A novel about an arrogant food critic could only happen in France. Bien sûr!
Some time ago, I set myself the challenging and Sisyphean task of reading Muriel Barbery’s first novel, Une gourmandise, in French. (Barbery’s reputation rests on her extremely philosophical second novel — The Elegance of the Hedgehog [what a title!], which took France by storm. The heavy larding of the text with academic philosophical bits proved to be the downfall of many American readers. But not all.)
Un peu every day. Slog, slog, but of the pleasurable sort. But, finally, in September 2009, the English translation — Gourmet Rhapsody (with its lousy translation of the title, Une gourmandise, IMO) — appeared and, with relief, I read un peu of both versions every day, in little chunks to assure myself that my twisted French à l’ancienne still worked, un peu at least.
Several of the same characters in Hedgehog appear in cameo in Une gourmandise. But center stage belongs to the insufferable food critic and food writer, Pierre Arthens, dead as a plucked pheasant in Hedgehog, but vibrant as a crowing peacock in Gourmet Rhapsody.
Right off the bat, Pierre Arthens calls himself “the greatest food critic in the world.” (Je suis le plus grand critique gastronomique du monde.)
Uh, OK. A little ego thing going there, a big attitude with no adjustment in sight, but people apparently can live with that sort of thing. I mean, stand in any grocery store checkout lane, and scan the headlines of the tabloids and fan magazines displayed oh so subtly for one’s ready pleasure, conveniently placed within an eye’s reach and an arm’s length. We’re a culture that worships large egos.
And so, faced with his impending death, the egotistical Arthens recounts his frantic attempt to recall a certain great taste during his last 48 hours.
Une gourmandise/Gourmet Rhapsody really nails it when it comes to descriptions of food. Arthens, through Barbery’s pen, captures one taste memory after another in seductive, almost pornographic, prose:
The grilled sardines filled the entire neighborhood with their ashy marine aroma. … In the flesh of grilled fish, from the humblest of mackerel to the most refined salmon, there is something that defies culture. Early man, in learning to cook fish, must have felt his humanity for the first time, in this substance where fire revealed both essential purity and wildness. (Les sardines grillées embaumaient tout le quartier de leur fumet océanique et cendré. … Il y a dans la chair du poisson grillé, du plus humble des maquereaux au plus raffiné des saumons, quelque chose qui échappe à la culture. C’est ainsi que les hommes, apprenant à cuire leur poisson, durent éprouver pour la première fois leur humanité, dans cette matière dont le feu révélait conjointement la pureté et la sauvagerie essentielles.)
And so it goes, for pages, different foods, buried memories, dishes bordering on the divine, more vignettes than traditional story telling, a calling up of last suppers and large regrets. Barbery certainly grasps the power of critics and writers to make and break lives.
Nevertheless, when the last pages fall together, at THE END, images of other unforgettable (but real) food writers and food critics emerge out of the mental stew served up by Barbery.
Take a moment to reflect on this Day of all Souls (La Toussaint). In tribute, remember those saintly souls of the food world who went before, leaving us with profound pleasure on the page and in the pan, those who wrote seductively and winningly of food and the kitchen.
The following are just some of the souls who “preserve” me on the page and in the kitchen. Arthens they’re not …
Elizabeth Robins Pennell, M. F. K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Roy Andries De Groot, and Laurie Colwin.
And a nod to all the late food-besotted personalities included in Culinary Biographies, as well as those found in the series edited by Holly Hughes, Best Food Writing … even if the writers from the latter still wield their pens.
*As All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are called in France.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen