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San Francisco Chronicle: "Gourmet Rhapsody"

Date: Sep 20 2009

The order in which books are published can be as important as birth order in families or batting order in baseball. A prime example is "Gourmet Rhapsody," which is actually French writer Muriel Barbery's first novel - although it trails by a year the American edition of her phenomenally successful second novel, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog."

But make no mistake about it: "Gourmet Rhapsody" is in scoring position primarily because it follows Barbery's enchanting, heartbreaking philosophical fable in the lineup. It was a shrewd move on the part of her American publishers, the beautiful Europa Editions, to release Barbery's novels in reverse order.

That said - and however disappointing "Gourmet Rhapsody" is after "Hedgehog" - when read in close succession, the two books are an object lesson in a talented author's development. Both are set in the same tony Paris apartment building at 7, rue de Grenelle, involve many of the same characters and deal with similar themes, including social class, mortality, food and the power of art.

But "Gourmet Rhapsody," whose French title, "Une gourmandise," actually means "A Greediness," lacks the charm, finesse and emotional clout of "Hedgehog," largely because its focus is indeed greed. It centers on the arrogant food critic whose death in "Hedgehog" makes way for the debonair new fourth-floor tenant, Monsieur Ozu. We meet him during his last 48 hours, when he yearns to recapture an elusive taste from his past.

Pierre Arthens is a cross between Tolstoy's dying Ivan Ilyich and the powerful, scathing food critic Anton Ego (as voiced by Peter O'Toole) from Pixar's animated movie "Ratatouille." He's a far less appealing character than the noble aesthetes at the heart of "Hedgehog."

You may recall that Pixar's "Grim Eater," Ego, melts when he rediscovers the comforting sensation of his childhood ratatouille. Arthens, too, is a nasty man who seeks solace in a final taste that will redeem his life. "I am the greatest food critic in the world," he announces, comparing himself repeatedly to kings, monarchs and sovereigns at the table. "I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it."

Because the "buried flavor" is from his childhood or adolescence, the novel becomes a memory chase, an exercise in nostalgia by a decidedly unsentimental man. Arthens revisits his grandmother's table, a country farmhouse and a mistress' kitchen as he recalls such elemental foods as bread, tomatoes, sushi and mayonnaise.

Barbery's rapturous food descriptions won her book the Prix du Meilleur Livre de Littérature Gourmande in 2000. They will appeal to foodies, though they seem more over-the-top in English than in French, through no fault of Alison Anderson's able translation. Here, for example, is a description of eating bread: "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 ..."

Interspersed with Arthens' gourmet rhapsodies is a running commentary by the people who knew him best: his long-suffering wife; his bitter, drug-addicted son; his unloved daughter and granddaughter; two mistresses; and even his cat. The idea is to produce a rounded portrait of this dying man, but because nearly everyone agrees that he's brilliant but heartless, it ends up becoming a one-note chorus of disapprobation.

Whereas Tolstoy's dying Ivan Ilyich suffers both physical and mental agonies as he confronts his mortality, Barbery's "man without pity" is insufferably unsuffering to the end. He acknowledges, for example, that he has spoiled his three children "in the strictest sense of the term. I caused them to rot and decompose" and then adds, "I do not love them, I have never loved them, and I feel no remorse on that account."

Comparing the often unsubtle "Gourmet Rhapsody" to the elegantly satiric "The Elegance of the Hedgehog," it becomes clear how much Barbery learned in the six years between her two novels: to integrate philosophy seamlessly into a heart-tugging narrative, to infuse her characters with humanity and, like the best chefs, to use seasoning judiciously.

By Heller McAlpin

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