This is one of those rare, rare occasions where I’ve actually joined in with a reading week/month etc. at the right time, and with the book I intended to read! I’m sneaking into the end of August to celebrate Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal/Biblibio.
One of my favourite writers is a woman in translation (in translation when I read her, at least): Tove Jansson. I could have re-read one of hers, or explored the Moomins more, but I decided to kill two birds with one stone and read a book with food as a theme – which is on my Book Bingo scorecard. And, embarrassingly, I’ve had The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery on my shelf since 2010, when I was given it as a review copy by Gallic Books. It was originally published in French in 2000, and translated by Alison Anderson for this 2009 edition.
Perhaps one of the reasons it had stayed on mount tbr for so long was that I hadn’t been entirely enamoured by the Barbery that everyone has read: The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I thought it was rather overwritten (either by author or translator, or both) and couldn’t quite see why it was so praised. I was rather snarky about it. So, how would I fare with this one?
First things first: the concept. It’s an intriguing idea. A celebrated food critic is dying, and longs to capture a taste from his past. It was the most delicious food he’d ever eaten, but – since it came before the days of his knowledge and fame – he can’t remember what it was. Around him, his adoring but poorly-treated wife, his rightfully resentful children, and his fantastic cat, wait for the end to come…
Pierre Arthens is a monstrous character. Monstrously selfish, monstrously uncaring (he doesn’t feel any guilt at not loving his children), and monstrously single-minded in pursuit of food. All this makes him a fascinating character, and easily the most interesting one in the book. Barbery made the decision to give alternate chapters from his point of view, while the other alternate chapters come from a wide variety of characters, most of whom only get heard from once. That was rather a flaw, I thought; it’s just not interesting to hear the in-depth thoughts of a person whose not been heard of before or since. I ended up skimming the non-Pierre chapters, and waiting to hear more about his culinary (and other) experiences throughout his life. It’s mostly musings, rather than plot, but it works well from his self-obsessed persona.
And the writing? I still found it a little overwritten at times. Again, I don’t know whether it’s Barbery or Anderson (I assume Anderson conveyed the sort of writing Barbery chose), but there’s no excuse for sections like this:
The cave of treasures: this was it, the perfect rhythm, the shimmering harmony between portions, each one exquisite unto itself, but verging on the sublime by virtue of strict, ritual succession. The meatballs, grilled with the utmost respect for their firmness, had lost none of their succulence during their passage through fire, and filled my professionally carnivorous mouth with a thick, warm, spicy, juicy wave of masticatory pleasure.
Shudder. But, for the most part, I could cope with the overblown rhetoric – it worked for the character. In fact, if I hadn’t read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I might not have noticed it as much.
I don’t think I embraced all aspects of Arthens’ culinary memories as much as I have done, but that’s because most of the luscious descriptions are about meat and fish, which don’t appeal to this vegetarian. The odd moments when, say, asparagus took his fancy, I could enjoy it rather more.
So, has this Woman in Translation become a firm favourite? No, but I enjoyed reading the book, and certainly like Muriel Barbery more now than I did before.
Have you joined in Woman in Translation month? If not… it’s not too late!