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MaterFamiliasReads: "Food for thought, indeed."

Date: May 11 2010

Okay, seriously remiss here -- way back on April 17th I posted that I would "soon" say something about Muriel Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody. Meanwhile, I've been juggling a few books, and spending quite a bit of time in the French Revolution with Hilary Mantel (more on that later), but I am mindful that I should say a bit more about Rhapsody before it gets shelved.

If you've read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you will already by predisposed to read this book and will be pleased to recognize the setting of a certain hôtel particulier in the 7th arr. on Rue de Grenelle. You will also, I assume, be a patient reader ready to linger, with Barbery, over moments, thoughts, qualities of light, eager to be amused by her skewering of the bourgeois Parisiens she describes.

If you loved Hedgehog, though, you will probably have done so because you loved at least one of three very likeable, original characters. And while you might have noticed some structural weaknesses in that novel, and a plot whose ending, while avoiding the saccharine knot-tying it seemed driven toward, was frustrating in its abruptness, you will have turned pages impatiently, curious to follow a narrative arc which possessed recognizable energy.

Neither likeable character nor narrative energy are evident in Rhapsody, and while I haven't seen the reviews that commenter Tiffany refers to in responding to my last post, I can imagine that many readers will find this novel a disappointment after reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

And yet . . . if you love words well wrought and if you love food, you will be richly repaid for your time with this fairly slight (<150 pages) book. On his deathbed, the primary narrator, a renowned food critic whose energies have gone exclusively to his work to the detriment of his family, tries to recapture an elusive sense, not quite a memory, of a wonderful, foundational dish/taste, retracing his experiences with meals beginning in his childhood. This leads to some delectable descriptions along with some culinary philosophy.
First, an example of the latter: There is no great cuisine, without evolution, without erosion and forgetting. Invention must constantly be invoked upon the countertop, and past and future, here and elsewhere, raw and cooked, savory and sweet shall all be mixed, for it is this inventiveness that has made cuisine into an art that thrives untrammeled by the obsession of those who do not wish to die.

And after describing his memory of watching an elderly bachelor uncle prepare his daily meal, a "little mouthful of paradise"which "every day he would take great pains to cook himself . . . unaware of how refined his everyday fare was, a true gourmet" -- a meal the critic "did not touch" but which nevertheless "remained one of the most delicious I have ever tasted in my life," the narrator offers this assessment: Tasting is an act of pleasure, and writing about that pleasure is an artistic gesture, but the only true work of art, in the end, is another person's feast. Jacques Destrères's meal had all the perfection of a feast because it was not my feast, because it did not spill over onto the before and after of my everyday life, and it could remain in my memory as a closed and self-sufficient unity, a unique moment etched there outside of time and space, a pearl of my spirit released from the feelings in my life. Food for thought, indeed.

Remembering bread eaten on Moroccan beaches, he gives us this meditation on, and description of, bread's wonders: Bread, beach: two related sources of warmth, two alluring accomplices; every time, an entire world of rustic joy invades our perception. It's a fallacy to claim that what accounts for the nobility of bread is the way it suffices unto itself while accompanying all other dishes. If bread "suffices unto itself,"it is because it is multiple, not because it exists in multiple variants but in its very essence: bread is rich, bread is diverse, bread is a microcosm. Bread contains such stunning diversity; it is akin to a miniature world which reveals its inner workings as it is consumed. You storm it through an initial encounter with the barrier of crust, then yield to wonder the moment you are through, as the fresh soft interior consents. there is such a divide between the crunchy shell--on occasion as hard as stone, at other times mere show, quickly yielding to the charge, and the tenderness of the inner substance which lodges in one's cheeks with a docile charm--that one is almost at a loss. The fissures in the envelope are like unexpectd rural missives: one thinks of a ploughed field, of a peasant in the evening air; the village steeple has just rung seven o'clock; the peasant is wiping his forehead with the lapel of his jacket his labors done.

If I tell you that this description of bread goes on for another page, you will decide whether that is an incentive to read the novel or a warning against it. For me, the intricate analysis, the attempts to find ways to describe a subjective sensory experience in terms another can grasp, is captivating, but I admit that the series of metaphors can seem overwrought; they border on parody. Yet I can't help but be fascinated with this close, close examination of something we daily take for granted, as he continues: As you chew and chew upon the soft interior, a sticky mass is formed, which no air can penetrate: the bread adheres--yes, like glue. If you have never dared to take a mass of soft dough between your teeth and tongue and palate and cheeks, you have never thrilled to the feeling of jubilant ardor that viscosity can convey. it is no longer bread, nor dough, nor cake that we are masticating; it is something like our own self, what our own secret tissues must taste like, as we knead them with our expert mouths, saliva and yeast mingling in ambiguous fraternity. As much as it's difficult to read such a passage without seeing it as at least somewhat parodic (thrilling to a jubilant ardor at a mouthful of viscosity? Really?) the description's movement between the concrete and the abstract compels me.

I could give you more, but I'm starving. . . . It's almost 8:00, and I haven't had my dinner yet. I have some Thai-seasoned cauliflower and yam soup leftover from a huge batch I made last night, and I'm eager to heat it now, so please forgive me if I stop here.
So what do you think? Will you pick the book up, now, or avoid it? And if you do read it (or have done so already) let me know what you think . . .

Read the Review on MaterFamiliasReads