The Gourmet by Muriel Barbary

26 August, 2010

You may remember me swooning and gushing about The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary several weeks back. And I’m sure you’d like a little more time to have lapsed before I started all that again. I’m afraid I can’t wait because I’ve just finished The Gourmet, Barbary’s debut novel (or novella since it’s short and sweet) and I was once again thrown out of synch by her amazing story-telling skills. The translation by Alison Anderson is so smooth it didn’t even feel like I was reading a translation.

There is something sensual about Barbary’s prose, more so in The Gourmet because she tells the tale of Pierre Arthens, famed gourmand and food critic, who is on his deathbed chasing a phantom, fleeting taste that haunts him, and he is unable to die until he recognises what it is. Once again, Barbary tells the story in a series of vignettes, alternating between Arthens and the various people in his life including his protegée, his children, his wife and his lover. Many of these chapters are his reminiscences of his childhood as he recalls how it was that he first became entranced by food.

In a way, you can tell that this attempt pre-dates The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It isn’t as refined or smooth. And I won’t lie and say I preferred this to The Elegance of the Hedgehog. But there is a visceral explosion of the senses in The Gourmet, a passionate stream of thought as Arthens struggles to remember the pinnacle of his happiness, and his search for the one food that produced it. And he goes back through his life, his childhood, in search of that elusive morsel.

Barbary addresses a lot of issues in her slim novel: love, rejection, worth, integrity and pretence, all encased in the beautiful, sensual and bountiful vocabulary of food. Barbary is especially good at describing the simple pleasures of childhood and the foods that will forever be entwined with our memories.

Yet in contrast to his career and gastronomic refinement, Arthens’ life is shallow, dry and curdled. You don’t know whether to be in awe of his genius or to recoil in disgust at his treatment of people. Barbery doesn’t write nice people. In fact, she goes out of her way to bring out the nastiness, the pedestrian and the common. Maybe in doing so, she’s trying to show us what the world is really like; the fleeting nature of happiness, the false promise of love, that some people can go about hurting others and bending society to their will and still get away with it. I’m not sure. But you can’t doubt that Barbary certainly has a skill in painting a picture of contemporary Parisian society.

However, we should not forget that Barbary’s novel is also very funny. Here is Arthens explaining why he named his beloved dalmation Rhett:

because if I’d been a woman, I would have been Scarlett – the only one who survives in a world that is dying.

Describes Arthens to a T.

In many ways, The Gourmet reminded me strongly of John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure which I read many years ago with its heady use of language. Needless to say, I will be eagerly awaiting Barbary’s next novel.

Thank you to Svein of Gallic Books for kindly sending me a copy of this fabulous book to review (and for rescuing me from my attempt to read it in French, which would have taken YEARS).

12 Responses to “The Gourmet by Muriel Barbary”

  1. Fëanor Says:

    I see you’re in a gastronomic mood. That Lanchester was superb, no? There’s more gustatory madness in Cooking With Fernet Branca, another hilarious and disturbing book. Or there’s Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny – have you read it (or seen the film)?

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Ha ha, can you tell I’m hungry? I’ve seen the film version of Babette’s Feast which was poignant and beautiful. Didn’t realise it was from a book. I haven’t heard of Cooking with Fernet Branca before but it looks very, very interesting. Will definitely check it out.

  2. savidgereads Says:

    I think I need to finally get onto reading ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ as I have had this on my TBR pile for about two years and keep meaning to read.

  3. amymckie Says:

    Heh, I’m glad you found a copy in English so you didn’t have to read it in French. I have yet to read anything by this author, but obviously I need to!

  4. I ordered a copy of this from the States last year I was so desperate to read it! Like you I’m not sure if it before Elegance (I read it after).

    A book for foodies everywhere.

  5. winstonsdad Says:

    I must get on of her books to read ,they seem a real marmite book people either love or hate them ,all the best stu

  6. chasing bawa Says:

    amymckie: You do! I did attempt it in French, but I couldn’t even get past reading the blurb on the back (I really need to brush up on my French, it’s pathetic.)

    Claire: Definitely for foodies! I loved the bit at the end when he alights upon his favourite memory. It reminded me of all the things I ate when I was young. Regarding reading order, I may have to find out from someone who read it first.

    winstonsdad: I think Elegance was probably a more marmite-ish book than The Gourmet, mainly because it’s longer and has more in it. Will be very interested to see what you think of them.

  7. Mystica Says:

    I am still trying to get the first book (after reading your review) and now you hit us again with a gorgeous review which makes me want this as well. Cant keep apace now!!!

  8. Tamara Says:

    I’m so glad you got to read this on so soon. Aren’t they great little sotries. I agree with you that “the Hedgehog” was a more refined writing style, however I think ‘the Gournet’ was more my favourite because of the topics and the descriptions of food. I loved the mission. What do you think she should write about next??? I’d be inerested in what she thinks about the different transport options used by the Parisians – could you imagine her telling the story from the perpesctive of a homeless person who watches the people of an apartment building going about their days in different ways – trains, bicycles, peugeots, scooters etc???

  9. I am excited to read this one, as I absolutely loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I would be very shocked if Gourmet tops Hedgehog though!

  10. chasing bawa Says:

    Mystica: She’s apparently writing her third, but it’ll probably be a while before it’s translated into English. Can’t wait!

    Tamara: And velomoteurs?? I remember learning about them in French class at school. I preferred Elegance probably because I read it first, but the descriptions of food in The Gourmet were mouthwatering. You really become aware of the power of words because sometimes, the descriptions are so much more delicious than the food itself^^ I’m not sure what I want for her to write next, but I definitely want to read more about her observations of people. So brilliant.

    reviewsbylola: I think it would be hard to top The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but The Gourmet is different in the sense that it focuses more on one thing (and therefore more concentrated!) I hope you enjoy it!

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