Muriel Barbery is lovely, not unlike the exquisite prose of her runaway hit novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
. Why a hedgehog? She shakes her head.
“The whole time [the novel] was just called 'Renee' [the name of the narrator, the concierge in a ritzy Parisian apartment building], but we wanted something joyful, mysterious. My husband, Stephane, suggested the title.” (In hindsight, Renee does have hedgehog qualities) Muriel's husband, whom she met when she was 23, has been an enormous influence on her writing. He encouraged her to publish—she credits him with being an excellent first reader; she calls the milieu of the hedgehog “his universe.” And he made her fall in love with Japan, where they now live—in the city of Kyoto, which she says is like “living in a dream.”
Before Hedgehog, published in the U.S. in 2008—it has been translated into more than 20 languages, has sold to date 1.2 million copies in France (it first appeared there in 2006), 800,000 in Italy and has 170,000 copies in print in the U.S., where it sits on the New York Times bestseller list—there was Une Gourmandise, Barbery's first novel, published in France in 2000. Europa Editions, which bought Hedgehog before any of the hoopla, is publishing this first novel in September, with the English title Gourmet Rhapsody.
At the center of the story is a renowned food critic, Pierre Arthens. “I am the greatest food critic in the world,” he announces in the first chapter. Unfortunately, or fortunately for the reader, Arthens is dying, in the same apartment building on the rue de Grenelle where Hedgehog takes place. With 48 hours to live, he is obsessed with rediscovering a flavor from his early life: “A forgotten flavor, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced at the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told during that lifetime—or the only true thing ever accomplished.”
During those 48 hours, his curmudgeonly temperament is revealed as he recalls episodes from his childhood in Greece, Tangiers, Brittany. Interspersed are the voices of characters as varied as his children, his mistress, his wife and even his cat. The taste that finally arrives is a surprise and lends a wonderful, ironic twist. Barbery shrugs, explaining simply that she didn't like Arthens very much, so in the end he doesn't discover some long-lost exotic flavor, but he does understand the meaning of life.
Gourmet Rhapsody shows all the skill of Hedgehog and deals with the same themes: social class, philosophy, Japan and food, glorious descriptions of all kinds of food. Barbery, 40, says she doesn't cook, but has always been “a big eater” (although she's as slim and graceful as a reed. French women...?), and she's fascinated with chefs, having spent time watching some of the great ones at work in their restaurant kitchens in France. As for Japan, Stephane was given a record of Japanese flute music when he was a boy and became enamored of all things Japanese. He planned to spend a year there studying, but chose to stay with Barbery, who did not want him to leave France. His attraction to the culture, though, was infectious, and when Hedgehog made it possible, they moved to Japan, where they've been living for the past year and a half and where Barbery is writing her third novel.
Will she talk about it? No, not at all, but unerringly polite, she adds, “I can say it's about Japan, because that's where I am living.” Gracious, shy, hesitant with her excellent and very charming English, often turning to her translator for clarification, Barbery is most of all grateful for her success. She is not interested in why; she's undisturbed by critics and says simply of Hedgehog: “I didn't think anyone would read it, not in France, then not in Italy, and especially not in the U.S. I can't believe it, and it all makes me very happy.”
By Louisa Ermelino