Category Archives: muriel barbery

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

Ms. Barbery’s second novel is hardly a novel in form. Much is similar to her prior triumph with which I was so taken, “Elegance of a Hedgehog”. We are in the same fine apartment building, but in a different room. This could go on forever. Right up front, I should say this work of literature is for those who are not bothered by the absence of plot, action or dialogue. No, it is not “experimental” or “avant-garde.” But it is beautiful writing; and the translator is the same excellent one as last time. But we go from the teen to the doddering, both of course obsessed with death. That apartment building must have something in the wall paper. And my previous favorite, the curmudgeonly old concierge put in a brief appearance. She is Barbery’s philosopher avatar.

The streets are real as are several other things Ms. Barbery uses them to geographically anchor her work. You can visit all these. If you know central Paris, you have walked here, probably. It makes sense to me that she locates places carefully as she is from Casablanca of the old days and values place. More about this later.

The protagonist is the greatest food critic in the world, now on his death bed. He sets the stage by spluttering stuff about his greatness. He would otherwise be craven enough to sport for the Guise (ok, I should say ‘guide’) Michelin. The careful writing that comes through in this translation even lets us appreciate that he fancies himself as the Sun King. “Le Etat ce Moi”. Or as an old boxer has said “I am the greatest”.

Turns out that, in his final hours, he is groping for his culinary equivalent of the lost chord. But early on you have the clues something is not quite right with his image as suffered by others or imagined by himself. He characterizes daube and pot au feu as extravagant. Huh? I think we are in for a ride.

The structure of the book is a series of monologues, short, by each character. This is a kind of “Spoon River Anthology”, where all the characters come to say their piece. It could be a radio play. Each circles back to the “Great Man”, every other chapter. Chapters are short, from less than two pages to perhaps five from the protagonist. I have never seen mayonnaise used as a device of foreshadowing.

In his tomato homage, he no sooner reflects on fresh ones honored by oil, than he reverses himself and proclaims the nobility of oil to be false. Something deeper at work here. Words are never wasted; Flaubert would smile. I had to run out to my kitchen and eat three right on the spot!

This book is not for foodies. There is remarkably little actual discussion of food, despite the title. But she does give her thanks in a final note to Pierre Gagnaire, who may be found on 6 Rue de Balzac {Balzac? no coincidence there). The bakery Lenotre can there be found there as well. But Ms. Barbery’s musical reference bears mentioning as well. Laure’s entry, late in the book, begins with a song from 1964 . You can find the North African version by Natasha Atlas (as in the African mountain chain) here on Amazon. This is the one Ms. Barbery is likely to have grown-up with, but you can search for a more euro version y Francoise Hardy. In any case it is a song about life fleeting from the point of view of a droplet of dew.

Even sans plot, there is an ending I shall not spoil. Having said that about gastronomy, it should be remarked that the underlying theme of this story is brilliantly expressed through recollections by different voices, alternating with that of Pierre Arthens as he lay dying. Who the reader will discover in Pierre Arthens is a heartless, self-absorbed, arrogant hedonist who represents selfishness, vulgarity and excess of the “elite”. The irony that as he finds himself dying, his final desire is for one more, elusive taste sensation ~ “the only truth to be told” of his life, is a powerful statement, one to truly reflect upon.

Ms. Barbury has achieved an elegant work of small literature. Her focus is on each voice, uninterrupted. More, please.

Gourmet Rhapsody; Barbery, Muriel; Europa Editions; $15.00