Before developing Renée and Paloma (two memorable personalities in The Elegance of the Hedgehog), author Muriel Barbery created the great Pierre Arthens, food-critic-for-the-ages and central protagonist in Gourmet Rhapsody. Barbery is a master of monologue. Her novels unfold through chapters that read like diary entries, progressively revealing the inner life of her characters. The strength of her style is demonstrated by the success with which she develops believable characters of depth and complexity and then places them in evolving relationships with each other.
At the start of Gourmet Rhapsody (originally published in French in 2000 as Une Gourmandise), we learn that Pierre Arthens about to die. He has just learned this news from his doctor. Pierre has been a prolific food writer for most of his adult life and is as skillful with his pen as he is ruthless with it. He can conjure feasts into being with his descriptive prose and, in the next paragraph, sign the death sentence of a hitherto celebrated chef or restaurant. He has been no saint. On the contrary, his life-long pursuit of epicurean pleasures has been conducted at the expense of those around him: the brilliant chefs who made him his food, his wife of 40 years to whom he has been faithless, and his neglected, now grown-up children who have always been denied both his attentions and affection.
If the death of a saint is precious, one might expect the waning moments of an unrepentant sinner to be cheap and mundane. In the case of Arthens, however, they are not. A new quest consumes Pierre’s last hours. He is desperately trying to recall a food that he once ate that, he now suspects, contained the essence of the Divine and the meaning of existence. "Since yesterday only one thing matters. 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." This quest takes us on a culinary journey back in time through his memories to regions throughout France and even Morocco and California. In Tangiers, we experience the ecstasy of spiced and marinated Moroccan meatballs. In California, it’s griddled toast at a cheap diner. In Brittany, we experience childhood vacation days at the beach and his grandfather’s grilled sardines, freshly caught from the sea:
"In the flesh of grilled fish, from the humblest of mackerel to the most refined salmon, there is something that defies culture… Meat is virile, powerful; fish is strange and cruel. It comes from another world, a secret ocean that will never yield to us; it bears witness to the absolute relativity of our existence, and yet it offers itself to us through the ephemeral revelation of unknown realms"
Barbery (through Arthens) savors the experience of eating and contemplates the significance of each experience—ranging from personal to common. Arthens recalls the taste and form of tomatoes plucked from the vine and eaten in his late aunt’s kitchen garden in the countryside of France, likening them to the memory of his aunt:
"crimson in its taut silken finery, undulating with the occasional more tender hollow, with a communicable cheerfulness about it like a plumpish woman in her party dress hoping to compensate for the inconvenience of her extra pounds by means of a disarming chubbiness"
As he reflects upon his life, he weighs it in the balances and finds it wanting. The taste of fresh oysters from the beaches of Normandy--"Four fine de claire oysters, cold and salty, with neither lemon nor seasoning. Swallowed slowly, blessed for the imperious chill with which they cloaked my palate"—serve as a foil to the inscrutable vastness of the landscapes in which he ate them—suggesting even his willful ignorance of their meaning:
“where the strand is laid bare by the low tide, and where I truly grasped the meaning of the expression 'between heaven and earth.' I took long walks along Omaha Beach, I was somewhat stunned by solitude and space, I watched the gulls and the dogs roaming in the sand, I raised my palm to shelter my eyes to study the horizon, which taught me nothing, and I felt content and trusting, reinvigorated by this silent escapade."
Pierre Arthens recalls the innocence of his youth and regrets the vanity of the ensuing years:
"Childhood exaltation: How many years do we spend forgetting the passion we breathed into any activity that held a promise of pleasure? Why are we now so rarely capable of such total commitment, such elation, such flights of charming lyricism? There was so much exaltation about those days spent swimming, so much simplicity… so soon replaced, alas, by the ever increasing difficulty of finding pleasure in things…What an idiot, what a pity… I invented mysteries where there were none, in order to justify my perfectly pathetic métier. What is writing, no matter how lavish the pieces, if it says nothing for the truth, cares nothing for the heart, and is merely subservient to pleasure of showing one's brilliance?"
View of Omaha Beach, Normandy from The Maritime Explorer
His nephew Paul, narrating one of the chapters, describes Pierre’s situation poignantly:
"he has realized in this moment among all others, that he has been chasing a chimera and preaching a false gospel… What do you think, old madman, what do you think? That if you find a lost flavor you will eradicate decades of misunderstanding and find yourself confronted with a truth that might redeem the aridity of your heart of stone? ...it is too late now, too late to speak truthfully, to save what might have been saved. "
Without spoiling the book for you, I will only note that at the end of Gourmet Rhapsody, there is a redemption—at least of a sort. "Then suddenly I remember. Tears flow from my eyes… I am weeping and laughing at the same time.” Imperfect though the redemption may be in its particular form, it makes perfect sense and, as is typical of Barbery’s writing, the characters remain authentic and true to themselves. My only criticism of the book is that the voices of its multiple narrators, while distinct in many ways, blur somewhat by virtue of their uniformly complicated syntax. This could, I suppose, be attributed to Alison Anderson’s English translation (the version I read), or perhaps it’s a shortcoming of Barbery’s original text. I suspect, however, that it is simply a reflection of the French that is commonly spoken throughout France: complex, sophisticated and not particularly concerned with the ease of non-native speakers. In any case, you will grow with the challenge.