There are times when you know that you are the wrong sort of reader for a book, and in the case of Gourmet Rhapsody, this is one of these instances.
In 2006, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the second novel from French author and one-time philosophy teacher, Muriel Barbery became a phenomenal success. The book hit the top of the French sales charts and was subsequently translated into twenty languages. A film adaptation (Le Herisson) was released in France this summer, and in September 2009 Europa Editions published Gourmet Rhapsody, an earlier book by the same author. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is a good novel, by the way, is told through alternating viewpoints of the building’s middle-aged concierge and a precocious child. I would have much preferred the novel if it stuck with the concierge, but that’s another story…..
Gourmet Rhapsody has the same sort of format as The Elegance of the Hedgehog–very short chapters told through multiple points of view. The story takes place in a posh Parisian building–the same setting as The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Anyway, in Gourmet Rhapsody one of the building’s residents, “the greatest food critic in the world” Monsieur Pierre Arthens is dying, and he’s been told that he only has 48 hours to live:
“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled success, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvellously well and it is my heart that is giving out. I am dying of cardiac insufficiency. What a bitter pill! So often have I reproached others for a lack of heart in their cuisine, in their art, that never for a moment did I think that I might be the one lacking therein, this heart now betraying me so brutally, with scarcely concealed disdain, so quickly has the blade been sharpened…”
Bed bound, Arthens is fixated on a single taste. He’s spent his adult life stuffing himself with food and writing about it for a living, but here, facing death, he’s tormented by the idea of a taste that he is unable to put a name to. Arthens believes that “this particular flavour is the first and ultimate truth of [his] entire life,” that it is a “flavour from childhood or adolescence” and that if he can remember the taste and experience it one more time, he will die a happy man. It’s impossible, of course, to read about this dilemma without recalling Proust, and indeed at one point Arthens directly refers to Proust and his famous Madeleines.
The problem is that Arthens cannot remember the taste he longs for, and many of the book’s short chapters are devoted to memories of a life spent with food. Arthens isn’t a very nice man. He’s loathed by competitors and most of his family members while his wife, neglected for a great deal of their married life, adores and worships the man to the point of irrationality. Several of the chapters end with the thought that Arthens should hurry up and die.
The chapters told by Arthens dominate this novella, and pages are spent on his descriptions of various feasts he’s consumed, and he can remember details of extensive menus with terrifying precision:
“Menu. 1982. A Royal of Sea Urchin with Sansho, saddle of hare, rabbit kidneys and liver with winkles. Buckwheat pancake. 1979: Cod in an agria macaire; violet maco from the Midi; plump Gillardeau oysters and grilled foie gras. Mackeral bouillon laced with leeks. 1989: Thick chunks of turbot cooked in a casserole with aromatic herbs, deglazed with home-made cider. Quarters of Comice pears with cucumber greens. 1996: Pastis of Gauther pigeon with mace, dried fruit and foie gras with radishes. 1988: Madeleines with Tonka beans.”
Other passages linger on the sensation of food in the mouth–the physical sensations of mastication, the explosion of flavour, and “taste buds already subjugated by the virile rigor of [the] meat.” While the author shows great skill in the endless descriptions of food (at one point spending about a page describing the pleasures of eating sashimi), unfortunately I do not relate at all to the subject matter. Most of the descriptions of food were wasted on me as so many things Arthens consumed sounded revolting, and others are, well, unconscionable (rabbit kidneys and foie gras!).
The novel, however, is not without its humour. Arthens approaches food as many seducers would approach a conquest–each meal is an encounter, full of rituals, and Arthens lingers over every sensation, anticipating flavours as one might anticipate an orgasm. The best part of the book is the memory of a trip to America. I anticipated Arthens being appalled by McDonald’s and I eagerly read the chapter when he went for his first American meal. The author ambushed me with the food critic’s reaction to a gargantuan American breakfast.
For anyone on some sort of diet–either restricted or reducing, Gourmet Rhapsody may be the book that sends you off the wagon. But I’m not that mesmerised by food, and so I remained rather unengaged by the story or its characters. These detailed descriptions of food are wasted on me; I eat rice cakes precisely because they taste like cardboard.