Review: The Gourmet
Muriel Barbery’s debut novel The Gourmet was published in 2000. It won France’s top book award for food writing. It was translated into English in 2009 following the success of her second novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
For the protaganist, Pierre Arthens, food is everything. As France’s greatest food critic he has eaten the world’s finest dishes. In his final days, he is obsessed with rediscovering a flavour from his past. He searches through memories of his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, desperate to taste it once more.
He lusciously describes all kinds of food: French gastronomy, a simple rustic French meal, stews, oysters, sushi, and kababs and meatballs in Tangiers (“The meatballs … masticatory pleasure.”) The descriptions are sensual and often sexual.
His chain of thoughts told in first person, makes the critic from the film Ratatouille look like a sweetheart. He describes food, sensations and even people, especially his own children, precisely and without restraint (or compassion). He is openly disappointed by his children.
He is shamessly egotistical: “And I was the only ray of sunshine in my mother’s existence. I was a god and I remain a god.” He later likens himself to a king whose friendship is a ‘generous gift’.
There are multiple references to him as a magician. Pierre says, “I feasted on their words, yes … words: repositories for singular realities which they then transform into moments in an anthology, magicians that can change the face of reality by adorning it with the right to become memorable …”. Ironically, he struggles the whole novel to pinpoint the memory of The Flavour.
His self-perception is teased out with references to his favourite classic films:
“Gone with the Wind, my favourite film, because if I had been a woman, I would have been Scarlett – the one who survives in a world that is dying.”
“It’s after the character Rick in Casablanca, he’s a man who knows how to give up a woman because he would rather have his freedom.”
His children remember him being cruel and selfish. His daughter Laura says the “bleakness of [her] fatherless childhood” has pushed her to seek therapy. “I’ve already mourned the father I didn’t have,” she thinks.
His son, Jean, really lets loose:
“Purulent old goatskin. Putrid rotting carcass. Die, just go ahead and die … Maman who really should leave you to die alone, abandon you the way you abandoned her, but she won’t, she stays there, inconsolable, and she really believes she is losing everything. I’ll never get it, why she’s so blind, so resigned, how she manages to convince herself that she had the life she wanted, her vocation as a holy martyr …”
When Pierre reflects on his parenting, he thinks: “I only ever spoiled my own children … in the strictest sense of the term. I caused them to rot and decompose? … I do not love them, I have never loved them, and I feel no remorse on that account.”
Even a grandchild knows that he has a cold heart; “I know that Grandpa doesn’t love Granny anymore, and that Granny doesn’t love herself anymore …”.
But Pierre does love his wife Anna, calling her “the most beautIiful work of all”. Anna and his mistresses satisfy his sensual urges (demonstated throughout his life, including in his obession with food). I think this love is in term of aesthetics and how her admiration of him boosts his standing, confidence and pride.
Anna speaks of being “crushed by his royal weight, his divine strength”. She seems to be oblivious to her husband’s cruelty, blaming their children for the disintegration of the family: “Jean, Laura, Clémence, where are you? Why all this silence, why this distance, why all these misunderstandings, when we could have been so happy, the five of us?”
He also loves animals, seemingly much more than any person. The book becomes a bit surrealist when we hear from some of the pets, and even the statue of Venus. The statue ‘thinks’, “How he desires other people, how he fears them …”.