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).

The Châtelet Apprentice by Jean-François Parot is the first in a historical mystery series featuring Nicolas Le Floch, a rookie policeman in the fledgeling police service in 18th century Paris.

Nicolas Le Floch, a Breton foundling, arrives in Paris with a letter from his guardian to learn the ways of the police. When his superior, in whose house he is lodging, fails to return home one evening, he is entrusted by the royal commissioner with finding out what has happened. In a new city and surrounded by people Nicolas is unsure whether to trust, he must unravel the mystery of the missing policeman and his connection to two feuding doctors who were both present at the exclusive brothel where he was last seen. With pressure from the royal court, Nicolas must find a way to unmask the murderer whilst keeping himself alive.

I was expecting a novel similar to James McGee’s Ratcatcher series featuring the gorgeous Matthew Hawkwood but this was a little more intellectual, a little more staid and less of a rollicking adventure; a little like the protagonist. Saying that, Parot has done his research and his novel is filled with delicious nuggets of information about France during the reign of Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour. There were times when I felt the plot was in danger of being eclipsed by the research, but the character of Nicolas Le Floch was sympathetic and engaging and slowly, like Nicolas himself, I grew comfortable, loosened up a bit and began to enjoy the story. The translation by Michael Glencross is smooth and the mystery and dénouement pretty interesting, although I wasn’t too surprised by the unmasking of the culprit (but then I’m a seasoned mystery reader and it takes a lot to catch me unawares.)

But what I liked most about The Châtelet Apprentice was the way in which Parot conjures what life must have been like in those times. You could almost hear the crunch of the snow, the squelch of the mud and skulk in the shadows of dark and smoky candle-lit rooms. It’s one of the reasons why I love reading historical mysteries.

On an aside, I was expecting The Châtelet Apprentice to be about Emilie de Châtelet (mathematician and lover of Voltaire) but it’s about the fledgeling French police headquarters situated at Châtelet in Paris. Oops! That will teach me not to see connections in places where they don’t exist.

Parot’s series has been a huge hit in France, and I will be looking forward to reading the next in the series published by Gallic Books, The Man With The Lead Stomach (what an intriguing title!) to see how Nicolas Le Floch matures.

I read this as part of the Thriller and Suspense Challenge 2010.

I think I’ve been very lucky in my reading choices this year. And it keeps getting better. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery has been on my wishlist for a long time until my happening sister got it before me. Lucky for me, she’s the sharing sort, so I finally brought it home where it sat on my shelf for months. And you know what, I wish I’d reached out sooner for this book because it’s probably my favourite book of the year so far. I loved everything about it. The subversive humour, the gentle warmth, the spiky asides. Everything. Even the ending, which broke my heart a little but which brought home the message that I think Barbery was trying to make in a gently meandering way throughout the book.

I loved the main character Renée Michel, the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment block on the Left Bank. I also particularly loved Paloma Josse, the lonely, precocious and cynical 12 year old set apart from her peers by her acute intelligence and who is contemplating suicide. And most of all, I loved Kakuro Ozu, the gentle Japanese businessman who moves into the apartment block and is the catalyst that brings about the changes that everyone desperately longs for. It was a pleasant surprise for me to find a Japanese connection in this novel as all I knew about it was the concierge who hid behind a mask of ignorance and the clever child who both share a love of the philosophical.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was smart, funny and made you see the foibles and petty prejudices of the middle classes, and the difficulty in which people who don’t share the same views find themselves. Not that Barbery is saying that being different is good or that following the crowd is mindless and stupid. It’s not as simple as that, of course, and Barbery should know since she’s a philosophy prof and spends her career thinking about these sorts of things.

For example, take Renée’s musings on being a concierge:

Similarly it has been decreed that concierges watch television interminably while their rather large cats doze, and that the entrance to the building must smell of pot-au-feu, cabbage soup or a country-style cassoulet. I have the extraordinary good fortune to be the concierge of a very high-class sort of building. It was so humiliating for me to have to cook such loathsome dishes that when Monsieur de Broglie – the State Councillor on the first floor – intervened (an intervention he described to his wife as being ‘courteous but firm’, whose only intention was to rid our communal habitat of such plebeian effluvia), it came as an immense relief, one I concealed as best I could beneath an expression of reluctant compliance. (p.16)


And regarding one of Paloma’s pet peeves:

My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raging fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue. It would seem that children believe for a fairly long time that anything that moves has a soul and is endowed with intention. My mother is no longer a child but she apparently has not managed to conceive that Constitution and Parliament possess no more understanding than the vacuum cleaner. (p.47)

I love her. And don’t you love the cats’ names? Hysterical.

Barbery’s tale is peopled with characters who go to great lengths to hide who they really are behind a facade created to placate others into believing that everything is in their rightful place and the social etiquette is observed. However, there is always the danger of exposure which underpins their daily routine. It seems as though Barbery’s characters feel that being alone may be the answer, but when they meet someone who sees them for who they are, something changes.

Some may find this book pretentious, but I found it warm, kind and hysterically funny. It is, after all, a book about friendship. So before I gush too much, I urge you to try this. I, on the other hand, am going back to try Barbery’s first offering, The Gourmet which features one of the other residents in Renée’s apartment block and is also published by Gallic Books. Or I may just go back and read this book again. Wonderful!

I read this for Paris in July and also for the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, progress.