one of the difficult problems when reading (and reviewing) a piece that has been translated is figuring what to accredit to the original author and what to attribute to the translator.
in the case of gourmet rhapsody, i'm not sure who irks me more: the author, muriel barbery, or the translator, alison anderson. perhaps both are to blame for this self-indulgent, whinging narrative, but i'd like to think that maybe a good novel got lost en route or that ms. anderson simply did the best she could with this pretentious paperback. perhaps it's just me, or my american up-bringing, or my english major background that makes me want to throttle authors who tell instead of show. both ms. barbery and ms. anderson are award-winning - the first book they worked on together (barbery writing and anderson translating) was a bestseller, so clearly they're doing something right. they don't hand out awards to just anyone, right?
either way, gourmet rhapsody, a book all about flavor and food and the fantastics of it all, fails. the story itself is about the moments leading up to monsieur arthens', a renowned food critic, death. the whole basis of the story is that he's trying to remember a flavor he loves and has forgotten. and meanwhile friends and family are watching and waiting for him to die. the book jacket calls this tale a "charming voyage" and explains the story as: "alternating with the voice of the supercilious arthens is a chorus belonging to his acquaintances and familiars - relatives, lovers, a would-be protégé, even a cat. each will have his or her say about arthens, a man who has only ever inspired extreme emotions in people. here, as in the elegance of the hedgehog [barbery's first book], muriel barbery's story celebrates life's simple pleasures and sublime moments while condemning the arrogance of and vulgarity of power." sounds delightful, right? not really.
let's start with a few points about what made this such a miserable read. i'm pretty sure whoever wrote the book jacket didn't read the book. or maybe s/he read the french version (which may have been miraculously better). i don't know. all i do know is what i read, all 156 pages, felt like culinary drivel.
from page one there are a couple problems. firstly, m. arthens is self-admittedly an asshole. and he reminds us repeatedly. not just sporadically throughout the book, but in every chapter. he admits it himself, and all of the people in his life confirm it - whether they liked/loved him or not. in fact, every few paragraphs there's some mention of his disdain for other people and how high-minded and powerful and pompous he is. when the main character of a story irritates the hell out you and appears to have almost no redeeming qualities, it doesn't matter how well you write or translate. your reader is simply not going to care.
the other huge, glaring issue you run into from the start is style and voice. every other chapter is told from m. arthen's perspective. and every chapter is written from first person. the chapters are labelled awkwardly either by the flavor or memory m. arthens is remembering or the name of the narrator. then there are the sub-titles, which state where the narrator is physically (what room, city, etc...) in proximity to m. arthens. you'd think that this would help clear things up, make it easy to keep track of that "chorus" of voices - wrong.
i had no eff-ing clue what m. arthen's name was until i went back and re-read the book jacket.
and with every voice in first person and everyone sounding almost exactly alike in their narrative (they hated him so much, but wait, they really loved him and didn't actually want him to die, but he was going to die anyway; whatever), for most of the alternating characters, i had no idea how they related to m. arthens until after i had finished the chapter. even now i feel a bit hazy about who was who and why any of them mattered. one of the chapters i don't even know if the narrator was an actual person or a random statue in m. arthens' apartment. it was that frustrating.
then there was the problem with the actual text. it's supposed to be poetic, and maybe it was in the french version, but much of what i read was cringe-worthy. again, maybe this is a case of my taste versus french culture. or a difference in sensibilities. i don't know. but lines like following one make me nauseous. here's a sampling of some of the self-indulgent nonsense to give you an idea of what makes up most of the text:
"first of all, the geranium leaves: i would lie on my stomach among the tomatoes and peas and, swooning with pleasure, rub the leaves between my fingers: slightly acid, sufficiently tart with a vinegary insolence, but not so tart that they could fail to evoke at the same time the delicately bitter scent of candided lemon, with a hint of the acrid odor of tomato leaves, whose boldness and fruitiness they preserve - that is what geranium leaves exhale, that is what i was growing drunk on, with my belly to the ground in the vegetable garden and my head in the flowers, ferreting for fragrance with all the concupiscence of the famished."
so, the first thing to note is this is a ridiculously long run-on sentence. you start with one thought and wind up somewhere totally different without an appropriate break or sensible transition. the sentence meanders infuriatingly. (a good editor - in french or english - would suggest the writer or translator pare something like this down a touch. the excessive use of run-on sentences and rambling paragraphs makes me wonder if the problems in this book are really actually all the editor's fault. or the publisher's - for letting it be published.)
once you get past that frustration, it's time to look at what was actually being described in the sentence: the speaker (in this case, m. arthens, remembering visits to his aunt's vegetable garden) is describing himself as swooning in pleasure amid geranium leaves and tomatoes. really? swooning in pleasure? if that doesn't make me dislike you, then the onslaught of descriptors does. (and by the way, fruitiness as a description??)
taken out of context, the sentence above may seem like a nice bit of food writing - but please remember that the whole book was like this. every other sentence felt like a mire i had to trek through just to make it to the end of the chapter. and i was unabashedly relieved that many of the chapters were short - just a couple pages long - because i don't think i could have handled the rambling or trying to detangle characters and memories for long. it's just common sense and good writing to cut overbearing sentences down and to not overwhelm the reader to the point that everything you describe is so over the top s/he can barely wade through the book. had the author, or the translator, or the editor remembered that golden rule, this book may have been bearable.
this isn't to say that every single sentence was a misery - just most of them. small glints gave me hope that maybe all of my irritablilty was my own fault. in particular, i remember i liked this description of m. artens' dog: "i had a dog. or rather, a snout on paws. a little receptacle of anthropomorphic projections. a loyal companion. a tail that kept time with his emotions. an overexcited kangaroo at certain times of the day. a dog, as i said." sadly, small gems like this were quickly lost. this one in particular was overshadowed by the sudden, and annoying, affinity m. arthens suddenly developed in the last third of the book for gone with the wind. it appeared out of nowhere and then kept reappearing to the trite point that the dog was named rhett (yes, i knew the dog's name but not the main character's), m. arthens compared himself to scarlett (but for the wrong reasons), and there had been a white cat (who had died or been killed, i'm not sure) who had been named scarlett. if that's not lame and author manipulation, i don't know what is.
before we move on to the pairings, there's still the main issue to look at: m. arthens is trying to remember a flavor, so each of his chapters is a memory of a food - often his first taste of some morsel or another. the big questions of the book are clearly will he remember the flavor and will he get to taste it again before he dies? (and do you even care if he does?) about midway through the book, i figured it out. sadly, barbery didn't - or at least, she came up with a contrived answer. (spoiler: he wanted chouquettes; puff pastries with sugar on them.) my answer is much better, and actually fits with all the food memories he goes through. looking back at what i endured, you don't even have to read the book. you can just look at the flavor titles: meat, fish, the vegetable garden (i.e. tomatoes), bread, toast, whiskey, ice cream, mayonnaise.
m. arthens wants an eff-ing sandwich. (with a nice glass of whiskey and ice cream for dessert. and i guess those chouquettes, which he decides somehow define him and his life.)
seriously. that would make sense. i would have respected the jerk if he had ended it like that.
food and drink:
have an eff-ing sandwich. and a glass of whiskey. (straight up or any other way you prefer.) if you're anything like me, you're going to need it to get through these simpering soliloquies.
honestly, scouring my books and the epicurean cannon, the only book i think irritated me as much as this one (though it's not fiction), is tom parker bowles' the year of eating dangerously. and the only reason i'd pair that with this is because bowles forever engrained himself as a wimp in my mind when he described his "delicate, pale, writer hands" in his first chapter and alluded to the fact that he couldn't hold his liquor. he could be a perfectly decent guy, but those two descriptions weren't exactly flattering. so yeah, if you want to read another book that will make you (or at least made me) want to tear your (my) hair out of your (my) head, go for that.
this one's even more difficult (partly because i'm still working on my food movie repertoire). the most i can suggest is a movie i haven't even seen because i know if i did sit down to watch it, it would annoy me. so, pair this book with the 2007 catherine zeta-jones and aaron eckhart vehicle no reservations. it's a remake of the 2001 german film mostly martha. mostly martha was lovely and incredibly well-done. no reservations looked like complete hollywood b.s.
on the plus side, pair no reservations with gourmet rhapsody and you could just blame both on translation.
still decide to give gourmet rhapsody a try? let me know where you think i'm on point and where i'm off. i always love to get a second (and third, and fourth) opinion. after all, like food, some things are just a matter of personal taste.