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