Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody
Gourmet Rhapsody / Muriel Barbery; translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
New York: Europa, c2009.
After reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog earlier this year and really adoring it, I was looking forward to this one. I'll be honest right up front: this book was nowhere near as appealing for me. The structure didn't really work, and the main character's quest did not engage my interest.
Here's the main idea: Monsieur Pierre Arthens, the self-proclaimed World's Best food critic, is lying in bed after being informed he has 48 hours to live. He spends his remaining time trying to recapture a lost flavour from his past, convinced that if he does so he will redeem his life somehow. Each chapter takes us into a sense memory of a meal he experienced at various times in his life, leading him closer and closer to an epiphany. It feels a bit forced, as each chapter ends with some variation on "no, that's not it", leading the reader onward. Interspersed with his chapters are short versions of Arthens as seen by the people (and cats and inanimate objects) surrounding him. They are nearly universal in judging him a horrible man, one who hates his children, ignores his wife (who inexplicably remains devoted to him), and is an arrogant, self serving individual. In short, Monsieur Arthens is, as some characters put it, "a real bastard". And I agreed; I didn't care if he found his elusive flavour before he died. As a matter of fact, if I had my druthers I would have had more fun helping him along than reading about his lingering on this side of mortality.
There is some discussion of philosophical themes as in Hedgehog, but the focus is really on food as Arthens' only true love. Foodies will enjoy the luxurious descriptions of all the food Arthens recalls. While some readers disliked the philosophical elements of Hedgehog, labeling them with such terms as 'pretentious', I enjoyed them, feeling that they were kind of the point of that book. Here there are a few but they feel slapdash, tacked on, not fully fleshed out. Also, it is difficult to believe that Arthens would take any time to wonder about philosophical ideas not directly connected to food; he has to be one of the least self aware or self examined characters I've met. In brief, here are the points I want to share:
The language is elaborate, baroque, especially in M. Arthens' chapters when he waxes rhapsodic over food. However, as I continued reading and began tiring of his story, the language became slightly more annoying. Still, the adoration of food was quite pronounced and anyone who considers themself even slightly a foodie will likely be entertained. There were some lovely bits about the French countryside, and as Arthens' memories take him back to a time when he could have gone in a more authentic direction, the story warms up.
Reneé from Hedgehog has a cameo; one brief chapter, but it was very nice to see her again. ;)
M. Arthens' cat Rick also has a chapter. It is the lamest part of the book; Rick even goes so far as to say "purrfect". Urgh.
So - I'd say the biggest problem in this book, in my reading, was that M. Arthens' dilemma had no resonance. I didn't really care if he succeeded in remembering that vague taste that tickled his mind. And then, when in the last chapter he does succeed, and has an epiphany that places his life and his professional success in a new light (not a flattering one) I found that epiphany rather banal. Sadly, the story seemed rather pointless, like a stylistic exercise which was quite impressive in itself but not great as a novel. If I hadn't read Hedgehog first, and been interested in finding out more about the residents of Arthens' apartment building from this point of view, I am not sure I would have enjoyed it much at all. But, I don't want to sound like there was nothing at all good about it -- it was clever, and the food descriptions so over the top as to be delightful, for the most part. The evocation of rural France was really beautiful, and there were some nice barbed statements about grandmothers' cooking far surpassing any fancy chef or critic's opinion. Getting glancing views of some of the characters in Hedgehog was enjoyable as well. I felt that this was obviously the first novel about these characters, and the apotheosis of creation came in Hedgehog, which I much preferred. Reneé and Paloma had some humanity to them with which to sympathize, while Arthens, sadly, was truly a contemptible character. This is not to say that there is no place for disagreeable main characters in fiction, or that one must be able to 'identify' with a character at all times; but I just didn't feel any sense of connection between Arthens and any of the other characters. It was as if he existed in grand solitude on a higher plane and his family, his peers, his protegés, all circled around him, with only his cat breaking through that barrier of misanthropy.
In conclusion, this insubstantial novel left me with a longing to recall the satisfying flavour of Barbery's much more filling second novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Read this one only if 1. you are a huge Barbery fan anyhow or 2. if you love baroque, wordy food writing.