From the Bible to Nabokov, the author and self-confessed fruit obsessive charts some of its juiciest appearances in literature
Ripe pickings … tropical fruit.
Adam Leith Gollner’s first book, The Fruit Hunters, grew out of a “fruit epiphany” in Brazil that sent him round the world in search of exotic, fun, delicious and disgusting harvests, and back into history, where fruit have propped up dictatorships and sent countries to war. The book won the Canadian McAuslan First Book award and was a finalist for the Mavis Gallant prize.
“Fruit were made for storytelling. Dripping with hidden significance, they provide an ideal rhetorical device. They seem so sweet and pure, yet beneath their tempting exteriors fruit can be as deceitful – and complex – as the knowledge of good and evil. Red hearts or black eyes, capsules of sunlight or crystal drops of blood, fruit are a mystery tool in the crafting of creative acts. The following literary fruit scenes shed light on the ways this ripe symbolism can seduce writers – and their subjects.”
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“She had painted lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple… She tossed it up into the sun-dusted air, and caught it – it made a polished plop. Humbert Humbert intercepted the apple…”
Fruits and forbidden carnality go way back, an association Nabokov exploits giddily in this climactic scene. It’s a Sunday morning in June. Lolita is wearing bobbysocks and a pink cotton dress. Humbert wakes, puts on his purple silk dressing down, and goes downstairs in search of Lo. He finds her pawing a Red Delicious apple, and slithers next to her on the candy-striped davenport. Sprawling herself athwart Humbert, the tanned nymphet devours her immemorial fruit, arousing “a hidden tumor of unspeakable passion”. Humbert cannot contain his surreptitious euphoria: “I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body.”
2. The Book of Genesis
“She took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened”.
Fruits have been a way of talking about sacred mysteries since the earliest buddings of narrative. Take the metaphysically charged plant life in the Garden of Eden. The tree of life’s fruit apparently bestow immortality; the other tree is even thornier. Note to any original sinners out there: the Bible never stipulates that Adam and Eve ate an apple. Its actual name is “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” – sufficiently convoluted to demand contemplation. Beyond the lust and shame, the allegory hints at a distinction between the material, physical world and another realm beyond duality.
In myths and religious texts, fruit are symbols that guide us across the threshold, whether it’s an Edenic tree of never-ending youth or Buddha attaining enlightenment beneath a fig tree. Perhaps fruit are used to represent the unfathomable unity of opposites because they themselves are the coming together of male and female flowers, of sugars and acids, of dying flesh and unborn seeds. Shrouded in diaphanous notions of eternity and omniscience, the fruit of Genesis can be interpreted in a variety of ways, yet their ultimate meaning remains elusive. Our eyes will be opened, but the knowledge gained may not set us free. Quite the opposite …
3. The Moon By Whale Light by Diane Ackerman
“I didn’t know I was different, truly, irrevocably different, different in what I saw when looking out of the window each day, until one morning when I was going through the orchard with three first grade school mates … Above us, the trees were thick with dark plums huddled like bats.”
The fruit trees are an awakening: the discovery of metaphor, the realisation of self, the echolocation of other worlds within this one. For Ackerman, this fruit epiphany led to a life of letters. As she gaped in youthful wonder at the living plum-bats nesting in their twisting limbs, her friends tried to pull her along to school. They asked what she was staring at. When she told them, they recoiled. “The possibility of bats didn’t frighten them. I frightened them.”
4. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
“This rendition comes to you by courtesy of Kaiser’s Stoneless Peaches. Remember no other peach now marketed is perfect and completely stoneless. When you buy Kaiser’s Stoneless Peach you are buying full weight of succulent peach flesh and nothing else.”
Fruit as existential crisis. This radio advertisement precipitates the suicide of Aimee Thanatogenos, the triangulated loved one in Waugh’s California tragicomedy. Aimee, a cosmetic mortician, is overwhelmed by the futility of modern life. Spurning the advances of a Dennis Barlow, a young poet admirer, she has agreed to marry the dour embalmer Mr Joyboy, an Oedipal wreck in thrall to his mother. As empty as a Kaiser’s Stoneless Peach, Aimee kills herself. Waugh’s cynical notion of a stoneless peach’s putative perfection also foreshadowed the empty promises of today’s fruit marketing – from unripe, puckeringly bitter cranberries sold as “all natural, fully ripened, white cranberries” to apples dunked in artificial-grape-flavored bird repellent and branded as “Grapples.”
5. The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare
“A goodly apple rotten at the heart: O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath.”
Shakespeare pointed out that ripeness is all. He also noted how goodly-looking fruit often taste terrible. Today, many commercial fruit have immaculate exteriors. They’ve been doused with pesticides, ripening gases, dyes, biochemical growth inhibitors, hormone-based retardants and high-sheen waxes. Oil is used at every step: to power tractors and mechanised farming devices, to make petrochemical fertilizers, to manufacture the plastic PolyEthylene bags we carry groceries home in, and to transport fruit from orchards and warehouses to supermarkets. Accordingly, our produce departments look like new car lots full of enormous, perfect fruit gleaming with wax. The spectrum of colors is heightened by megawatts of directional lighting accentuating the beads of mist dripping from the temperature-controlled display cases. Unfortunately, most of these vehicles are lemons. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t goodly tasting fruit to be plucked. As the immortal bard might’ve put it, “There are more fruit in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
6. The Unveiling of Timbuctoo by Galbraith Welch
“There were fruit trees with fruit that sang its way down dry throats like the gurgle of rippling brooks … strange native fruits, flaming with colour, bursting with juice. Nature on holiday, spending herself like a drunken sailor.”
French explorer Rene Caillié was the first European to penetrate the fearsome city of Timbuctoo – and return alive. Disguised as a mendicant from Mecca, his 1827 pilgrimage took him from the coast of Sierra Leone across the Sahara desert. Throughout this supposedly barren “Land of Death,” Caillié was continually astonished by the diversity of fruit he encountered. Writer Galbraith Welch set out to retrace his journey in 1934. As she traverses a thousand miles of unbroken sand, her fantastical descriptions melt into mirages. There are trees like castles aflame, flowers of a thousand colours, scorpions like two-pound lobsters, ants as large as cats trained to collect gold for their masters, and myriad magical African fruit, like the cobaï: “no bigger than a hazelnut but so delicious that natives say that whilst it is in season no one would wish to touch any other food”.
7. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics by Edward H Schafer
“The golden peaches actually existed … what kind of fruit they may have been, and how they may have tasted, cannot now be guessed. They are made glamorous by mystery and symbolize all the exotic things longed for and the unknown things hoped for by the people of the T’ang empire.”
From the seventh to the 10th century, China’s T’ang dynasty had a thing for fruit. Schafer’s 1963 bestiary inventories countless exotics imported by the nobility. Of all their luxurious comestibles, none were as sought-after as the peaches of Samarkand. With a golden lustre, they were the size of goose-eggs and gushed nectar. Other rare fruit were shipped cross-country. Snow-packed watermelons were trundled into the capital from the oasis of Khwãrizm. Mare-nipple grapes arrived by camel from the Mountains of Heaven. Almost as tantalising as golden peaches were imperial lychees. At a time when women stained their lips with cherry juice and painted their eyebrows green to resemble moth antennae, none could outstyle the Emperor’s precious consort, Yang Guifei, a concubine who had 700 personal tailors and kept a miniature jade fish in her mouth. To please her, Emperor Hsüan Tsung employed a special horse-riding courier to fetch her lychees in the south. This fruit cowboy would race across the length of China, from Lingnan to the palace at Ch’Ang-An, bearing his royal consignment. A non-locavore love story.
8. Introduction to Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
“The melons had been picked early that morning in our own gardens – long, heavy, green-striped Georgia Rattlesnakes and big, round, heavy Cuban Queens so green they were almost black.”
When Joseph Mitchell wrote the introduction to his collected works in 1992, he was at the tail-end of a three-decade-long writer’s block. He’d been unable to write anything significant since his 1964 masterpiece, Joe Gould’s Secret, the true story of a bohemian vagrant struggling to complete his nine-million-word Oral History of Our Time. Mitchell’s introduction, composed shortly before his death, is a meditation on the remote, mysterious influences responsible for one’s cast of mind. Describing his frequent visits to cemeteries as a child, Mitchell recalled how his family used to eat watermelons behind an old country church in North Carolina. They would then walk through the cemetery in a procession as Aunt Annie told horrifying – and horrifyingly funny – tales of the corpses below. This coming together of sweetness and tombs, of laughter and disintegration, presaged the graveyard humour typical of Mitchell’s best writing.
9. Saturn by Jakob Lorber
“… a very particular kind of fruit begins to grow on a crystalline knobby stem. In the beginning this fruit consists of nothing but a translucent water pouch, which gradually becomes larger and larger. When this fruit ripens, it resembles a balloon which is six to nine feet in diameter.”
According to the 19th century German mystic Jakob Lorber, who wrote at length about the fruit of outer space, the ubra fruit described above grows on Saturn’s 180 foot-tall branchless glass trees. Their square trunks of green glass shine like mirrors, allowing passers-by to check out their reflections. As the fruit reaches maturity, the translucent water takes on the aspect of mercury. Once the silvery liquid solidifies, the balloon-shaped fruit fall to the ground and are cut into shiny squares used as plates by locals. Lorber learned about these fruit through “a series of protracted revelations,” as Jorge Luis Borges described it. Starting in 1840, the voice of God commanded Lorber to put pen to paper and transcribe everything he heard. From that moment on, until he died 24 years later, he wrote all day almost every day, completing 25 volumes of more than 500 pages each (not including his minor works).
10. The Duchess of Malfi’s Apricots and Other Literary Fruits by Robert Palter
“I have come to realise that my project is inherently open–ended… My study is ongoing, and this book represents in a way only an ‘interim report’.”
So many writers have been captivated by fruit that you could spend a lifetime simply attempting to catalogue them all. That’s precisely what Robert Palter did: His hefty 850-page page anthology itemises and discusses countless fruit scenes in stories, poems, songs, films, and other literary vehicles. The research overwhelmed him early on: “Every time I’d find another instance of fruits in a story, I’d say ‘Wow! I can’t believe this!'” He decided to end the book with no punctuation, as a sign of its endlessness. Long after publication, he still couldn’t stop finding fruit episodes. As he put it in a reminiscence entitled My Big Fruit Book: “Involuntarily, and even against my conscious intentions, I persist in scanning for fruit everything I encounter in the way of print and pictures.” The pursuit of fruit becomes a quest for infinity.