Some of you avid readers out there may have heard of Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was an indie bookstore favorite a few years ago when it was translated from the French. Due to its success, Barbery’s first novel was subsequently translated for English speaking audiences as well. I don’t know that I would have been compelled to read it on the strength of Hedgehog alone, but when I discovered it was a food-related novel, I decided to give it a try.
Gourmet Rhapsody (Une Gourmandise is the original French title) concerns famous food critic Pierre Arthens (aka”le Maître“) on his deathbed, who struggles in vain to conjure the memory of a certain flavor that once thrilled him, in order to experience it one last time. Interspersed with vignettes of le Maître‘s food recollections, we hear from various characters in his life: family, mistress, colleagues, even pets. Their collective voice tells us that this was a man who, although respected and admired by some, was despised by others. His children and wife are mere appendages that annoy and distract him from his calling, and who respectively resent him and long for crumbs of his affections.
The author seems to be putting forth the opinion that true “geniuses” must necessarily be too single-minded in following their passion to be able to truly love other people. Biographies of several well-known artists, writers and even scientists could certainly be cited to back up this theory. But interesting as this notion may be, the manner in which the book is written does not allow the idea to be fully explored. The characters recall their relationships to and memories of Arthens, but they are all one-sided. The brief vignette structure and lack of dialogue lend an isolating effect, although perhaps this is precisely what the author had in mind.
The book ends without any salvation for the dying gourmand in regards to his family; he does not attempt to make any last-ditch amends to his slighted family for his life of detachment and disregard. At the risk of a “spoiler”, Arthens does ultimately remember the haunting lost flavor, but I was a bit disappointed by its revelation- after all that buildup, though, I’m not sure what could have lived up to the hype. (I won’t ruin the ending by discussing the food in question, but I will say that its intended irony fell a bit flat for me.) The final scene in which the flavor is recalled reinforces a sense of le Maître’s humanity that only surfaces when he is deeply enjoying food. However, the fact that he clearly possesses this humanity makes it all the more unforgivable that he refuses to share it.
In spite of some depressing scenes, there are moments of pure joy, celebration and whimsy, and this is when the book is at its best. The author marvelously evokes all sorts of food memories: bread greedily devoured after childhood days on a salty Moroccan beach; briny oysters slurped with Norman peasants; the first blissful taste of sushi; a grandfather’s penchant for grilled sardines… Seeing as how these passages comprise at least half the book, and that Barbery’s food writing turns out to be so very delectable, I would recommend this to any literary foodie based on that alone. It’s not often that food gets center stage in a novel, let alone at the hands of an author who can do it the eloquent justice that Barbery has in this book.