The book to which this title refers (Gourmet Rhapsody), by Muriel Barbery is translated and appears in a beautiful little book from Europa Editions. I read it a while ago, and then forgot entirely what it was about and had to re-read it to review it here. Perhaps because I just finished an unrelated book, Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve by Sandra Gilbert, Gourmet Rhapsody was a weird read. Perhaps it is just odd in its overt gendering of the realm of food (chefs versus grandmothers, the representation of the virility of the food critic lost in his icy rigidity and ill treatment of his wife and children). The novel, like Gilbert's tome, focuses on death -- in the novel's case the death of the central character who is a food critic is the focal point, as he is within 48 hours of his demise when the book opens and meets it (aka dies) in the very last few sentences after a novel in which his search for a lost flavor is intertwined with reflections of those around him (including his dog and cat) offering their meandering views on his impending demise. Death, god, food, gender, family, friendship, love, work all entangled -- and embedded within some luxuriously wonderful (even translated) language about food. While I am not a big sushi/sashimi fan, nor someone who cares for (raw) oysters, I suspect those that like these two would find the depictions of consuming them amazing. I certainly found the depiction of eating a warm, just picked tomato evocative. The discussions of women who know, somehow deep within, how to transform matter into food, the depictions of eating bread, of summer heat and salty ocean, include some lovely paragraphs verging on prose poetry or even, though I know not what it is, lyric.
"Meat is virile, powerful; fish is strange and cruel" (p. 51) -- on the cusp between trite and glorious as a sentence.
This discussion 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, bygone years that preceded the horror of becoming an adult. Only a fanatical will to make a vanished world endure despite the passing of time can explain this belief in the existence of a terroir -- an entire world that has disappeared, a mixture of flavors, smells, scattered fragrances that has left its sediment in ancestral rites and local dishes, crucibles of illusory memories that seek to make gold from sand, eternity from time. There is no great cuisine, without evolution, without erosion and forgetting. Invention must constantly be invoked upon the countertop, and past and future, here and elsewhere, raw and cooked, savory and sweet shall all be mixed, for it is this inventiveness that has made cuisine into an art that thrives untrammeled by the obsession of those who do not wish to die" (p. 71)
These few sentences redolent of much: "Words: repositories for singular realities which they then transform into moments in an anthology, magicians that change the face of reality by adorning it with the right to become memorable, to be placed in a library of memories. Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis of words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial dress" (p. 99)
And, finally, God. (Perhaps some literary literalization of the Word made Flesh, or vice versa). Here's what Barbery (in the relevant English translation offers: "God -- that is, raw, unequivocal pleasure, the pleasure which stems from our innermost core, cares for nothing other than their own delight, and returns to it in like fashion; God-- that is, that mysterious region in our most secret self with which we are completely in tune in the apotheosis of authentic desire and unadulterated pleasure Like the umbilicus nestled in our deepest phantasms, which only our deepest self can inspire . . . " (p. 155)
And then: "The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why." (p. 156).
For an interview with Barbery, click here.