Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Balzac's Death

Like many writers, it is coffee that kick-starts my day and my writing.

Coffee first came to Europe in the 17th century from the Middle East after being brought back by Venetian traders. The word derives from the Arabic, qahwah ("that which keeps you awake") which the Turks pronounced as kah-veh. It was believed by some Christians to be the devil’s drink. The pope of the day was thinking of banishing it . . . until he sipped it.  Pope Clement VIII was so delighted he baptized it instead.

Coffee houses quickly became centres for gossip, reading, writing or doing business. One of the most famous in London was the Turk’s Head in the Strand where you might find Samuel Johnson, his biographer Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith and Edward Gibbon, all ordering Beelzebub's beverage. It was not long before coffee not only stained manuscripts and diaries, but entered them. Early mentions of coffee can be found in Francis Bacon’s Historia Vitae et Mortis (1623) and Sylva Sylvarum (1627).

Coffee’s addictive nature was noted by Voltaire who drank 50 cups a day. In Balzac's Treatise on Modern Stimulants he says that ideas are encouraged by drinking coffee: "Things remembered arrive at full gallop." Balzac was a man of huge appetites and some people believe that his love of coffee might have contributed to his death. (A Philadelphia coffee roaster has named one of their blends La Mort de Balzac.) Johann Sebastian Bach's inspiration for his “Coffee Cantata” was due to his dependence on the drink.

Today, coffee is as important as alcohol in literature and here I will refer to two works where coffee is featured. In Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe narrates in considerable detail about making coffee before leaving on his escapades. In The Wild Sheep Chase Haruki Murakami makes a coffee shop the place where his protagonist picks up men willing to pick up her ciggies and coffee tab.

A fact I find fascinating is that the Oromo people of Ethiopia traditionally plant a coffee tree on the graves of powerful shamans. They believe the first coffee bush sprouted from the god of heaven's tears as he wept over a dead sorcerer. So not the devil’s drink, but a celestial one.

Stay tuned . . .

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