Before the French publishing sensation The Elegance of the Hedgehog, there was Gourmet Rhapsody. We in English-speaking North America were not aware of such a delicacy until after the translation of Hedgehog was introduced to us. Too risky to sell to a different palate?
As a first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, the 156-page collection of short chapters, is like an appetizer to the main dish that is Hedgehog. It is a foretaste of the more meaty philosophical pondering of the latter. Now that we have savored the main dish first, might as well treat Gourmet Rhapsody as the dessert. Does the cover not make you think of a raspberry sorbet?
If food is a metaphor for life, then the food critic is almost at the status of divinity, especially ‘the greatest food critic in the world’. That self-ascribed praise is the egotistic utterance of none other than Pierre Arthens, the celeb resident on the fourth floor of the luxury apartment at 7 Rue de Grenelle, the setting for Hedgehog.
Pierre Arthens’ pen is indeed mightier than the sword. The knowledgeable and merciless food critic, the ‘true genius of the food world’, is feared from all corners of the world, ‘from Paris to Rio, Moscow to Brazzaville, Saigon to Melbourne and Acapulco’. He holds the power to exalt a chef and restaurateur to stardom or crush their ego and future like eggshells.
Between these two extremes — the rich warmth of a daube and the clean crystal of shellfish, I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game — but always one heart behind.
But what use is the allure of fame and power when one is on deathbed, at 68, given only 48 hours to live. Alas, from the years of Epicurean pursuits of cream and butter, oil and sauces, games and other culinary delights, the world renowned food critic is dying not from liver or stomach ailments, but cardiac failure.
Gourmet Rhapsody is a collection of Arthens’ own reminiscence of a life with food and his final quest. The vividly evoked memories are interspersed with poignant commentaries by those who have come into the path of his life, including his wife, children, nephew, granddaughter, restaurateurs, his doctor, his concierge, his mistress, and even his cat.
And alas, what pity it is to find that none of the entries from these people is positive. His daughter Laura stays in the stairway, refuses to go into his room to see his last. His son loathes his ego and his ruthless destruction of theirs. His wife Anna, whom he had loved as an object of possession, is ever more ambivalent at his deathbed.
And what irony, the only positive review of his life comes from his cat Rick:
… here I am, nineteen years I’ve knocked about as head tomcat on the Persian rugs of my abode; just me, the favorite, the master’s alter ego, the one and only, to whom he declared his thoughtful, undying love…
So, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses the love from his wife and children, or respect from those who have crossed his path? This ultimate question belies the enticing and delicious offering described throughout the chapters. As in Hedgehog, Barbery has cleverly created a philosophical concoction without appearing didactic. Here in Gourmet Rhapsody, food is the delightful sauce bringing up the taste of such rumination.
As a lover of sushi and sashimi, my favorite chapter is ‘Raw’, in which Arthens reminisce on his first taste of these Japanese culinary delights:
It was dazzling… 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… 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.
But the powerful food critic has but one final quest on his deathbed. There is one particular food that he wants to taste most before his imminent demise, but which he fails to name. No, not the coq au vin, or the extravagant pots-au-feu, or poulets chasseur, or the grilled meat of Tangiers, or the Moroccan kesra, or the velvety, melt-in-your-tongue sashimi. Should I reveal it here? Alright, Spoiler Alert.
It is the chouquettes, cream puffs, but not from fancy patisserie. Pierre Arthens wants to taste those chouquettes that are stuffed in plastic bags from the supermarket. After a life of bourgeois elegance and Epicurean odyssey, it is the mundane, ordinary thing that Arthens seeks on his deathbed. In the face of mortality, every single moment of mundaneness is something to devour.
If only he had savored that sooner, not just food, but the people in his life, and everything else.
~ ~ ~Ripples
Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, Europa Editions, 2009. 156 pages.
To read my review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, CLICK HERE.
9 thoughts on “Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery”
Arti, your review is amazing. You have a way of describing how a book might taste and smell. I’d never heard of either of these books, though I’ve glanced at the Hedgehog book reviewed by you a while back. The excerpt you’ve included about sashimi is amazingly close to my own experience of eating and tasting raw fish.
Do go for The Hedgehog… it’s a bit meaty but a very enjoyable read. Yes, I love that description of the sashimi experience too. Will we see some Japanese cuisine pics from you? They’re so beautifully presented too… Thanks for your comment!
Perfect review, Arti! But having sampled neither the “main course” nor the appetizer/dessert, which do you recommend I scarf down first? I thought the sashimi description you quoted was spot on, too, melting on the tongue…
Definitely dig right into the main course. The Hedgehog is a much more absorbing and multi-faceted literary work, a much better novel I think. Gourmet Rhapsody is more like a novella, appetizer or dessert.
I’ve not had the pleasure of reading Barbery yet but when I do I can see I am in for a treat!
Go for The Elegance of the Hedgehog… I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. After that you can decide whether you’ll want to have the appetizer/dessert or not.
Interesting review! I loved Hedgehog, but I haven’t been sure if I want to read this one or not — I’m not much of a foodie and was wondering if I would find it kind of pretentious and boring. But perhaps not? 🙂
I must say Hedgehog is a much better novel. My main motivation for reading GR is all because it’s about some of the characters who are living in the same luxury apartment 7 Rue de Grenelle. Hedgehog’s ripple effects, I’d say! So, it’s ironic that GR comes before H.
I loved the food descriptions in this book-to me it is worth reading just for this and it is worthwhile to see the author’s efforts prior to Hedgehog, which I loved-
One of the reasons for my buying the book to keep is to read those food descriptions again! And I’m not a foodie! But I’m just impressed by the language. Thanks for your sharing!
Well, I was reading and reading this review and came to the words “spoiler alert” and couldn’t stop even though i realized by your second paragraph that I have to read this book, maybe even before I read HEDGEHOG.
If the book is as good as your review, then yes, I must read it. I must find it.
Yes, the cover is good – tied stylistically to HEDGEHOG whose cover I also love.
a wonderful review, Arti, just plain wonderful! (actually, there’s nothing “plain” about wonderful, as you know…!)
Thanks for your very kind words.
Pierre Arthens is a nasty fellow, really, so GR is a compilation of some negative commentaries from those who’ve crossed his path. But the description of childhood memories and food offer pleasant thoughts to savor. As I’ve mentioned in my reply to previous comments, Hedgehog is the more superior novel and I would not hesitate to recommend that you start with that. But for a quick read, go for GR.
A first interesting note is that before I’d read the title or the author’s name, in the very first second or two of looking at the cover, I thought of the Hedgehog. There’s our visual rhetoric at work again – intentionally using graphics to identify and “brand” a book. I’d be interested in knowing whether the cover of GR was redesigned after the publication of Elegance in order to link to its success. It wouldn’t surprise me.
I’m also intrigued by the relationship of the books. When I read them I’ll take them in order, because I suspect the author, intentionally or not, has developed a certain symmetry.
GR begins with a quite elegant if nasty fellow, an extraordinary creature accustomed to the finest things of life, but ends with a hunger for the ordinary.
In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, we begin with quite ordinary people who turn out to be extraordinary.
Taken together, the shape of the two books is parabolic ~ and it’s worth remembering that the literal meaning of the word is “a comparison”, or more literally, “a throwing beside”. (The word “parable” is related.)
It seems to me that’s what Barbery’s done – thrown the extraordinary and ordinary next to one another and shown us a multitude of ways they can be related to one another. I can imagine her writing the first, pondering it and then saying to herself, “I can do better than that!”
Now, I have to read both books to test my hypotheses. Thanks for both wonderful reviews!
I’m amazed at your marvelous skill in integrating and analyzing the connection between the two novels. Of course, it all makes sense! Ha, I’ve never thought of it this way. Thanks for sharing your view. I look forward to the test result of your hypotheses!