Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

Source of book: I own this

A few years back, I took a chance based on a review, and read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, also by Muriel Barbery. I enjoyed it so much that I put Gourmet Rhapsody on my list as well. My wife found a (barely) used copy for me as a gift, and I got around to reading it this last month.

Muriel Barbery is a French author, and professor of philosophy. Although Gourmet Rhapsody was written first, it wasn’t translated into English until the year after The Elegance of the Hedgehog became a runaway success in its English translation. Sadly, these two are the only novels Barbery has written. I hope she has a few more stories in her, because these are both gems.

Gourmet Rhapsody isn’t quite as good as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but it is still delightful. It shows some signs of being a first novel. Only the main character is really developed, in large part because of the format and the short length of the book. (It is more of a  novella than a full length novel.) By her second book, the author seems to be more comfortable, in a way that I can’t really put my finger on, but can feel. The characterization is also better in the second book, more subtle and complex.

Food critic Pierre Arthens is dying. As he lays on his deathbed, he reflects on his life, and searches his memory for one taste that he longs for, but cannot recall.

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 adolescence, 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.

The book alternates chapters narrated by Arthens with ones by various people in his life. His children and wife. His cat. A couple of his mistresses. Renee, the concierge at his apartment building. (She would become one of the main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.) Each has their own perspective on the man and his legacy.

Perhaps the best analogue to Arthens is Anton Ego in Pixar’s film, Ratatouille. In fact, I wonder if the writers on the film were familiar with Gourmet Rhapsody because the parallels are striking. Both are huge egoists with a biting writing style, eager to bring down establishments that fail to meet their standard. Both, though, are transported back to their childhoods by certain flavors. Unlike Ego, however, Arthens may have his epiphany, but never finds redemption. 

The problem is that he has lived his life solely for himself, and has treated others as mere means to his ends. He may re-live his gustatory past, but he no longer is able to feel the love and connection he once did.

One particularly heart-rending passage comes when Arthens speaks of his children.

I caused them to rot and decompose, those three children who emerged from my wife’s entrails, gifts I had negligently given to her in exchange for her decorative wifely abnegation - terrible gifts, when I think about it today, for what are children other than the monstrous excrescences of our own selves, pitiful substitutes for our unfulfilled desires? For the likes of me - people, in other words, who already have something which gives them pleasure in life - children are worthy of interest only when they finally leave home and become something other than one’s own daughters or sons. I do not love them. I have never loved them, and I feel no remorse on that account. If they expend all their energy hating me with all their strength, that is no concern of mine; the only paternity that I might lay claim to is that of my own oeuvre. And the buried flavor that I cannot find is beginning to make me doubt even that.

It is strange to suppose that because one already has something that gives one pleasure that that would exclude the pleasure of relationships, but this is sadly all too common. Many a man or woman has chosen a career or an obsession to the exclusion of human connection, and some, like Arthens, never seem to regret it.

Despite this rather depressing theme, the book isn’t all darkness, particularly for a foodie. I have a great love for food, I’m afraid. My determination to keep physically active is only partially driven by my enjoyment of exercise. If I am honest, I want to be able to eat without guilt, and without swelling to unhealthy horizontal proportions. Barbery’s descriptions of food lead me to believe that she too shares this passion. To a non-foodie, they might seem a bit over the top, but to a true believer, they are almost as delectable as the real thing. (It is my understanding that they aren’t quite as over-the-top in the original French, perhaps because of the French foodie culture.)

There are so many, but I will limit myself to one: the description of the tomato fresh from the garden.

And yet I had always been acquainted with the tomato, since the time of Aunt Marthe’s garden, since the summer when an ever more ardent sun kissed the timid little growths, since the moment my teeth tore into the flesh to splatter my tongue with the rich, warm and bountiful juice, whose essential generosity is masked by the chill of a refrigerator, or the affront of vinegar, or the false nobility of oil. Sugar, water, fruit, pulp, liquid or solid? The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure. The resistance of the skin - slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one’s fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.

I could not have captured it better myself.

If you are going to read just one book by Barbery, go with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but this one is worth a read as well.

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