© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd


© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

Older: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled musakkas

Last tang in Paris

Barbery, Muriel (2000; tr. Alison Anderson, 2009). The Gourmet.
Gallic, £9.99

France's most famous food critic (arrogant, egotistical and thoroughly enjoying being feared — mais, bien sûr) is about to die, and as he lies in eternity's antechamber, he is desperately trying to renew mental contact with a flavour from long ago, from the era before he bestrode Paris and the world as a colossus of coruscating culinary criticism. Yes, the language is catching.

This little novel of just 111 pages alternates in 29 miniature chapters between the voice of the critic and those of his retinues, past and present, presenting a flashback biography — as contrasting tapas, one might say. Well, the dust-jacket quote from Paris-Match claims that the book is 'an ode to the pleasure of good food', but I'm not so sure. The good food is there, certainly, and there are generous descriptions of it throughout. But what is the underlying theme? Is it really as celebratory as the magazine makes out, or is it a Floydian (Keith or Pink, doesn't really matter) exhortation to enjoy before death pulls the rug from under you. Or are we right back in the marriage of Vanity of vanities and All flesh is grass? It is by no means obvious, up to (and possibly even beyond) the final page. As I read the short chapters, the analogy wasn't tapas, far less amuse-bouches, but musical fragments. And like the critic, I grasped at the matching throughout. Gershwin piano pieces? No, too upbeat. Sardonic Satie? Nearly, but not quite. The Enigma Variations? Good shot, for they are variations on an unstated theme (and indeed, Auld Lang Syne is part of the undertow), but even Elgar is insufficiently brazen. As we edge towards Sousa, or even Harvey and the Wallbangers, though, old Brahms comes back with All flesh is grass.

Yes, it's an infuriating little book in some ways, but it is tenacious. Messy in its own way, but life — and life's end — is like that. There is no answer here, because there are no answers there. It is not serene.

Plus ça change, plus ç'est la même ch...

No, mustn't give anything away. Read it. It's worth it.


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