Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Gourmet Rhapsody" by Muriel Barberry-

 I was so happy when I saw Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barberry  as I knew I had found a book I was probably going to love.    Gourmet Rhapsodypublished in 2000 (before her marvelous The Elegance of the Hedgehog) but not translated until 2009 is about the world's leading food and restaurant critic.   He lives  in the  apartment house made famous in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.   He is on his deathbed and he is probing all his conscious memories to discover the one supreme gastronomic experience of his life.

The story unfolds in short sections.   We hear not only from the critic but from his grown children, his long suffering but still in love wife, his grandchildren and even his cat.  All the  speakers have their own voice.    We learn why every one hates Pierre Arthens, the critic, and we do not much like him either.   We get a feel for what it would be like to be the world's most highly regarded food critic.   Most of all in the book we are drawn into Pierre's experience of foods.   His descriptive powers are awesome.   We can see why a good word from him would make
a restaurant or an article send everyone to the market  looking for the ingredients required for a vain attempt to recreate a meal he describes.

Here is how Pierre sees himself.   "When I took possession of the table, it was as supreme 
monarch....I am the greatest food critic in the world".

I will share with you a few of my favorite lines from Pierre's food descriptions.

"Early man, in learning to cook fish, must have felt his humanity for the first time.....Meat is virile, powerful, fish is strange and cruel....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 bring with it every pleasure...slicing into raw fish is like cutting into stone. "     

Who of us could bite into a factory farm produced tomato after this or relish a meal of fish sticks?

"Tasting is an act of pleasure, and writing about that pleasure is artistic gesture, but the only true work of art, in the end, is another person's feast".

Now this is a bit disturbing.."No one will ever manage to banish from my thoughts the notion that raw food with mayonnaise is somehow deeply sexual".

I came to see my proper  attitude toward Pierre was to humble myself and learn from a master.
Pierre's character, that of his wife, children  are all very well articulated.   Pierre was a terrible husband and a worse father but once he begins to talk about food we forget all that.   (He was good to his cat!)

My hopes for this work were very high and they were at least met and maybe exceeded.    

Pierre also has refined literary tastes, Dante, Proust, Tolstoy.   His reading  may not be the center of his life but he has read deeply and correctly.   This is no accident.   It is almost as if
Proust restricted his writing to food only, as if Dante created a special circle for restaurants he disliked, as if Tolstoy  creates the world as he describes a well cooked duck.

The production qualities of this book are high and the print of decent size.   It was a lucky day for me when I found this wonderful book.

I will let Pierre have the last words.

"If I go back to my earliest memories, I have always liked eating....Infinite, cruel, primitive, refined ocean:  between our avid teeth we seize the products of your mysterious activity".


Paperback Reader said...

This is the first review I've read of this and I am so glad it is positive!

Food is my next favourite thing to literature and it's wonderful for the two to be combined.

I didn't realise that this was written before The Elegance of the Hedgehog; I thought it was a prequel written afterwards, but this makes me feel better that Barbery wasn't trying to coin in on her own success.

Mel u said...

Paperback Reader-I guess given the success of Hedgehog it was felt there would be a market for this translation-I think over the coming months we will see lots of reviews on this book..

Jessica said...

I'm so glad you liked this book. I was offered a chance to review the audiobook version as I reviewed and enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog audiobook. Now, I'm really looking forward to receiving it. :)

Suko said...

Excellent review, Mel. The ending is especially keen! It is good that you can tie this one into the reading life, "Pierre also has refined literary tastes...". I may need to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog and (the just discovered) Gourmet Rhapsody.

Anonymous said...

wonderful. And so, I am curious. Scribbling it on my "list" now - thanks for this.

Rebecca H. said...

I'm glad to hear this is such a good book. I really loved the Hedgehog one and am looking forward to reading more of her work. Thanks for the review!

Peter S. said...

Hello, Mel! Thanks for posting your insights about this book. I've always wondered about this one. The Elegance of the Hedgehog was one of my favorite reads this year, and I was hoping that this earlier book would be just as good as that one.

JoAnn said...

Great review, Mel. It's the first one I've seen for this book. I'm hoping to read Hedgehog soon, but this one is going on my list, too.

ds said...

Great review, Mel! This book is on the list now, along with Hedgehog. You have presented me with a dilemma: which one first??? (we should all have such dilemmas). Thank you.