Sunday, 25 October 2009

Gourmet Rhapsody

Earlier this year I waxed lyrical about The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. At that time I had found one of my favourite books of the year and was excited to discover that Gourmet Rhapsody (Gourmet here in the UK and Une Gourmandise in France) had a scheduled release a few months later. This is actually Barbery's debut novel, first published in French in 2000, and translated (by Alison Anderson) and issued by Europa Editions on the back of the runaway success of Elegance.

Not so much as a prequel to The Elegance of the Hedgehog but a companion novel, it takes the 48 hours preceding the death of food critic Pierre Arthens, the impetus of events in Elegance, as its premise. Events take place in the Rue de Grenelle, the same building setting as in The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the majority of the cast are the same; it was a pleasure to meet these characters again. An arrogant and worldwide revered food critic, Arthens, on his death-bed is seeking a memory on the tip of his tongue; literally on the tip of his tongue, Arthens is grasping for a taste and flavour from his past. Alternating chapters narrated by Arthens and by people -and a cat- from his life, those who love and those who revile him, recall his life. Arthens' memories take him through epicurean delights that he has sampled and indulged during his lifetime, predating is gourmet career, memories he recalls in search for the elusive taste.

I am going to die, but that is of no importance ... 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. I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced.

Particular episodes in his past recalled by particular foods and vice versa foods recalled via certain memories, which instantly reminded me of Proust and his madeleine; Barbery alluded to this a third of the way through the novella, "Like Proust's abominable madeleine, that oddity of a pastry reduced one sinister and drab afternoon into a spoonful of spongy crumbs -supreme offense- in a cup of herbal tea".

Rich and delectable things can be done with language when writing about food and Barbery exults in describing dishes. I am a definite foodie and enjoyed her vivid and rhapsodic descriptions; sashimi (especially tuna) is one of my favourite things to eat and her words made it even more appetising:

True sashimi is not so much bitten into as allowed to melt on the tongue. It calls for slow, supple chewing, not to bring about a change in the nature of the food but merely to allow one to savor its airy, satiny texture. Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.

Barbery said it best herself (through Paul) in describing Arthens' food writing:

His prose ... his prose was nectar, ambrosia, a hymn to language: it was gut-wrenching, and it hardly mattered whether he was talking about food or something else, it would be a mistake to think that the topic mattered: it was the way he phrased it that was so brilliant. Food was just a pretext, perhaps even a way of escaping, of fleeing what his goldsmith's talent might bring to light: the exact tenor of his emotions, the harshness and suffering, and the failure, in the end...

Ultimately it is the writing that matters and Barbery's prose is as rich as her protagonist's. This is a quick and beautifully written novella about life, death and our passions. It is not a literary experiment like The Elegance of the Hedgehog and does not taste as sweet or as rich in comparison but it is pleasant sustenance nonetheless.

A note on why I bought the North American edition of Gourmet Rhapsody (and why the quotes I use are missing the letter "u"):

1. I had an Amazon US giftcard to spend (as good a reason as any).
2. I far prefer the cover to the UK edition and fully intend to buy the matching copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Not only is it more aesthetically pleasing but the Europa Edition is beautifully published; usually I have an aversion to the paper used for the paperback covers in the US but this is a hard-wearing card with flaps.
3. I prefer the title!


Laura said...

Excellent review, Claire! I'm looking forward to reading this, too. Those Europa editions are indeed fabulous, and I agree with you about the title. The word "Rhapsody" seems to fit like a glove, if your review is any indication. What were they thinking?

claire said...

I felt the same, Claire! We even posted one of the same quotes (about sashimi). I didn't really love it as much as Elegance but, like you say, the richness of the prose is well worth holding on to.

Also, I far better prefer the US edition of this, too. Usually I like UK editions better. But the Europa covers of both Barberys, the flaps, paper, are very attractive. Also like the title better.

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Laura! It is indeed rhapsodic. The UK title is a direct translation of the French; I don't know where the 'Rhapsody' comes from but it is a perfect summation.

Claire, I had to use the sashimi quote as it was so beautiful and evocative. Elegance is definitely more endearing and enchanting but this is a lovely debut.

Usually I have a complete aversion to US editions but the Europa edition is such a lovely book.

Mrs. B. said...

I've read mixed reviews about this book even from people who loved Hedgehog. I loved that book and I probably should try this too being a foodie myself!

mel u said...

I liked Gourmet Rhapsody a lot-in part because it takes place in the same building as "Hedgehog"-which I totally love-the food descriptions are wonderful-thanks for your very insightful post

farmlanebooks said...

I have been meaning to read both of these books for a while, but for some reason I haven't got round to it yet. I'll try to find copies soon, but it is great to know that this one is good too.

Annabel Gaskell said...

Nice review, Claire. Looking forward to reading this one as I adored Hedgehog.

I hate to lower the tone(!)but I really hope that I can get the images from the film 'Ratatouille' out of my brain - near the end the horrid critic is won over by a plate of that dish, cooked by the rat, and it reminds him so much of his childhood that he gives up being a critic! (My daughter and I love that film.)

Rachel said...

Great review Claire! I prefer the American edition too. They produce beautiful paperbacks in the US, but they make you pay for them - average $14 for a paperback if I remember rightly from my last trip to a Barnes and Noble!
I have seen lots of people reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog on the train. I will get around to it at some point!

Paperback Reader said...

Mrs B, this is no Hedgehog but being a foodie I think you will enjoy Gourmet Rhapsody; it's subtler but the writing is just as beautiful.

Mel, it was lovely to be in the Rue de Grenelle one again and re-meet the characters. The food descriptions are wonderful.

Jackie, I definitely recommend both and this one is such a quick read.

Annabel, I hope you enjoy it. Ratatouille is one of the only Pixar movies that I haven't yet seen but now I have to watch it and look out for the food critic! Funnily enough there is a lot about childhood and its influence on our food tastes in this book.

Rachel, the RRP for this is $15 but luckily it was discounted on Amazon. If I remember correctly sales tax is then applied on top of the price when bought in a bookshop; I was struck by how much more expensive books were when I was in the States (and that was when the exchange rate was amazingly good).

I highly recommend The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Pam said...

Oh good! I'm glad it was fantastic. I adored Elegance and was worried that Rhapsody wouldn't live up. Thanks for the heads up that it does!

Paperback Reader said...

Pam, it isn't as wonderful and enchanting as The Elegance of the Hedgehog but it is still a very good book. I hope you enjoy it.

Darlene said...

Would you recommend reading this title before The Elegance of the Hedgehog?

Paperback Reader said...

Darlene, I wouldn't say it matters really as they don't impinge on each other. As I've said in my post, Gourmet Rhapsody certainly pales in comparison to The Elegance of the Hedgehog so it makes a good appetiser before the main course!

Anonymous said...

I have had The Elegance of the Hedgehog on my TBR for ages and have been wanting to read it for as long and now after this it will definately be on the bedside ready to read in the month off, or maybe I should read this first... hmmmm! What do you recommend?

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, it certainly wasn't to my detriment to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog first and then knowing that this was her debut novel and not her follow-up, which is important to keep in mind. This is a very short read (I read it in only a couple of hours) but if you were only to read one during November then it should be The Elegance of the Hedgehog as it remains one of my favourite novels of the year.

Anonymous said...

I'm planning on buying this for my mother, who loved The Elegance of The Hedgehog so much that when she closed the cover she turned around and opened it up to read again. I've never known her to do that, and I've known her a long time!

Paperback Reader said...

bellezza, it's rare to find a book that you are willing to read through again immediately! I hope your mother enjoys this one as much.