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Times Literary Supplement: [The Last Banquet] follows convincingly in the traditions established by Patrick Süskind’s Perfume and Andrew Miller’s Pure."

Date: Jul 17 2013

Those who want well-written sex scenes might wish to take up Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet. In 1723 a little boy sits near a dung heap, happily eating a stag beetle. In the course of his life he will consume cat, dog, mice, sparrow, rat, snake and more. Jean-Marie d’Aumout belongs to the impoverished failed nobility in France, and the smell of the dung heap – especially at the Palace of Versailles, where cupboards and corridors are used as latrines – follows him from his orphaned childhood to revolution. He himself has no interest in politics, though he recognizes what the “miasmic shit smell” of Versailles symbolizes. He is interested in food, or rather taste, which might mean a piece of Roquefort on bread, or a raw snail, or sweat or urine.

The Last Banquet tells the story of a lucky and good man in Enlightenment France, a diamond in the dung heap. Brave, resourceful, kind, ardent, he marries the duke’s daughter for love alone, and acquires an estate. He is a natural philosopher and his cooking is scientific: it arises from his appetite for knowledge as well as his immersion in sensuous experience. Does cat go with snake? Why is dog sour? How long need you simmer an old tiger, and what herbs work with rat? Social questions, such as the misery of the masses, along with philosophical ones, such as whether the peasantry are closer to animals than they are to the nobility, permeate only slowly. There is a sense of something very wrong in the background as the years march on towards 1789, while the foreground becomes almost irrelevant. Jean-Marie wants to improve things for “his” peasants: he clears the swamp, widens the canal, reduces taxes; but he is implicated in unenlightened oppression just by being who he is.

If The Last Banquet is a “feast of a book”, as the blurb suggests, it is far from being a celebration. The context is hunger for the many and the corrupt, tyrannical rule of the few. Jean-Marie is able to satisfy his appetites; his wealth and position let him do as he pleases, even to the extent of marrying his first wife’s wet nurse. Called to serve his king in support of the French conquest of Corsica in 1768, he finds himself on the wrong side of the movement of history: Corsica, under General Paoli, is a representative democracy. Benjamin Franklin will try to assist him in the American Revolution. These and other historical figures feature, but information is delivered sparingly; we understand obliquely. And although the word “jacquerie” is used early on, the horrifying violence of the 1358 peasant uprising, in which – to take one much reiterated example from the chroniclers of the time – a captured knight was killed, roasted on a spit, and then force-fed to his gang-raped wife and children, is not consciously recalled. Somehow you know the characters know: this is their history. Jonathan Grimwood’s intelligent story of lost innocence might look modish with its foodie preoccupations and recipes for delicacies such as pickled wolf’s heart (“tastes like dog”) and three-snake bouillabaisse (“tastes like fish”); and it might become sentimental – the tame tiger was a step too far for me – but it follows convincingly in the traditions established by Patrick Süskind’s Perfume and Andrew Miller’s Pure. And the sex scenes are very well written.
–Norma Clarke

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