This little book is beautiful to look at, and beautiful to read. It's been cooked up so delicately, with such exquisite attention to detail, that surely Muriel Barbery must be one of the best authors writing anywhere in the world today - and this is in translation.
The Gourmet is the first book Ms Barbery wrote, although she is far better known for her second, the bestselling Elegance of the Hedgehog - which I haven't read but will do now. The main ingredient of the story is France's most famous and celebrated restaurant critic Pierre Arthens. He is dying and he sets a slight but intriguing mystery on the second page of the book, he is trying to recall a flavour that is 'the key to my entire life'. Much of the rest of the book is concerned with him reliving particularly exquisite meals, or taste experiences as he searches his memory for this lost flavour and as he does so he tells his life story.
Interspersed with Pierre's chapters, are brief chapters from other characters, his long-suffering wife, the children who can't stand the pompous, unloving old man, and his mistresses. We even have one chapter told from the point of view of a statuette on his desk, and another from a cat. This isn't as twee as it sounds, and each gives us a different perspective on the man.
The descriptions of place and food are as good as any I've ever read, simply superb. Ms Barbery, in the voice of Pierre Arthens, describes simple things like orange sorbet in such an amazingly three dimensional way that she actually made me begin to 'taste' them in my mouth, as well as in my mind. And as well as the food, there is one chapter in which a dog is described (I'm very fond of dogs) that's the best description of a dog I've ever read too.
It's difficult to find any fault with this perfect, elegant and lovely little book. The only point that slightly spoiled the perfection was the fact that, when the forgotten taste is revealed it's not something which which most readers outside France will recognise. That said, Ms Barbery makes its symbolic significance absolutely clear (can't say more without giving it away) so it's certainly not enough of a quibble to lose a star.
I reckon anyone who loves food, loves John Banville's style of writing, or is just looking for something fresh and delightful to read, should try this book.
Legendary food critic Pierre Arthens is dying, but he doesn't want his family or friends at his deathbed. No, he wants to isolate the food that he needs to taste one more time before he goes. And so he searches his memories of his life, trying to find that moment which is eluding his grasp. Meanwhile, his friends and family reflect on him, his attitude towards them, and their feelings, and it becomes clear that this book isn't really about food, after all.
One thing is certain; this book will make you very, very hungry. Unfortunately I don't have it with me as I'm writing this review, but its descriptions of the food that Pierre has eaten are lush and amazing, and he eats everything from huge rustic meals to the most refined fare at restaurants. I was wondering if food critics really examined their food in such detail, but then I figured they must. I enjoy Barbery's writing, assuming my translation is fluid, and so reading this book was very pleasant for me.
I didn't think it was as good as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, though. There were no insights that I felt applied to my own life outside the book, if that makes sense, aside from maybe showing love towards people that I love, which I think most normal people do anyway. Pierre's character just never rose above his neglect of family and friends in search of food, and it becomes clear that he's deprived himself of all the love that he could have had, and deprived his children and wife of a proper husband and father. He's extremely self-absorbed and the only thing he really loves is food. His realizations all came a little too late for me to appreciate them, and I found I enjoyed the other characters' chapters more than his, even if I did enjoy reading about his culinary delights. I could really feel for the other characters and it was fun to see a few from Hedgehog turn up to talk about Pierre, since he's the one that dies early on in that book.
The Gourmet is so short, however, that it's probably worth a read even if you don't like Pierre. I'd definitely recommend it for food lovers in particular, and for anyone who has already enjoyed Barbery's work.
The Gourmet is beautifully written - lots of lush, detailed, evocative descriptions of past meals enjoyed by the central character. However, it is not as enjoyable or as complete as Muriel Barbary's next book, 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog'. It's very slight, and the basic premise - that afood critic lies dying in bed and is trying to recall a forgotten flavour - feels somewhat forced. It is an excuse to have lots of separate chapters reliving past culinary experiences - these chapters and others written from different perspectives such as his children, wife, cat etc - are linked in that they each throw some light on his character. However, they don't quite flow together and because the central character is so unlikeable it is hard to sustain any interest in him. There is humour and wit in the writing and it's easy to see how the next book developed from this one (some of the characters are the same in both books), but while '...Elegance' has the same beautiful writing it also benefits from a properly driven plot and characters you care for, and as such is much more rounded and complete. The main reason to read this book is to enjoy the poetic language and the sensual, at times almost sexual, descriptions of food. One has to wonder whether, after the success of '...Elegance', Barbary's publishers are hoping to cash in on an earlier, and far less accomplished work.
The Gourmet, translated by Alison Anderson, is unmistakably French in style. It's a very short story of the deathbed thoughts of god-like food critic Pierre Arthens as he tries to recall a particular taste that he wishes to experience again before he dies. He goes through several food groups, recalling flavours (beautifully described) and experiences - many from childhood - chapter by chapter, each one interspersed with thoughts on the great man's imminent death by those who know him (including some surprise views from statues and pets!). Although very short, it's perfectly judged as any longer would start to get tedious although several of the stories of those who know him are particularly nicely written and wet the appetite for more.
It's perhaps slightly unfortunate that we discover that the illusive taste that he is seeking is very unique to France - and therefore perhaps the international reader is less able to identify with this particular taste - a minor point, but one that was strangely annoying to me.
This particular edition also has some of those "book group" type questions at the end as well as a number of taster chapters for the author's bestselling The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
It's a quick read undoubtedly, but quite a literary one, in common with much of the French style. Ideal reading for the dedicated foodie (although its worth pointing out that food is used as a metaphor for much deeper meaning in this book) as well as lovers of stylish prose.
Well, yes, France's top food critic is dying and struggling to remember the finest taste that has ever passed his lips.
The description of sushi or the grandmother's Yuletide log might have you running to the kitchen to prepare something to eat ... and that really summed it up for me. Rather like trying to photograph music. Fun, atmospheric maybe, but also unsatisfying.
The Gourmet is the first novel by Muriel Barbery. Pierre Arthens, France's greatest food critic, is dying. As he lies on his deathbed in his Rue de Grenelle apartment, he is tormented by his inability to recall the most delicious food to pass his lips, long before he became a critic. The story is narrated by Arthens himself, as he recalls meals and times in his life in an effort to identify the elusive dish; the people and things in his life also recount their experiences and opinions of him. Barbery's own childhood in Morocco is in evidence, and the apartment building and the concierge make a further appearance in Barbery's next and very popular novel, "The Elegance of the Hedghog". I wondered how the musings of a dying man could make much of a novel, but this is a feast of words, a banquet of mouth-watering and evocative descriptions. Alison Anderson has done a first class job of translation. This is truly a treat to relish.
I enjoyed the book but don't feel that it is either "life-affirming, or "profound" as quoted on the book-cover from enthusiastic reviews. It is, though, full of humour and insight into human relationships revealed by the thoughts of a dying food critic reflecting on his life and gustatory pleasures interspersed with chapters from the viewpoint of his family, acquaintances and, what I particularly enjoyed, his dog, cat and a statue of Venus in his study.
I read this short book of many chapters in one sitting carried along by the flamboyant stream-of-consciousness style of writing with short-snappy sentences that predisposes to fast reading. At times I thought it was a satire of over-the-top food writing in the excess of flowery adjectives producing literary indigestion. The dying man's quest to recall the most delicious food he'd ever eaten is revealed in the final surprising chapter.
I'm a big fan of food writing so this was a must read as far as I was concerned. My lasting impression of `The Gourmet' is that it is actually a bit of an odd book and it's hard to say if I enjoyed it or not. In essence, the writing is utterly beautiful and the depictions of food are positively drool-worthy, so it's tough to explain why the book itself left me feeling a little bit flat. I suppose after all the praise that has come this books way, I was personally expecting something a little bit better.
A brief summary: France's most renowned food critic is dying. Despised by many, loved by few, Pierre Arthens is on his death bed yet *still* trying to remember the most memorable thing he has ever tasted- a food that has stayed with him always. As Pierre searches his memories for the elusive taste, we learn a bit about his life from not only him, but from the people who have known him. It soon becomes clear that Pierre is a man of many layers- not all of them good...
So why only the 3 stars then? I hear you ask; It sounds a decent enough book.
To be honest, what I didn't enjoy particularly and what let this book down for me, was at the end of every `Pierre' chapter, after such beautiful, vivid writing of food and ingredients throughout and the re-living of meals and childhood experiences, it became a bit repetitive; alas, he STILL hasn't found the food/ingredient he is looking for. Oh well, let's try and remember some other type of food instead, time for *another* flashback... (if you get my drift). The progression from one Pierre chapter to the next just became a bit tiresome and grated on me after a while- the book just didn't seem to flow as concisely as I'd hoped. Also, though the book was very short I still felt the ending was far too quick. I'd also expected the story itself to be longer, but nope, the remaining pages were merely padded out with book group questions instead! Also, I have to say that for me, the great revelation as to what he'd been searching for was actually a bit disappointing, though it did make me smile.
If you're a fan of food writing then I would probably recommend this, but don't expect anything outstanding. There's much better food writing out there. Saying that, I have really enjoyed the author's writing style here however- quite possibly this book doesn't do her justice?
on 19 May 2010
As the greatest food critic in the world lies on his deathbed, having been told by his physician that he only has 48 hours to live, he looks back on his life and reminisces about the food he has savoured since his childhood.
"I am going to die and there is a flavour that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it........I know that it is a flavour from childhood or adolescence, an original, marvellous dish that predates my vocation as a critic.........I search, and cannot find."
This is more or less the premise of the book as Pierre Arthens desperately wants to re-live the taste before he dies and the chapters alternate between him and his friends, family, workers and even a beggar who he passed every day for ten years ..... they all spill the beans on their feelings and thoughts about him.
We see that he was not an easy man to live with, he was a cantankerous, authoritarian old man who treated his three children with disdain, his daughter Anna recalls that 'we were like flies to him, unwanted flies that you brush away with a sweep of your hand so you needn't think about them any more'. Yet to his peers and admirers he was a god and was treated with reverence upon entering a restaurant and people hung on to his every word.
Pierre described many instances of his favourite meals, who prepared them (his grandmother was his first preferred cook) and where and when they were eaten, in what circumstances, all in meticulous detail.
I thought he was a strange mix, I both liked and disliked him, I was fascinated by his love of food but I was unnerved by the way he treated his family, and couldn't understand what his wife saw in him. Muriel Barbery's extraordinary descriptions of foods I found a little long-winded sometimes and I certainly enjoyed reading everyone else's chapters more than Pierre's.
An interesting book for foodie fans.
A wonderful read and one I made the effort to read slowly because I wanted to savour the language. Muriel Barberry beautifully contrasts the unpleasant, irredeemable food critic, Pierre Arthen, with the gastronomic delights that he has experienced over the years.
Barberry's descriptions of the feasts that Pierre has experienced are mouth-wateringly wonderful. The way she describes the texture of a freshly picked warm tomato and the explosion in the mouth when it is bitten in to is an experience in itself and one that reminds me of the times when I have had the same experience but failed to put it into words. Barberry does the same thing when describing freshly baked bread and I found that her words were making me relish food more, appreciate good food and simply enjoying the every day pleasure that food can afford us.
All of this comes in the context of Pierre on his death bed trying to find that elusive flavour. His memory takes us on a journey of food, relationships, women and the discovery that the food is inextricably linked with those who make it. We snatch glimpses of his family members through their own eyes and memories and the sad relationships that Pierre has so destructively nurtured.
This is a book that I will return to in the future and I look forward to reading more of Barberry's novels. To produce a book of this quality after reading the Elegance of a Hedgehog is reassuring that we can expect more.