafffey, a Canadian-born engineer who was also the creator and planner of model towns in California, such as Ontario (named in honour of his home state). There, he laid out an amazing, straight, fifteen-mile-long, two-hundred-feet-wide, double boulevard, called Euclid Avenue, which was lined with palm trees, eucalypts, grevilleas and pepper trees. In 1903 an international group of landscape architects voted it one of the most beautiful streets in the world and in 1904 a miniature model of it was one of the attractions of the World’s Fair in St Louis. (What is it like nowadays, I wonder?)

Being written by a man who is clearly also passionate about food, Citrus includes much about meals as indicators of cultural difference. He discusses, for example, the significance of the differences between typical traditional breakfasts in France, America and England. For the same reason his book also includes many actual - and mouth-watering - citrus-based recipes, from fried Valencia oranges to tarte au citron, from orange wine to marmalade. It is typical that he tells us that his favourite marmalade recipe, of which he provides details, was given to him by the wife of a colleague in the chemistry department of Auckland University (‘the best in New Zealand’) – and equally typical that he doesn’t simply provide the recipe but goes on to tell the story of how, holidaying in Florida, he and his wife stayed in a motel suite complete with kitchen so (naturally, as one does…) went out, bought citrus, made marmalade – then ate it as they drove the many miles north on US1 to New Hampshire, ‘the marmalade nourishing us all the way’. It is also typical that the recipe he gives for orange wine leads to a three-page Proustian endnote. (The endnotes take up 40 of the book’s 256 pages and are of a richness, range and unpredictability which would have impressed even the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy.) This particular endnote (in effect, a mini-novel) recalls in loving detail his youthful encounters in provincial France with an elderly female art-collector (and, of course, a maker and provider whenever he visited her house of glasses of vin d’orange). But (one more characteristic touch) it ends with the endearing admission that ‘the tale I have spun here is fifteen per cent fiction’.

Professor Laszlo is interested in (again, make that passionate about) not just that sort of playfulness in fiction but in the playfulness, the sheer joyful stylishness, of any accomplished work of art. (His book was written in English, by the way, not translated from French – though he credits ‘my fellow writer Mary Dearborn’ for close reading of his manuscript and for helping to turn it into ‘good English prose’. The stylistic result, though extremely elegant, is not at all – at least not stereotypically - ‘English’.) Hence, in a mere 200 pages, his book’s miniature disquisitions on artists from Zubaran to Matisse, from Botticelli to de Heem. Hence its references to prose writers from Steinbeck to Proust, from La Rochefoucauld to Alan Clark. Hence its analyses of poets from Goethe to Wallace Stevens, from Kipling to Francis Ponge. Indeed, it is Ponge’s knack for combining the vivid with the exact which he nominates (in one more endnote, of course) as the model he aspires to emulate: ‘it set a standard – one that I have striven to uphold in this book’. Not, I suspect, a sentiment likely to be expressed or a writing model adopted by the average professor of chemistry.

(On the other hand, another fascinating endnote recounts an episode that neatly turns the tables on such ‘literary’ condescension – though he politely refrains from pointing its moral. Wallace Stevens’s long poem, An Ordinary Morning in New Hampshire, was commissioned in 1949 as part of the celebrations for the 1000th meeting of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. The other commissions were for a piece of music [by Hindemith] and for two scientific demonstrations. The scientists attended and enjoyed the reading of the poem and the playing of Hindemith’s new piece. Only other scientists, however, attended the scientific demonstrations. Ouch.)

    All of which will, I hope, have demonstrated that Citrus is a true one-off, an inspired oddity. As its author explains, it was the product of his ‘newly elected retirement… [because] I…wanted my book to be bathed in an atmosphere of freedom – the freedom I gave myself while writing it, the freedom to follow my whims’. That explanation occurs in the book’s introductory Letter to a Fellow-Writer. That ‘fellow-writer’ is not a contemporary but Han Yen-Chih, the twelfth century author of the first monograph on citrus. And a final culminating example of the remarkable style of this remarkable book is that it ends with Han Yen-Chih’s reply d’outre-tombe: which is, as the reader’s own response to Citrus is likely to be, at once slightly bewildered, more than somewhat impressed - and altogether beguiled.

Tim Longville