GOURMET RHAPSODY by Muriel Barbery

Book Quote:

“Can one be so gifted and yet so impervious to the presence of things?”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (AUG 25, 2009)

In Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Renee Michel, the concierge, disdains the fourth-floor resident, restaurant critic Pierre Arthens, as “an oligarch of the worst sort.” She continues, “Can one be so gifted and yet so impervious to the presence of things?” Yes, apparently he can, and in Barbery’s new “companion” volume, Gourmet Rhapsody, the curtain of mystery is drawn back from him, and he shows us exactly how he does it!

Arthens is a background character in Hedgehog, who takes ill to his bed, with family, doctors and others coming and going. He is spoken of by forefront characters such as Renee and the young girl, Paloma (who labels him “a first class truly nasty man” and adds, “…he has so thoroughly renounced everything good that he might have inside him that he’s already a corpse even though he is still alive”), but otherwise his drama takes place out of sight. Gourmet Rhapsody, only 141 pages, zooms in on him as he lies in his sickroom, given only 48 hours to live by his physician. Feeling the vise of time, he casts his mind back over his life obsessively. As he explains, he is seeking to identify “[a] forgotten flavor, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced at the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told during that lifetime….” He mentally grasps for meaning, for a reconnection, perhaps sensing the same waste about himself that Paloma mentions. With the gastronomic exuberance of one who unabashedly claims to be “the greatest food critic in the world,” he thinks about ice cream, bread, whisky (the spelling used in Scotland), and even provides the “dazzling prose about a tomato” Renee dissed in Hedgehog: “The resistance of the skin — slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips….”

While Arthens rhapsodizes about food, neglected and caustic family members, old lovers, neighbors, and servants have their say about him in their own chapters. Many decry him, hating him (or at least professing to) for being the egocentric, detached elitist he has been. Some of these bombastic diatribes are indignant to the point of either being comedic or just tiresome. Even the dog, the cat, and small statue of Venus contribute anthropomorphic opinions, with mixed results.

Hedgehog is a fully developed novel charactered with many-faceted individuals. Some of these take their turns at soliloquy in Gourmet Rhapsody (although Paloma is not among them), suggesting that this secondly-published book might be a quickly produced adjunct. However, as someone kindly pointed out, Gourmet Rhapsody was copyrighted six years before Hedgehog (in 2000, by Editions Gallimard, Paris), and we can surmise that its less polished, less deep material results from being the earlier piece. Although Barbery does invest this novella with some philosophical “meat,” there is a decided difference in quality between the two works, again pointing to an evolution of sophistication in the writer over time. Many may think, as I did, that this particular comment by Arthens is applicable to a degree: “What is writing, no matter how lavish the pieces, if it says nothing of the truth, cares little for the heart, and is merely subservient to the pleasure of showing one’s brilliance?” Not all the heart and soul and thoughtfulness signaturing Hedgehog were apparently yet in play in Gourmet Rhapsody. I’d like to have gotten a less caricatured look at Pierre Arthens and his world. But I suppose we are expected to understand that he was such vacant man himself that something more nuanced would have violated his character.

All in all though, anyone who is a thorough fan of The Elegance of the Hedgehog will probably desire to read Gourmet Rhapsody. I’m glad I did. It offers another inimitable glimpse at the characters of Rue de Grenelle as well as a peek into Barbery’s evident advancement as a fiction writer, and those aren’t items to pass up. Not to mention the rapturous food passages that may be over the top but lusciously mouthwatering just the same. (Translated by Alison Anderson.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 69 readers
PUBLISHER: Europa Editions (August 25, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Muriel Barbery
EXTRAS: Excerpt

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August 25, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: France, Translated, World Lit

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