Posted in Reading & Writing

The Elegance and the Rhapsody of Muriel Barbery

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I’ve been on a French kick lately–the language, the movies, the food, and the books. I’m not really familiar with a lot of French literature, but I am a fan of Muriel Barbery, whose The Elegance of the Hedgehog I devoured when it first came out in America, and whose Gourmet Rhapsody (actually her first book and something of a prequel to Hedgehog though it was the second to be released in the states) I enjoyed many years later. Over the last two weeks I’ve reread both of them and if possible, I’ve enjoyed them even more.

Gourmet Rhapsody is the story of a renowned food critic in his final days. The story swings back and forth between his perspective and those of the many people in his life, most of whom hate him, many of whom refuse to see him even in his dying moments. And for good reason: he admits that he has never loved his children and that the best moments of his life have all occurred away from his wife and family. He is not seeking companionship at the end, at least not in a traditional sense: he is seeking a flavor. A craving, some lingering idea of a food long forgotten, that he must have before he dies. His life unfolds for us in stories about eating. It’s touching, philosophical, and never devolves into food porn. Of course not–it’s French! And as every American knows, the French know best about food.

Of course, in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, young Paloma Josse would disagree. She speaks of French food and culture as outdated and oppressive. She is twelve years old, highly intelligent, and has decided that on her thirteenth birthday she is going to take her mother’s sleeping pills and then set fire to her family’s apartment. She doesn’t want to end up living in the “fish bowl” of adulthood. She decides to keep a journal of profound thoughts and another of the “movement of the world” as a way to sort of keep busy before she dies, and to try to see beauty in a world she is convinced is worthless. Meanwhile, downstairs in the concierge’s loge (it is a large, luxurious apartment building in Paris, and a concierge or caretaker lives there in her own small apartment to tend to the residents’ needs), Madame Michel (who has a small part in Gourmet Rhapsody) is busy living her little life and trying to hide from the building’s residents that she is actually an autodidactic intellectual. She believes that as the concierge she should play the part, so she makes a point to seem dull and surly, then retreats into her room to read books of philosophy. Her life is quite level until the food critic dies and his wife sells the apartment, after which a Japanese man moves in and has the whole place renovated. He sees through Madame Michel’s disguise immediately, and does his best to draw her out of her shell and into a friendship. He also befriends Paloma, who is a fan of Japanese culture, especially manga.

I’d tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil it.

Neither Gourmet Rhapsody nor The Elegance of the Hedgehog follows a traditional plot arc, nor do they move with the same rhythm as many popular American books. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is highly philosophical and at times, if you don’t enjoy a good stretch of philosophical musing, you might not like it. But I do. It’s exactly the kind of book that makes me want to make a cup of coffee, curl up in my favorite chair, and read all day. Gourmet Rhapsody is perhaps less cozy, but in many ways more beautiful. The Europa translations are both very good. If you’re interested in reading a little contemporary French literature, I’d say these books are a good place to start.

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