Monday, September 7, 2009

Gourmet Rhapsody

Last week at Barnes and Noble, I paused at the New Fiction table and was delighted to see that Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, was published in English in late August. I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and Gourmet Rhapsody (which is actually her first book) is set in the same apartment building.

I had read The Elegance of the Hedgehog last winter and was seduced by its beautiful prose (the book is in translation) and its philosophical tenor. And I learned that Barbery has a way of describing food:
I am lost in contemplation of the masterpiece. The visual beauty of it is enough to take your breath away. I squeeze a little chunk of white and gray flesh between my clumsy chopsticks (that's plaice, elucidates Kakuro obligingly) and, determined to find ecstasy, raise it to my mouth.

Why do we go in search of eternity in the ether of invisible essences? This little whitish chunk is a far more tangible morsel thereof.
In Gourmet Rhapsody, the main character is Pierre Arthens, a food critic who has 48 hours to live. He is the greatest food critic in the world, and has both built and destroyed careers. With his last hours, he is determined to recapture a certain flavor, one that he tasted upon his tongue once in his life and has never forgotten. To do so, he revisits the most significant meals of his life — fish grilled on the shore, a feast served at a farm, sushi prepared by the best Japanese chef.

As with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, there are multiple narrators in Gourmet Rhapsody. But Barbery's choice of narrators here significantly complicates things. Beside Arthens, his tormented wife and neglected children weigh in, as do former lovers, and even his cat. As Arthens recalls the most wonderful moments of his life, everyone else remembers what a difficult person he is: "What do you think, old madman, what do you think? That if you find a lost flavor you will eradicate decades of misunderstanding and find yourself confronted with a truth that might redeem the aridity of your heart of stone?"

It's where Barbery is describing food that Gourmet Rhapsody shines, as with her description of a grilled sardine:
To say that the fish is delicate, that its taste is both subtle and expansive, that it stimulates the gums with a mixture of sharpness and sweetness; to say that the combination of the grilled skin's faint bitterness and the extreme smoothness of the firm, strong, harmonious flesh, filling one's mouth with a flavor from elsewhere, elevates the grilled sardine to the rank of culinary apotheosis, is at best like evoking the soporific virtues of opium. For what is at issue here is neither how delicate or sweet or strong or smooth the grilled sardine may be, but its wild nature.
Or a taste of whisky:
Like some ethereal marchioness, I cautiously ventured my lips into the peaty magma and… what a violent effect! An explosion of piquancy and seething elements suddenly detonates in my mouth; my organs no longer exist, no more palate or cheeks or saliva, only the ravaging sensation that some telluric warfare is raging inside me. In raptures, I allowed the first mouthful to linger for a moment on my tongue, while concentric undulations continued to engage it for a long while. That is the first way to drink whisky…
Gourmet Rhapsody could have been a completely charming and whimsical tale about love of food, but as expected, Barbery takes it to a philosophical level with the meditations on Arthens' character and his abuse of power. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is more effective as a social satire, but there's a lot to like here, not least of all the celebratory tone as Arthens finally identifies the taste he's after, and comes to see a sweetness in life.

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