I am the greatest food critic in the world. It is I who has taken this minor art and raised it to a rank of utmost prestige. Everyone knows my name, from Paris to Rio, Moscow to Brazaville, Saigon o Melbourne and Acapulco. I have made, and unmade, reputations, and at sumptuous banquets I have been the knowing and merciless maitre d'oeuvre, expediting to the four corners of the globe the salt or honey of my pen, to newspapers and broadcasts and various forums, where I have been repeatedly invited to discourse upon that which previously had been reserved for a few select specialized journals or intermittent weekly chronicles. I have, for all eternity, pinned to my list of discoveries some of the most prestigious butterflies among practicing chefs. The glory and demise of Partais, or the collapse of Sangerre, or the increasingly incandescent success of Marquet can be attributed to me alone. For all eternity, indeed, I have made them what they are, for all eternity.
For those who devoured Muriel Barbery's American debut, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you will be interested to know that you can whet your appetite once more with gourmet stylings of her follow-up, Gourmet Rhapsody. Before I use practically every culinary related adjective and wink-wink, nudge-nudge turn of phrase, know that this is not a light palette cleanser, not cocktail party fare, nor it is it a quick bag of chips one mindlessly consumes to stave off mid-afternoon hunger pangs. Nor is this in the same vein as The Elegance of the Hedgehog. If you were to compare the two novels, Elegance is the extrovert, vivacious and concerned with being a good host for the reader- Are you enjoying yourself? Have you had enough story? Have I introduced you to all the characters? Gourmet Rhapsody is the introvert, brooding and instrospective, like the quiet friend with unexpected intelligent insights that always seem like the perfect thing to say.
Gourmet Rhapsody centers around Monsieur Arthens, a renowned food critic who just found out he has forty-eight hours to live. Barbery literally leads us on a journey of tastes and smells, bringing to life the spices and herbs of gardens and kitchens, through Monsieur Arthens most memorable culinary experiences. And what is striking is that most of the memories are not from the dinner at La Tour d'Argent or Les Ambassadeurs, but the rustic and rural meals with family and a few strangers. As he lies on his deathbed, trying to remember that one taste that gives him the most pleasure,we are taken back into his life and the flavors that gave him a true sense of serenity and happiness. Witness his tribute to toast:
The moment I bit into the slice of toast, utterly sated for having honored my bountiful plate up to the very last morsel, I was overcome with an inexpressible sense of well-being. Why isit that in France we obstinately refrain from buttering our toast until after it has been toasted? The reason the two entities should be subjected together to the flickering flame is that in this intimate moment of burning they attain an unequaled complicity. The butter loses its creamy consistency, but nevertheless is not as liquid as when it is melted on its own,in a bain-marie or a saucepan. Likewise, the toast is spared a somewhat dreary dryness, and becomes a moist, warm substance, neither sponge nor bread but something in between, ready to tantalize one's taste buds with its resultant sweetness.
And yes, you will be hungry after you read this novel. Besides the rich and lush description of flavors and aromas, there are chapters, which feature different characters in Monsieur Arthens life and their reaction to him and his death. An arrogant man, he is not loved by his children, or many others for that matter. The cat, Rick, even makes an appearance as a narrator extolling his finesse with the feline breed. Although this may seem like it would render the novel light, on the contrary,the novel is like a novel deep in thought, pondering the meaning of words and exposition, human relationships, and the emotional obligations of intimacy. Barbery, a philosophy teacher for eighteen years, utilizes deftly her ability to explore an experience from many angles without judgment.. This makes for vivid passage driven by musings of our five senses and how they affect memory. Ultimately, Monsieur Arthens most intimate relationship is with food and there is a looming feeling of alienation and loneliness. His long ruminations that he remembers in search of the one taste he can't remember are interspersed with some terse and vitriolic bursts from different narrators like this on from his daughter, Laura:
He was a brutal man. Brutal in his gestures,in the dominating way he had of grabbing hold of things, his smug laugh, his raptor's gaze. I never saw him relax: everything was a pretext for tension. Already at breakfast, on those rare days when he deigned to grace us with his presence,our martyrdom began. The stage was set for psychodrama, he would splutter and expostulate, for the survival of the Empire was at stake: what were we having for lunch? Trips to the market were opportunities for hysteria. My mother submitted, as usual, as always. And then off he would go again, to other restaurants, other women, other vacations, without us,where we were not even--of this I am sure--cause for memories; perhaps,just, as he was leaving, we were like flies to him, unwanted flies that you brush away with a sweep of your hand so you needn't think about them anymore. We were his coleopterous insects.
This novel has some similar elements to Elegance - setting (Rue Grenelle) and character (Renee makes a quick appearance) - but seems to be where it ends. The style is strong in both novels, but the craft of the novel is handled much differently between the two. Gourmet Rhapsody was published first in France and The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the follow-up. In Gourmet Rhapsody, Barbery focuses on what she loves - language and creating an evocative and even, at times, a very sensual and primal tone. In Elegance, she dives much deeper into fleshing out more characters and having them interact with each other as well as developing a story. With Gourmet Rhapsody, we are given the end-of-life memories of a lonely but famous man with some dashes of narrative spice along the way. It's not another Elegance, but it is a simple meal, elegantly prepared.