Gourmet Rhapsody, by Muriel Barbery

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Having already confessed a fondness for “school” novels (see here), the time has also now come to admit an equal KfC weakness for “foodie” fiction books that take an ominous turn (not surprising for KfC, I guess — please visit my chicken franchise if you get the chance). John Lanchester’s A Debt to Pleasure has been a favorite for a while. Even better for me (and far less well known) is Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park, where a brilliant young chef plays a marvelous hoax. And yes, the Stanley Park of the title is the same one that you have been seeing on your television screens from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver if you have been watching that. I obviously have, given the lack of posts here, and may well revisit Taylor’s novel once the Games are over.

All of which is a lengthy introduction to why Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody hit my reading list, despite some of the grumpy professional reviews it received when the translation appeared last summer. Pierre Arthens, the world’s greatest food critic, has been told that he has 48 hours or less to live and, as he faces his demise, he discovers a challenge:

I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it. I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced. I know that it is a flavor from childhood or adolesence, an original, marvelous dish that predates my vocation as a critic, before I had any desire or pretension to expound on my pleasure in eating. A forgotten flavor, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced at the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told — or realized. I search, and cannot find.

Gourmet Rhapsody is structured with two story lines, told in alternating chapters. The critic’s search for his forgotten flavor is one of them and it provides a very useful device that allows Barbery to describe food, eating and tasting of an incredible range. There is a fair bit of fancy stuff described but don’t let that put you off because many of the memories come from childhood. Consider this introduction of one of his first foodie memories:

I cannot pinpoint exactly my first gastronomic ecstasies but there is no doubt as to the identity of my first preferred cook: my own grandmother. On the menu for celebrations there was meat in gravy, potatoes in gravy, and the wherewithal to mop up all that gravy. I never knew, subsequently, whether it was my childhood or the stews themselves that I was unable to re-experience, but never again have I sampled as fervently (I am the specialist of such oxymorons) as at my grandmother’s table the like of those potates: bursting with gravy, delectable little sponges. Might the forgotten taste throbbing in my breast be hidden somewhere in there? Might it suffice to ask Anne [his wife] to let a few tubers marinate in the juices of a traditional coq au vin?

The second narrative stream is not about food at all. We learn immediately that the critic is a complete and utter cad and has been for all of his adult life. Totally obsessed with his reputation and his interest in food, he mistreats his wife, regards his children as “imbeciles” and treats everyone around him (save a sycophant nephew) with contempt. The narrators for this stream are a succession of characters he has abused (wife, children, grandchildren, beggars) who respond in kind and a couple he has not (a dog and a cat). Wife Anna pretty much sums up this side of his character:

I have always known what sort of life we would lead together. From the very first day, I could see that for him, far away from me, there would be banquets, and other women, and the career of a charmer with insane, miraculous talent; a prince, a lord constantly hunting outside his own walls, a man who, from one year to the next, would become ever more distant, would no longer even see me, would pierce my haunted soul with his falcon’s eyes in order to embrace a view that was beyond my sight. I always knew this and it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered were the times when he came back, and he always came back, and that was enough for me, I would be the woman to whom one returns unfailingly, however absentmindedly and vaguely.

So how does all of this land? For me — and remember I confess my foodie bias — that stream works quite well. In addition to childhood memories, there are a couple of wonderful descriptions of simple picnics, the narrator’s first experience with Scotch whisky and even persuasive dramatic tension as the narrator begins to come closer and closer to remembering that “forgotten flavor”.

The other narrative stream is far less successful. The narrator is such a complete bastard in the way that he treats other people that their memory of him becomes quite predictable and, frankly, not very interesting. While Barbery manages to successfully develop the search for a flavor, there is no tension at all in this side of the story. I found myself almost skimming those chapters as the novel approached its conclusion.

Barbery’s first book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, (which I have not read) was a bestseller that attracted substantial critical acclaim — three pages of review excerpts of it introduce my volume of Gourmet Rhapsody. This slim volume (156 pages of smallish, well-spaced type) certainly does not seem to meet that standard. (EDIT: Thanks to a comment from Claire, I now realize that this book is Barbery’s first, although her second in English translation. If you check the comments, I think you will agree that that makes a difference in evaluating it.)

Yet, for a foodie reader, it was still a worthwhile experience and, unusually for a not-very-good book, does get much better as it approaches its end. Barbery has a very nice touch of humor in many of those late sections (I haven’t quoted an example because any would be a spoiler). If you don’t like reading about food, give the book a miss. Even if you do, I’d still say both A Debt to Pleasure and Stanley Park are better reads. On the other hand, given the limited number of “foodie” novels that are available, Gourmet Rhapsody is an entertaining diversion. Alas, it is not much more.

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15 Responses to “Gourmet Rhapsody, by Muriel Barbery”

  1. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    KFC:
    Thankfully, your reviews are much more interesting than your chicken franchises.

  2. Trevor Says:

    I tried to read this one a few months ago and just couldn’t get into it, despite my love for food and the slimness of the book. Usually with a book this short I can just buck up and get through it, but I kept finding myself drifting away from it. I think it was, as you suggest above, because the narrator is so awful as to be uninteresting. I have been tempted to think it was just me, but I think I’m going to get over my guilt for not reading it and move on cleanly.

    Though perhaps I should just skip every other chapter to focus in on the food.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did find it got better as it went on. I agree however that for a short book, the first half is rather strangely lethargic. I did find myself in that half comparing it at times to two Echenoz novels that I have reviewed (Ravel and Piano). While Echenoz created interest, Barbery seems to drive it away.

  4. Claire (Paperback_Reader) Says:

    Kevin, I’ve been reading your blog for a while (I came to it via kimbofo’s blog, Reading Matters); I wanted to point out that The Gourmet is actually Barbery’s first novel and was translated following the success of her follow-up, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Elegance is much more accomplished and that makes sense being the later work. I read The Gourmet last and the foodie inside me enjoyed some of the delectable descriptions (especially the section regarding sashimi).

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Claire: Thanks for dropping by and thanks even more for providing the additional information. This book was originally published in 2000 and Hedgehog in 2006, so there would be reason to expect development in the author in that period. Not to mention that the success of the second novel undoubtedly send the publisher scrambling back to get the overlooked first into the stores.

    Your comment opens the doors for a couple of other observations. This translation has been published as both The Gourmet and Gourmet Rhapsody, if you happen to come across one or the other. Also, Barbery lives in Japan which has caused some reviewers to find Japanese influences in the book. Like Claire, I found that showed up best in descriptions of Japanese food preparation — I didn’t find anything that caused me to regard the work or her style as being Japanese-influenced.

  6. Claire (Paperback_Reader) Says:

    How odd… I actually bought Gourmet Rhapsody from the US as I preferred the cover but automatically referred to it as The Gourmet.

    The Japanese influence is more apparent in The Elegance of the Hedgehog but I think that is many due to the inclusion and narrative importance of a Japanese character. The sashimi is wonderfully described and, yes, this could definitely be attributed to Barbery’s experience of the country.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I am inclined to give first novels a bit of a break, so now that I know this was Barbery’s first effort I would move my overall impression up a notch or two. I just checked my Europa edition, incidentally, and am rather grumpy that the publisher seems to very much want to hide the fact that this novel preceded Hedgehog by six years in the original French — I don’t think they did the author any favor. None of the blurbs acknowledge it and most imply at least the other order (the data page is the only place you can find that this was originally copyrighted in 2000). I did read it under the impression that this was novel two, not one.

    Certainly there are parts of the book that show substantial talent — not just the food parts (I’d add descriptions of bread and celebrations of the picnics to the sashimi description) but also some of the humor she displays later in the book (the chapter on the dog eating the Yule Log is very well done). And in our house, we did have a cat that one year got to the Christmas turkey before we humans did. And I will admit that the conclusion of the book did motivate me to head out to the nearby bakery (not the supermarket, I admit) to buy some hot cross buns (as opposed to chouquettes, although I did briefly consider them) yesterday, since they are one of those childhood “flavors” that live on in my personal taste memory. In that sense, I’d have to say Barbery was a success.

    Her publishers say she is at work on a third novel and I would say there is good reason to look forward to it.

  8. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I agree with your policy of going easier on first novels and, therefore, also agree that the publisher does no favor to the author by passing off a first novel as a later effort. That said, this does not sound like a novel I will try, but maybe an author to watch. I will be interested to see what you think of her second (or third) novel if you read it.

    While I am not much a foodie, my wife is. Your comments, nevermind the book excerpts, are making me hungry and I just ate. Maybe this is one in which she would be interested. I don’t know if she has had much exposure to foodie novels. Is there a must-read foodie novel?

  9. Nadia Says:

    KFC – I have this on my TBR list. I read Elegance and absolutely loved it, so when I saw that Gourmet was another book by Barbery, I automatically added it to my list. It should be an interesting read, from what I gathered from your post. I’m not a huge foodie, but your excerpts excited my palate and now I’m really looking forward to devouring this book. Cheers!

    P/S KFC grilled is actually quite yummy. Of course, you can’t go wrong with the original fried chicken :)

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I don’t think there is a must-read foodie novel. Stanley Park is my favorite, but then I know Vancouver where it is set pretty well and I am sure that influence my positive opinion. As Claire’s comment indicates, some of the descriptions in this one are outstanding — alas, there is a lot of other material in it that is far less successful.
    Nadia: Now that I know this was her first book, I may well try Hedgehog. Barberry does show some real skill in parts of this and the widespread positive reaction to her next book would seem to indicate she is moving in the right direction. Thanks for your kind comments on my food sideline. :-)

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Good quotes Kevin, I found the part in the critic’s voice engaging and interesting, the part in the wife’s voice didn’t grab me (or in fact persuade me). That fits well with your observations on the two streams.

    I suspect you’re right that mislabelling it as a later novel does the author no favours, giving a reader who’s tried Hedgehog the impression that Barbery is going downhill rather than gaining strength.

    Oh, on an unrelated note, I commented recently that views on genre were much the same in Europe as the US, but I forget against which review. I mentioned it to my wife, Emma, who corrected me noting that in Germany and France there is much greater acceptance of genre and the dividing lines are less strict, as your other commenter was in fact arguing. I thought since I posted the disagreement, I should post the correction too.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: This book is a very good example of “first novel” experience. Parts of it are good enough that as a reader you start cheering for the author to develop and showcase those skills, while figuring out that there are some things she should abandon. The success of Hedgehog would indicate that she moved in the right direction (I’ll admit that there is a part of me that wonders if she moved too far and became too light for my tastes, but that is just grumpy reader foreboding on my part).

    On the genre question, my suggestion is that in English language countries we tend to use it as a category, while in Europe it is used more as a descriptive term. Description allows for multi-genre (mixed-genre?) works to succeed more readily; categorization, almost by definition, starts to put up fences that become a means for exclusion which does not seem useful. For my part, I tend to the descriptive idea as being most useful.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Good points Kevin, I agree with all of them.

    On genre the descriptive bit is certainly the more useful, I only mentioned it here as I couldn’t find the original debate and it seemed worth correcting myself.

  14. EeLeen Lee Says:

    this novel is engaging after a few attempts.
    Perhaps I could read it in French and it’d make a difference

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did wonder a bit about how it would read in the original French. I suspect the food parts would be even better; I don’t think the weaker parts would get any better. The problem is not the language, it is the character and I don’t think he would become any more interesting.

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