Succulence annoncée. Succulence foretold.
Over half a year ago I posted at Amazon the following review of the French version of this work, and it is indeed a pleasure to have read the English version now, thanks to the Vine program. In retrospect, and after having read the English version, I still would not change a word of the review:
I first became acquainted with Ms. Barbery's work through Amazon's "Vine" program, receiving a copy of her new book, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" to review. I was quite impressed, rated it 5-stars, and posted a review under the Vine program. I decided to see what else she had written, and purchased this book while in France in October.
The novel concerns the greatest critic of the culinary world, the "Pope of Gastronomy." Early in the story, one is told that he will die tomorrow. It is his history, and that of his family, acquaintances, even his pets. Ms. Barbery tells the story in 29 separate vignettes, alternating between the culinary critic (whose name we finally learn towards the end) and all the other characters. A literary technique that works well, despite the multitude of view points, which she sharply reduced in "The Elegance of the Hedgehog." Her style is rich and dense, like a wonderful chocolate éclair. Writing to be savored. The novel "works" on several different dimensions. There are the human relation aspects, a man who is at the epitome of his field, estranged from most of his family - his most caring relationship is with the servant who is now head of the household, and his pets. His wife, Anna, is resigned to his philandering. In the vignettes told by his daughter, Laura, and his granddaughter, Lotte, one gain's insight into his dysfunctional character. There is a wonderful chapter on how he first entered the ranks of a food critic, impressing a to-be mentor with the right answer, thus, "the king is dead, long live the king." One of the central characters in "The Elegance...", Renee, the concierge, plays a cameo role in this novel, a tantalizing foreshadowing...
And the novel is very much about the French concern on what is placed into the stomach, and the pleasure derived in the process. There are some wonderful meals described: in Morocco, along the beach; a chance invitation to a home meal in Normandy; the importance of bread; the sorbets of his grandmother whose correct description launched his career; the pleasure of fish; and would any book on gastronomy be complete without venturing into Japanese cuisine, with the art of serving raw food? The "surprise" at the end involves a turn towards the crasser aspects of commercial food.... Alas.
Alas, also, my French is not good enough to understand why Ms. Barbery entitled her book "Une Gourmandise" as opposed to "Un Gourmand." Clearly an English translation of the book should be provided. She is a superlative writer, with deep insights into the human condition. Perhaps others will address why the title is in the feminine
Ms. Barbery still has much to tell us, and I eagerly await.
Having now concluded the English version, there are so numerous other aspects of the novel that I feel worth highlighting, including the career paths succinctly outlined for the physician, Chabrot; the viewpoints of his mistress, "Venus" and the street-person, Gegene; and the description how mayonnaise is deeply sexual.
In addition, Barbery captured the essence of the French concept of "terroir":
"The only word that mattered to me at the time was terroir--but today I know that a terroir only exists by virtue of one's childhood mythology, and that if we have invented these worlds of tradition rooted deep in the land and identity of a region, it is because we want to solidify and objectify the magical, vanished years that preceded the horror of becoming an adult."
And on the essence of writing itself, Barbery has the main character say:
"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?"
Finally, concerning the quality of the translation, it would be most presumptuous for me to comment, since "je me debrouille," I get by, but it seems that the English is as precise, lively and readable as the original. Kudos to Ms. Anderson.
A wonderful read, to be savo(u)red again, in whatever language.