Tag Archives: The Last Banquet

Little by Edward Carey: Only in stature

Cover imageEdward Carey’s novel arrived through my letterbox so far in advance of publication that I’d forgotten all about it, only picking it up when I felt the need for something long enough to lose myself in. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little worked a treat, taking me first to eighteenth-century Switzerland then to Revolutionary Paris before its final Baker Street destination.

When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who barely knows what to do with a child but welcomes her help in modelling the organs brought from Berne hospital’s anatomy department. She’s a quick learner, adept at wax modelling, but tiny and unprepossessing with her sharp chin and pointed nose. Their work gains such a reputation that soon Berne’s worthies are commissioning busts of themselves. Marie wonders if she might be paid. When a rather pompous Parisian visits, Marie gains a new name, Little, from this man who will later become her friend. Bailiffs appear on the horizon when Dr Curtius falls out of favour with the hospital, precipitating a move to Paris where they find a billet with a tailor’s widow. Marie ricochets back and forth between Dr Curtius, who conceives an unrequited passion for the widow, and the widow who insists she’s a servant, asking when she will be paid until she’s engaged to teach Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, a relationship that will end in disgrace. Soon, the bustling business gained from Marie’s work at court will be replaced by the grisly modelling of the Revolution’s victims. The feral boy who once guarded their home will become the Revolution’s chief executioner. Grudges will be borne and scores settled in the worst of ways. When it’s all over Marie is alone, but – sharp and resourceful as ever – she finds her own pragmatic way.

Carey tells his tale through Marie’s distinctive voice, illustrating it with her drawings for which she has a prodigious talent. She’s an engaging narrator who unfolds her blood-soaked, heartrending story with sharp insight and a pleasingly sly wit, leading us through a life begun in poverty which ends as the proprietor of one of London’s most visited attractions. Carey’s writing is as precise as his illustrations, and wonderfully evocative.

Ernst finally halted at a house thinner and smaller than the rest, squeezed in between two bullying neighbouring residences, poor and neglected

Here is a truth: people are very fascinated by themselves

Look at you, the newest children in the overstuffed toyshop!

There’s a touch of the Dickensian about Little – playfully acknowledged in Marie’s professed annoyance with that author’s notetaking close to the end of the book – although the novel that sprung to mind for me was not A Tale of Two Cities but Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet which charts another orphan’s journey through French history. Carey’s novel was an unexpected treat for me. Entertaining, erudite and absorbing: it’s one to add to your Christmas lists.

Five Novels I’ve Read About Food

Cover imageFood features prominently on my agenda of pleasures in life, often overlapping neatly with travel, another priority for me. Naturally, I’ve spent many hours ogling cookery books with their gorgeous pictures of artfully arranged meals but I’m not averse to word pictures of food in fiction either. Here are five favourites which should get you salivating if you have a similar predilection. All but one have links to longer reviews if your appetite’s been whetted.

Kim Thuy’s slim, beautifully expressed Mãn is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language and food. It’s about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know – a match made for security rather than love. Her husband is older than her, a cafe owner who serves up soup and breakfast to émigrés longing for their families and a taste of home. Quietly and carefully Mãn introduces more dishes until the café becomes a restaurant, growing into a cookery school, then a book is published and a TV show made. She finds herself fêted, a quiet celebrity not only in Canada but in France where the Parisians eagerly attend her book signings. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella. It’s a quiet triumph – the kind of book that can be read and re-read many times. Kudos to Sheila Fischman for such a sensitive translation of a book in which the nuance of language is paramount.

With its gentle prose and quietly lyrical evocations of food, Mãn reminded me of Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. The story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Vietnamese cook, it’s a very different book but it shares the same lightness of touch and gorgeous delicacy in its use of language. In 1934 Binh is faced with a choice: accompany his employers to America, remain in France where he’s cooked for his ‘Mesdames’ for five years or return to Vietnam from which he fled in disgrace. Deliciously vivid descriptions of food are threaded through Binh’s thoughts and memories as he tries to decide what he should do, unfolding both his own story and that of the two eccentric women whose literary salon is about to be disbandedCover image

N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter keeps us in Paris with the story of the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier who died the year after Binh was faced with his decision. It’s an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life – his wife desperate to have a dish named after her as the great man has done for so many others – Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Kelby’s novel recounts the trials and errors of the quest for a dish worthy of the wife Escoffier has adored for decades despite his passion for another woman.

In Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, we first meet the orphaned five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723 enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. He’s rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential throughout his life. He’s the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he’s a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Despite his many interests and responsibilities, he never loses his culinary curiosity. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is.

Cover imageIt was a toss-up between Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter for my fifth foodie title, both excellent novels set in restaurants. In the end, I plumped for Danler’s book, a twenty-first century Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Tess begins her training in what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, subjected to endless snipey backchat, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. Eventually she’s singled out by Simone, revered for her esoteric knowledge and expertise. Tess also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity, but finds herself drawn into the orbit of these two and their dangerous games. Danler writes beautifully about food in this thoroughly engrossing, acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

Any novels about food you’d like to recommend?

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

White Truffles in Winter and The Last Banquet: Two Lip Smacking Novels

Cover image Purely coincidentally, I’ve been reading N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter about the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier alongside Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, set in pre-Revolutionary France. Both are about Frenchmen with a passion for food who love and admire women, both have recipes scattered through them and both men are looking back over eventful lives at a crucial point in history. Kelby’s novel is an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life, his wife desperate to have a dish named after her before she dies, Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Not yet finished it but I’m enjoying it very much.

Escoffier and Jonathan Grimwood’s Jean-Marie d’Aumout would have had much to talk about. We Cover imagefirst meet the five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723: he is enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. Orphaned, he is rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential in his life, and in the world, then marries twice for love – once to a noblewoman he rescues from a wolf, once to a peasant – becomes Manager of the Menagerie for Louis XV, negotiates with Pasquale Pauli on the eve of the Corsican war for independence and is take prisoner, then retires to his chateau where he treats his workers well and pursues his scientific and culinary curiosty, always attended by Tigris, the blind tiger he has reared from a cub. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is. He is the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s encyclopedia, he is a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Having followed the trajectory of the Age of Reason the novel ends in 1790, the year after the Revolution began. Vibrantly original, filled with vividly descriptive passages and with a brilliantly playful cover, The Last Banquet rivals The President’s Hat as my best read of 2013 so far.

Given that the excellent Canongate are Jonathan Grimwood’s publishers it seems appropriate to wish them a happy fortieth birthday. Lots of celebrations planned throughout the rest of the year, apparently, and they’re on the look out for the next generation of storytellers working across all media, from books to film and games – find out more here. You have to be Scottish, though.