Book Review: The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, published by Gallic Press

Oh the joys of Proust! I had to go and re-read this book after talking to a friend about it. Said friend contended that it wasn’t a novel and while I concurred (it had never occurred to me that it was a novel in the first place) I didn’t think it mattered.

Actually, it matters. But it’s the ‘where’ of it mattering that is intriguing. Barbery is a French writer, her characters are often obnoxious, none more so than Pierre Arthens, the eponymous protagonist, and that’s okay by me.

Is it okay by the British novel-reading public? I’m not so sure. There’s a tendency here to want to like characters, and Barbery doesn’t write about likable people. There’s also, in the English-speaking world, a trend towards giving pre-eminence to shelf categorisation of books, so knowing who you would ‘shelve’ next to has become a requisite of pitching your work to a publisher. Barbery shelves next to nobody I’m familiar with in this generation, except perhaps Bauby, not because they are both French (although that might be a necessary condition of their enshelvement) but because they both explore ideas, rather than people.

In The Gourmet we are invited to consider what talent, hard work and ego do to a young man who becomes France’s greatest food critic. And what that young man, as he grows in ego, power and disdain, does to those around him – ranging from his cat to his wife and through all his human and possessive relationships. This is a philosophical journey and if you know your Proust, the end is visible from the beginning, although its exact topography may still surprise, and that is fine because what Barbery is doing here is dissection – and she does it ably.

So it’s not a novel, it’s not a memoir, it’s a creative (non)fiction treatise on the role of talent and power in shaping life and an immoral fable on where that life ends. The humour is black, the description of food lyrical and the intention laudable – but I think this ‘novel’ unlike The Elegance of the Hedgehog – will sit less comfortably with the shelvers. And bravo to Barbery for that!

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