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Three Guys One Book: "For [the protagonist], sex is a culinary experience and cuisine is, correspondingly, a sexual experience."

Date: Jun 18 2013

On October 1st, Europa Editions will release its first cloth title. There’s 45K announced first printing. Quite a speculative risk for such a moderately scaled, literary publisher. I know that its editor, a good acquaintance of mine, is very excited about it. Not excited just in the sense that one hypes a book, but emotionally involved as a book lover. I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC from Europa. So much for disclosures.

A while back I reviewed Andrew Miller’s bold historical novel Pure on this blog. The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood can be usefully considered its pendant. Both are historical novels that take place in 18th century France in the decades before the revolution that annihilated the ancien regime.

In the case of Pure I had to overcome my distaste for the novel’s necrophilia in order to have the chance to read a brilliantly inventive novel of rare quality. In The Last Banquet I found myself, in turns, startled and revolted by an extreme eroticism that started out as innovative and ended up as perverse.

In the case of eroticism in literature you have to ask: Erotic for whom or at whose expense? De Sade makes a microscopically brief appearance in the novel. But Grimwood gives the extraordinary sensuality in his text a sounder foundation. First: In the rise of the amateur scientist in the Enlightenment. Second: By embedding his rapid heart eros in the personality of The Last Banquet’s central character.

Jean-Marie d’Aumout’s journal is our text. The “particule”, the d’, in his name is all-important. It marks off Jean-Marie as noble. We are introduced to the boy on a dung heap where he is absorbed in eating choice beetles. The text will show us how to tell which dung beetles are choice and also mention that lice can be roasted for consumption. And so it begins: Jean-Marie’s lifelong obsession with alternative oral pleasures.

His country house is deserted after being ransacked by the local peasantry. The bodies of his parents lie upstairs. They laid down on their beds and starved to death. Jean-Marie is rescued by a powerful duke and the aristocrat’s retinue of soldiers. Jean-Marie gives the names of the peasants who have stormed his home and they are promptly lynched. Jean-Marie is enrolled in a school for hard-up orphans.

These early chapters of The Last Banquet have a YA feel and are Robert Louis Stevenson-like. As Jean-Marie grows up he makes the friends who will be his lifelong comrades. His rise through the aristocratic ranks and his picaresque adventures are satisfying for the reader as we see that our boy is making good. But there’s also reader’s remorse as we recall the bloodbath that will be released on his class at the end of the era. The more distinguished Jean-Marie becomes, the more doomed we feel he will be at the end of the story.

Jean-Marie makes one friend, Emile, who’s a commoner. Emile is at best half-heartedly accepted by Jean-Marie’s aristocratic school friends. In adulthood, Emile and his family will be snubbed repeatedly by those friends. For example, he’ll be vetoed as a guest at Jean-Marie’s prestigious wedding by his fiance, who is the middle daughter of a duke.

But we know that the tide of history will reverse these social standings. As a commoner from a wealthy family, Emile will prosper in new social order that is coming, while Jean-Marie and his aristocratic brethren will be condemned. History, in the case of The Last Banquet, provides quite a spoiler. There’s a quote that precedes this novel: “The afternoon knows what the morning never expected…”

We leave the YA feel of the meticulous early chapters about the time that Jean-Marie marries Virginie. Jonathan Grimwood is one of those novelists who you can watch mature as artists within the body of their texts. The middle chapters present us with a formidably conceived libido as Jean-Marie applies his paramount sense of taste to lovemaking. Sex is centrally a tasting experience for Jean. He can tell what his wife has eaten for the past two days by tasting her during sex. For Jean-Marie, sex is a culinary experience and cuisine is, correspondingly, a sexual experience.

There are “literary” recipes in The Last Banquet that you couldn’t actually make yourself, aside from the fact that you are not likely to have the chance to cook tiger meat or prepare flamingo tongues. It’s the “ritual” of preparation that Jean-Marie salivates over, so the recipes detail the how-to aspect of these exotic dishes. It’s foreplay in the kitchen. Later on, there’s a detailed description of how you prepare a particular kind of calf intestine as a condom that is guaranteed to be of the highest quality and not leak. Every taste Jean experiences is cataloged in a taxonomy. It’s 18th century amateur science at its most weird. Benjamin Franklin appears in a late chapter of the book.

I feared the novel was at risk of dissolving into a plethora of bizarre fetishes. Grimwood had elevated the standard of his story once, when Jean-Marie passed from childhood to sexual maturity. In the closing chapters of the novel he does it again, raising the novel up to a new plateau of insight and unifying the sense of his story.

At Jean-Marie’s Chateau D’Aumout he slowly assembles a menagerie of aged or damaged exotic animals that are no longer wanted at the famous zoo at Versailles. There’s a dwarf hippo in his lake, an elderly gazelle that can barely hold its horns up, those flamingos, and there’s a blind tiger cub, Tigris, who grows up to be Jean-Marie’s soul mate at the chateau. The traumatized animals are treated with great humanity. But when it comes time for them to die, Jean-Marie, who I should call by his title at least once since it will cost him his life, the Marquis D’Aumout, has the animals slaughtered so he can inventively cook them and explore how they taste.

It’s as if I were to put down my cat Hector at the end of his life so I could cook him and explore the culinary delights of “cat”. And it gets worse than that. I said “perverse” at the beginning of this review.

It’s as if, in the afternoon of its life, you recognize that maybe it’s a good thing that all this aristocratic showplace of a regime was swept away by Robespierre and his friends.

-Dennis Haritou