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).