Most books, music and movies that I like are at least 10 years old. Sometimes I dislike myself for that, because it’s always better to be more ‘engaged’ in the appreciation of art – to appreciate contemporary artists, and to establish dialogues with them if at all possible.
So I’m proud of the fact that (alongside Shakespeare of the 1700’s, Carroll of the 1800’s and John Kennedy Toole of the 1900’s) I am a fan of Paul Torday of the 2010’s. And my favorite Paul Torday book is his second one – the irresistibly named “The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce”.
Wilberforce is, amongst my various favorite books, the saddest. It opens, as a red herring, with a very droll scene of the protagonist, Wilberforce, looking through the wine lists of various restaurants on the internet to find one that is enough of an experience for him to go to. He finally finds one which has two bottles of the Chateau Petrus 1982, and takes a taxi there, tipping the taxi driver a hundred pounds while fumbling in the darkness in his wallet. The $3000 bottle of wine is ordered, with due murmers of appreciation and astonishment from the staff as well as the other patrons of the restaurant. Wilberforce finishes the bottle, fully relishing it. Then he thinks of the second bottle that is in the restaurant’s cellar, and thinking about it, cannot bear to imagine the thought that someone else will come in and drink it. So (against the advice of the sommelier) he orders the second bottle, gets completely drunk halfway through it, starts singing loudly in the restaurant, and suddenly passes out on the floor.
This episode is recounted so well by Torday that you think it sets the tone for the rest of the book as a comedy laced liberally with wine anecdotes and alcoholic pranks. But it doesn’t. You learn that Wilberforce is an alcoholic, and he has passed to the advanced stages of drink addiction, experiencing bouts of passing out and hallucinations.
After reading about a third of the book, you suddenly find a new ‘section’. The book has four such sections, and very curiously, they age backwards. The second section is written two years before the first, and the third is set 4 years in the past. So, reading the first section, you already know how the story is going to end.
I really liked Wilberforce (though he is not a likeable character particularly) – an orphan, 30-something years old, raised by foster parents, who loves mathematics, and spent most of his early youth building a company that makes software. He is a complete workaholic in his 20s, and so his company becomes prosperous and large. One day, completely by accident, Wilberforce decides to drive up a different road, and encounters a wine seller. He has never drunk wine before, and the man sells him his first bottle of wine with instructions on how to enjoy drinking it. Soon, Wilberforce starts hanging out at the wine seller’s place, meeting a new crowd of people, enjoying a different facet of society, finding love, and realizing that there’s more to life than work.
You know how it ends – with Wilberforce an alcoholic and worse. And reading the book has the grisly feel of watching a train wreck, as you read about how he got there.
The last chapter in the book is the most cheerful and optimistic chapter in all of it. Wilberforce meets a girl who is going to be the love of his life, and the book ends with the lovely sentence: “Have you had that absolute sense of conviction: that, after all, life is going to turn out really well for you?”
It’s the first time I’ve seen a book that has a funny beginning and a very happy ending, but is nonetheless one of the saddest books I have ever read. Lovely.