Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Elegance of Muriel Barbery

When The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French writer Muriel Barbery was released last year, I devoured the novel in one sitting. The structure intrigued me--very short chapters, confessional and intimate-like essays, which overlap to tell the story of Renee Michel, a 54 year-old concierge at a posh Paris apartment building. "I'm a widow, short, ugly, chubby; I have bunions on my feet and, on certain difficult mornings, it seems, the breath of a mammoth. But above all, I conform to the image assigned to concierges. It would never occur to anyone that I am better read than all these self-satisfied rich people." What a voice! This is a novel about social class, how people can be isolated (and misunderstood) even though they live together, and the power of art, literature and philosophy. Over the course of the story, Renee befriends Paloma, a 12 year-old girl from the building. She is a young idealist--disillusioned and cynical about the self-importance and vanity of the people who populate her world (her tone is slightly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, if he were a bit more philosophical)--who intends to commit suicide by her 13th birthday. Not to fret. In the union of these two (very different, solitary) souls there resides great comic relief and in the end, a life-affirming message.

Just released is Gourmet Rhapsody, the novel Muriel Barbery wrote prior to The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Both books share a similar literary structure, many of the same characters and they are both set in the same Paris apartment building on Rue de Grenelle. The themes, too, remain but in Gourmet Rhapsody, Barbery adds the sensuality of food and mortality to the story of the last 48-hours in the life of a powerful, famous (and very arrogant) French food critic. "I am the greatest food critic in the world," Pierre Arthens, the protagonist announces at the beginning of the book. "I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it." In the story, Arthens, a brilliant yet heartless man, confronts his mortality by "rhapsodizing" about his experiences with food--recalling, in luscious detail, foods such as bread, tomatoes, sushi and mayonnaise, as well as mentally revisiting his grandmother's table, a country farmhouse and a mistress' kitchen. But another side of Arthens emerges via monologues from the people who willingly (and unwillingly) shared their lives with him--his devoted and long-suffering wife; his bitter, drug-addicted son; his unloved daughter and grand-daughter; two mistresses; and even his cat. It's a fascinating, beautifully-rendered story about a complicated man, his life and death, and how, in the end, the evocation of his experiences with food defined his desires, emotions and the goals of his life.

Muriel Barbery is an intelligent, colorful writer, one to watch. Do yourself a favor and don't miss either of these bittersweet, redemptive books.