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.