PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover design: Marie Lane
The first mention of vodka in English was made by a Scotsman, Captain Cochrane, who drank the liquid serpent while in Russia in 1820. He called it 'vodka(whisky)', a sketchy comparison, at best. Any respectable Caledonian will insist whisky-drinking is far too important an activity to involve the complementary consumption of food. Vodka-drinking, on the other hand, is too important to be undertaken without food. English drinkers have never got the hang of this crucial detail. The new Dedalus Book of Vodka by Geoffrey Elborn contains an extract from Angel Pavement(1930) by J.B.Priestley, ' the first appearance of vodka in English fiction', in which Mr Golspie, a shady businessman, induces miss Matfield, a proper typist, to down a glass or two. Miss Matfield thrills to the 'incendiary bomb' which 'had burst in her throat and sent white fire racing down every channel of her body'. It is delightful, but it lacks an essential ingredient:the pickle.
After alcohol prohibition ended in Russia (it ran from the beginning of the First World War until 1924) the populace returned to vodka with gusto and a family of eight, with the help of thirty guests, celebrated by polishing off 36 litres of the stuff (along with a sheep and a pig) and then had to spend the rest of the year living off bread, cucumbers and potatoes. Kids also got stuck in but the estimated forty percent of children who didn’t partake, could often be found parading outside of factories with placards that read “We demand sober parents” and “Shoot drunks”. This is just one of the many fascinating tales related in this book which follows on from an equally anecdote packed Dedalus book on gin. There’s information on the drink’s history; how it gained popularity in the US and UK; James Bond’s love of a vodka martini (he first supped it in the second 007 novel “Live And Let Die”, 1954); its relationship with literature and music; a tasting guide; and various cocktail recipes. A very spirited account.
Dedalus tend to favour books which put decadence or licentiousness in a literary, historical context. Elborn’s agreeable overview of vodka’s 600-year evolution, its eventual global spread, and the cultural and sociological weight behind this – may therefore be their perfect book. Predominantly associated with Russia, this allows for some choice extracts from Chekhov and Dostoevsky novels; Elborn thinks enough of his audience to give these much more attention than James Bond.
Vodka has never been held in the esteem reserved for spirits such as whisky or gin."It's a peasant's drink, made from potatoes, by Slavs in the East." Well up to a point,Lord Copper. As Geoffrey Elborn points out in The Dedalus Book of Vodka with tales of Tolstoy,Stalin, Yeltsin, Shostakovich and 007, there's more to the drink than that. So raise a glass of Stolichnaya, Absolut, or Zubrowka to author and publisher...
In Russian literature, the drink that steals away men's brains is vodka. Tolstoy, repenting his youthful follies ("lying, thieving, promiscuity of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder"), founded a temperance society called the Union Against Drunkenness, and designed a label - a skull and crossbones, accompanied by the word "Poison" - to go on all vodka bottles. In the event, the health warning wasn't adopted but Tolstoy's views on vodka seep into his fiction, as do Dostoevsky's in The Devils ("The Russian God has already given up when it comes to cheap booze. The common people are drunk, the children are drunk, the churches are empty"). Chekhov was more ambivalent. As Geoffrey Elborn shows in his new cultural history, The Dedalus Book of Vodka, he was torn between his knowledge as a doctor and his understanding of human nature. Two of his brothers were alcoholic, and he denounced vodka companies as "Satan's blood peddlers". But he sympathised with the Russian peasantry, for whom vodka was nectar. And in his stories and plays, those who drink excessively – like the army doctor Chebutykin in The Three Sisters – are portrayed with humour and compassion.