I revisited the charming apartment house brought to life by Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog in her second novel, Gourmet Rhapsody. This book quietly grew on me. If you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you may recall one of the residents of the Parisian building is a restaurant critic, an influential but arrogant man named Pierre Athens. As Gourmet Rhapsody opens, Monsieur Athens is dying, and he is maddened by the faint remembrance of a flavor he can’t quite identify.
Barbery cleverly tells the man’s life story through an interweaving of his own memories and the thoughts of his family, friends, and neighbors. Even a statue in his study weighs in, along with his favorite cat. Each chapter brings readers closer to discovering what Athens is trying to recall, of understanding his ego and the path of emotional destruction he has left in the wake of his hedonistic life. The shifting points of view are delightful; if the whole book were told in his voice, you’d want to toss it aside in in disgust.
I will say Barbery gives the man a way with words. Take for example this passage, in which he describes tasting sushi for the first time: “Yes, it is like a fabric: 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.” Or later, “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis of words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial grace.”
In other words, he tells the truth (or his perception of it) and tells it slant. Towards the end, Athens declares, “The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why.” I think that would make a marvelous philosophy dissertation topic. If I ever go back to school, I’m on it.