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.
This is a slight but enjoyable book. The publisher pulls a trick three-quarters of the way through by inserting book club questions and a chapter from the author's other book. Beware if you're particularly enjoying the book: it ends before you expect it to!
It is a typically French book: familiar and bourgeois and yet foreign. The prose is assured, elegant, rich even, yet there is nothing particularly obscure or difficult to understand. The descriptions of food are, as you would hope, excellent.
The unattractive central character (yet is he really so bad?) is revealed through the voices of those who know him. He has devoted his life to a cause, a pursuit of excellence, with utter single-minded selfishness. There is the inevitable comparison to Proust (here, though, Proust is turned on his head: rather than a taste setting off memories, the Gourmet is in search of a flavour and has no shortage of memories) yet it is a much slighter book, without being lighter weight.
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.
Pierre Arthens is dying, there's nothing that can be done for him anymore. He was a famous food critic and people loved his work, but they also feared him. There's one taste Pierre is still looking for, the last thing he wants to eat before he's ready to pass on. Only what is it? He's looking for the taste, but can't seem to remember what it is. He's desperately trying to search his brain for the scent and the flavor, but can he find the memory on time?
Pierre Arthens isn't a man who's loved by everyone. His wife loves him, but he hasn't treated her very well. His children hate him intensely. There are many people he has offended, but as he was a legend he managed to get away with a lot. He does know much about food and it was a delight to read about different dishes, delicious food and amazing scents, tastes and memories. I enjoyed reading this book so much. I love gourmet food and have visited many French restaurants, so for me it was a trip down memory lane as well as a great and original story to read. It's weird that a book about a man who is dying can be fun, but as Pierre has lead such a rich and luxurious life it also felt a bit like a celebration of his profession and of great taste.
If you love food, France and a good story, then this is definitely the book for you. I love Muriel Barbery's writing style, Her stories are filled with life and with truths. The Gourmet is in many ways very different from The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It's shorter, less elaborate and it's easier to read. It has the same elegant sentences, flair and comparison of extremes though, which are such great strengths. I'm a big fan of this author and highly recommend her stories.
on 7 December 2012
Just occasionally-very occasionally- one comes across a writer blessed with a particular and almost unique genius for the written word. Louis de Bernieres springs to mind in my own experience. And Nancy Mitford. And so, what a pleasure it was to pick up "The Gourmet", recommended by a friend, and discover the exquisite prose of Muriel Barbery.
The story of itself is of no great import-a famous French food critic, a loathsome individual despised near and far, on his deathbed, searching for the food flavour from his past which gave him the most satisfaction. But his reminiscences of past gastronomic pleasures, recalled with such nostalgia and with such descriptive richness in short chapters, are simply divine. I especially enjoyed the occasion when he got lost in Normandy, ended up in a farmyard, and was invited to an outdoor meal with the farmer, wife and friends, when his main pleasure was in listening to the relatively mundane, rural conversation of the other participants in the feast. Also the chapter about the dog who ate the Yule log.
I am now savouring the prospect of reading "The elegance of the hedgehog", having sampled the "taster" added at the end of this novel.
The insufferable Pierre Arthens is 48 hours away from dying, France's greatest food critic. The story unfolds rapidly as he recounts parts of his life and loves, althrough the use of delicious culinary literary descriptions. Interspersed with his thoughts are the comments of the people that were part of his life; his children, his wife, his mistress, his dog; how they loved him; how they hated him.
Muriel Barbery's first novel (her second was the acclaimed "The Elegance of the Hedgehog") is a wondrous emotional story that will have you salivating at every page.
A wonderful short novel and an easy recommendation