The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery

A debut novel – predating The Elegance of The Hedgehog, and reissued after that novel’s success – built around a simple conceit. In an apartment building in Paris the great food critic, Pierre Arthens, is dying. And he has just one concern:

“I am going to die, but that is of no importance. Since yesterday, since Chabrot, only one thing matters. I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it. I know that this particular flavour is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced. I know that it is a flavour from childhood or adolescence, an original, marvellous dish that predates my vocation as a critic, before I had any desire or pretension to expound on my pleasure in eating. A forgotten flavour, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced at the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told – or realized. I search, and cannot find.”

It’s a hugely promising opening to a story, but what struck me was the sadness, that there was nobody, nothing more important than that.

“Food was just a pretext, perhaps even a way of escaping, of fleeing what his goldsmith’s talent might bring to light: the exact tenor of his emotions, the harshness and suffering, and the failure, in the end … Thus, where his genius might have enabled him to dissect for posterity and for himself the various feelings which were troubling him, he lost his way along secondary paths, convinced that he ought to say what was incidental, and not essential. Such a waste. Heartbreaking. “

So how does a life come to that?

The book moves between Arthen’s deathbed memories of tastes, and the thoughts of those around him as they ponder his imminent demise.

A neglected trophy wife, who clearly cares more for her husband than he does for her. Three children of an emotionally distant father. Renee, a concierge – yes, that Renee. Contemporaries, who share and understand his passion. A cat and a dog – it sounds strange, but it works, and helps who understand just who Arthen is. All make brief, but telling, contributions.

Who he is becomes clearer as his memories unfold. There’s not too much story, but a picture does emerge.I came to understand how the boy became the man. He didn’t become a man I could like, but he did become a man I could understand.

But what struck me most was the wonderful prose, and the extraordinarily vivid, and emotional, descriptions of food:

“The moment I bit into the slice of toast, utterly sated for having honoured my bountiful plate up to the very last morsel, I was overcome with an inexpressible sense of well-being. Why is it that in France we obstinately refrain from buttering our toast until after it has been toasted? The reason for the two entities should be subjected together to the flickering flame is that in this intimate moment of burning they attain an unequaled complicity. The butter loses its creamy consistency, but nevertheless is not as liquid as when it is melted on its own,in a bain-marie or a saucepan. Likewise, the toast is spared a somewhat dreary dryness, and becomes a moist, warm substance, neither sponge nor bread but something in between, ready to tantalize one’s taste buds with its resultant sweetness.”

“It was dazzling… True sashimi is not so much bitten into as allowed to melt on the tongue.  It calls for slow, supple chewing, not to bring about a change in the nature of the food but merely to allow one to savor its airy, satiny texture… sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.”

“The resistance of the skin – slightly taught, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one’s fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.”

The ending is quiet, but probably right.

And what you have is a slight story, made into something a little special by the quality of the writing. hence the muliplicity of quotes and the lightness of the anlysis – it’s that kind of book.

Translated by Alison Anderson

Library Loot

I’ve taken a few days off work this week to try to catch up with myself. Among other things, that’s given me more time than usual to have a really good look around the library. And, of course, the result was rather a lot of books brought home. I’ve going to have another ordering ban in March while I catch up, because I really couldn’t have left any of these behind:

A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah

“TV producer Fliss Benson receives an anonymous card at work. The card has sixteen numbers on it, arranged in four rows of four — numbers that mean nothing to her. On the same day, Fliss finds out she’s going to be working on a documentary about miscarriages of justice involving cot-death mothers wrongly accused of murder. The documentary will focus on three women: Helen Yardley, Sarah Jaggard and Rachel Hines. All three women are now free, and the doctor who did her best to send them to prison for life, child protection zealot Dr Judith Duffy, is under investigation for misconduct. For reasons she has shared with nobody, this is the last project Fliss wants to be working on. And then Helen Yardley is found dead at her home, and in her pocket is a card with sixteen numbers on it, arranged in four rows of four.”

I read a good bit of crime and mystery, and Sophie Hannah is about as good as it gets. This one sounds particularly intriguing, and I am delighted to have picked it up so soon after it came out.

The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery

“France’s greatest food critic is dying, after a lifetime in single-minded pursuit of sensual delights. But as Pierre Arthens lies on his death bed, he is tormented by an inability to recall the most delicious food to ever pass his lips, which he ate long before becoming a critic. Desperate to taste it one more time, he looks back over the years to see if he can pin down the elusive dish. Revealing far more than his love of great food, the narration by this larger-than-life individual alternates with the voices of those closest to him and their own experiences of the man.

I loved the Elegance of the Hedgehog, and so, of course, I had to pick this up as soon as I saw it.

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg

“Nyree and Cia live on a remote farm in the east of what was Rhodesia in the late 1970s. Beneath the dripping vines of the Vumba rainforest, and under the tutelage of their heretical grandfather, theirs is a seductive childhood laced with African paganism, mangled Catholicism and the lore of the Brothers Grimm. Their world extends as far as the big fence, erected to keep out the ‘Terrs’ whom their father is off fighting. The two girls know little beyond that until the arrival from the outside world of ‘the bastard’, their orphaned cousin Ronin, who is to poison their idyll for ever.”

I loved the title as soon as I heard it, a couple of years ago now. That the book is published by the Virago Press is a very good sign. That was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers is a very good sign too. So it’s been on the wishlist for a while, and this week it finally appeared in the library.

The Frightened Man by Kenneth Cameron

“Introducing an intriguing new hero in the world of crime fiction…American novelist Denton is an uncomfortable outsider in class-ridden turn-of-the-century England. But he is about to be plunged into the dark heart of a society where privilege and propriety hide unspeakable horrors. When a stranger turns up at his door declaring he has just seen Jack the Ripper, Denton dismisses his lurid ravings as the delusions of a madman. But then a prostitute’s horribly mutilated body is discovered that night – and Denton suspects the two events are connected. While the police investigation grinds towards a seemingly pre-ordained conclusion, Denton becomes obsessed with finding out who the victim really was and who killed her – a search that leads him by degrees into the darkest, most violent underbelly of London…”

Kenneth Cameron’s book The Bohemian Girl caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. I noticed though that it was the second in the series, and so I ordered up the previous book – and here it is. I’m worried that it may be a little too dark for my tastes, but I love the period and the American in London scenario is an interesting one. We shall see!

The Wives of Henry Oades by Joanna Moran

“In 1899 Henry Oades discovers he has two wives — and many dilemmas! In 1890, Henry Oades decided to undertake the arduous sea voyage from England to New Zealand in order to further his family’s fortunes. Here they settled on the lush but wild coast — although it wasn’t long before disaster struck in the most unexpected of ways. A local Maori tribe, incensed at their treatment at the hands of the settlers, kidnapped Mrs Oades and her four children, and vanished into the rugged hills surrounding the town. Henry searched ceaselessly for his family, but two grief-stricken years later was forced to conclude that they must be dead. In despair he shipped out to San Francisco to start over, eventually falling in love with and marrying a young widow. In the meantime, Margaret Oades and her children were leading a miserable existence, enslaved to the local tribe. When they contracted smallpox they were cast out and, ill and footsore, made their way back to town, five years after they were presumed dead. Discovering that Henry was now half a world away, they were determined to rejoin him. So months later they arrived on his doorstep in America and Henry Oades discovered that he had two wives and many dilemmas !.”

I read a very good report about on this book – I’m afraid I forget where – and so it was another book I just had to grab. The concept is intriguing, and based on a true story it seems.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

Eva is in charge of Library Loot this week. Do go and take a look at her wonderful book selection and her vlog.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehog

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is an absolute joy. I read a library copy but I definitely want a copy of my own to keep.

Paloma Josse is twelve years old and she lives on the fifth floor of a Left Bank apartment block. She is extremely bright but she is isolated and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.

Down in the basement is fifty-four year old concierge Renee Michel. She is seen as a dull but reliable servant, and she is happy to be seen that way. What the other residents of the apartment block don’t see though, is that once her door is she is reading, listening to music and watching films to engage with the beauty of art and nature.

The narrative is largely Renée’s story, but it is interspersed with excerpts from Paloma’s journals. The two narrative voices are clear, distinct and engaging.

Paloma is observant and, in her journal, she suggests that there may be more to the concierge than meets the eye:

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

The apartment block’s newest resident, Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu thinks so too and he instigates a friendship with Renee that helps her to deal with painful memories and begin to move out of her self-imposed seclusion.

Paloma is drawn in too and begins to find reasons for living.

But just as this strange family has come together something quite unexpected happens and the book comes to a sudden end.

The plot is simple, but there is much more to this book than that. It reminds you of so many things that make life wonderful – art, literature, music, ideas and so many wonderful small things. And it makes you think – do you judge by appearances, do you hide things about yourself and just what is important in life?

What more could you ask for from a book?!

(Translated by Alison Anderson.)

Library Loot

library-loot

Library Loot is a weekly event hosted by Eva and Alessandra to share the library books we find each week.

I am in arrears with my library reading, but a couple of books that I had on order turned up this week and I picked up a few more that I just couldn’t leave behind.

hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This is one of those books that seems to be being talked about all over the place, so I ordered it for the Lost in Translation Reading Challenge.

words-of-love

Words of Love by Pamela Norris

An absolutely wonderful history of women’s writing from Heloise to Sylvia Plath. It’s wonderfully readable and will inspire me a to read lots more books! I suspect that this is a book I won’t want to take back and that i will end up buying my own copy to look back to.

great-western-beach

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith

This is a childhood memoir. Emma Smith is a wonderful writer and she grew up between the wars very near where I grew up some years later.

leopard

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I have been interested in this book for ages and I found a lovely unread “Millennium Collection” edition in the library. Isn’t it nice when you are the first person to read a new library book?!

virago-book-of-food

The Virago Book of Food edited by Jill Foulson

I am definitely a Virago geek and this is a lovely anthology that I will be dipping in and out of over the next few weeks.