from Curled Up with a Good Book
In Muriel Barbery’s latest novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, the great food critic Pierre Arthens is dying. His doctor informs him that he has less than 48 hours to live due to “cardiac insufficiency.” Faced with death, the gourmet concludes that before he expires, there is one last flavor he must taste, a flavor he can’t quite recall but one he absolutely must have. His life has been a waste. He crushes his wife, his children, even his mistresses with callous disregard. So what will finding one lost flavor bring to his heart of stone?
This life examined is explored in light, airy chapters narrated by Arthens, his friends, relatives, and even his cat. Barbery’s writing is sensitive and clear but mostly sensuous, depicting precisely the flavors she describes.
“Sugar, water, fruit, pulp, liquid or solid? The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure. The resistance of the skin—slightly taut, just enough the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one’s fingers, this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.” At only 141 pages, this slim volume couldn’t be more different from the heavier, more dramatic novels that portray family destructiveness. Rhapsody
is serious without being depressing. Each character has his or her own turn to speak, offering their individual perspectives on their relationship with the dying man. Jean, his son, freely confesses his anger at his father, and the conundrum of both hating and loving him despite everything. Laura mourns the father she never had but has moved on to something other than terror and hatred, discovering the right to be herself. Anna, the incompetent wife and mother, keeps vigil at Arthens’ bedside, begging him not to die and leave her alone. She doesn’t understand why her children are distant, why they all aren’t happy together, why there is so much misunderstanding.
The only one the Maitre has managed to connect to in a loving and affectionate way is Rick, the cat, who tells us there were other cats, but he is the only one left - the favorite, to whom Pierre allows any transgression without recourse. Rick reminisces about the times they’ve shared together and grieves the end is near, for both of them. They will die together as Rick has always known they would. Rick’s character lets the reader know that the Maitre did have a generous side; he was capable of love.
“What is writing, no matter how lavish the pieces, if it says nothing of the truth, cares little for the heart, and is merely subservient to the pleasure of showing one’s brilliance?” Heart surges through Barbery’s version of Arthens’ wasted life, although it is not his obvious addiction the reader is meant to enjoy. It is the sense that the lack of humanity that pervades Arthens’ relationships could happen to any successful person, at least if that person has a passion for the culinary arts.
Barbery tells this story in healing mode, emphasizing the obsessiveness that made the city-dweller critic a self-absorbed snob. Would he have been a happier person if he had grown-up in the countryside surrounded by greenery? If he could tangle himself in wildflowers and lay among the tomatoes and peas, swooning with pleasure? “Oh, magnificent memories of a time when I was the sovereign of a realm without artifice…” If he could remain sprawled on the bench beneath the linden tree, napping to the murmuring of the leaves, would he have learned kindness?
Gourmet Rhapsody presents Arthens purely as a victim of desire, and Barbery’s way of moving his story past the purely circumstantial is to describe it in beautiful but uncomplicated detail. The above quote about writing would seem to prove that Arthens has some awareness of the damage he has caused, but the insight contained in it could have come from anyone. There are many characters in Gourmet Rhapsody, and the book favors the feminine turn of phrase. When George, the young critic, describes Arthens, he is “resplendent,” “leonine,” “majestic.” The book’s resident cat is a tomcat who can be found “basking in my basket” or “sprawled on the sofa feeling feline…”
This book argues that we should enjoy the simple pleasures in life and not take ourselves - or our successes - too seriously. Muriel Barbery is an exceptional writer with a gift for optimism, and Gourmet Rhapsody is a simple pleasure everyone should enjoy.