Confession: I picked up Gourmet Rhapsody because I adored Muriel Barbery’s previous novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and Rhapsody centers on a minor character from that story, Pierre Arthens, a food critic. I read this book twice, back-to-back, and it took much too long each time because I’m a computer addict and I mostly read during slow periods at work. After finishing for the first time, I realized I’d done a pretty crap job of reading it, usually only 2 or 3 pages at a time and distracted so that very little of it actually stuck in my head. Not conducive to a positive reading experience at all. Cue the reread, which went much smoother, except the novel staunchly refused to cohere in a way I found satisfying. Alas. That being said:
Gourmet Rhapsody is a series of vignettes centering around revered, revolutionary food critic Pierre Arthens, on his deathbed, searching his memory for a singular, life-defining flavor. Alternating with Arthens’ memories are the musings of a host of other entities, including family, friends (as much as he can be said to have any), his pet cat, and even a sculpture sitting in his apartment, on their relationship with this incredibly polarizing man. The critic is in turns crucified and admired, an external tidal wave of opinions that crash futilely against the unyielding face of his own ego. He recognizes he is loathed as readily as he is aware of his own brilliance; he simply does not care. He himself scorns most people, viewing them as things to be either collected (his wife, whom he loves as one of “the beautiful objects in [his] life”) or ignored (his children, whom he had no desire for and views as disappointments). If ever a man were an island unto himself, that man would be Pierre Arthens, and he is the most arrogant, unlikable fellow you could ever hope to avoid meeting.
The language itself is a delight to read. Each narrator carries a distinct voice and tone, despite some having less than a page to air their grievances. The memories narrated by Arthens combine the weight of his arrogance with the sparkling passion he feels toward food and his craft. Meanwhile, Jean, his son, is filled with vitriolic resentment and desperation. Marquet, his favorite chef and one of his lovers, offers indifference tinged with wistfulness, while the beggar Gegene balances coarse colloquialism with begrudging respect. However, the imbalance of power between Arthens and his critics avoids the dramatic friction consumers of narrative are familiar with. There is no tug-of-war between two forces; rather, Gourmet Rhapsody places those forces, the internal and the external, side by side without judgment or response, treating the reader to both Arthens’ rich internal world and the external responses he elicits.
In this way, Barbery’s work is a portrait of a man that offers stark delineation between how he views himself and how others judge him. And by denying any sort of traditional narrative conflict, by merely chronicling a man’s last days and the accompanying reflections on his life, Barbery reflects tension and conflict back onto the reader. What judgment do we pass on a man who was never more or less than what he claimed to be? In all his brilliance and all his disdain, ultimately pleased with the life he lived, what weighs more: the writings he left behind or his failings towards other people? Is there greater happiness to be found living solely for oneself or must we consider ourselves in the context of other lives?
Ultimately, Gourmet Rhapsody is a combination of literary food porn and a discussion on the purpose of life. While it’s easy to fall in love with the language, however, the characters, even Arthens, lack the emotional depth that really made The Elegance of the Hedgehog special, at least for me.
Translator: Alison Anderson