Last week, I described Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet as fluff dressed up in a pre-revolutionary French costume. That’s not to imply anything negative because this book is a pure delight – every page plump with historical detail, surprising plot twists and terrific writing to boot.
The story begins with a young boy, Jean-Marie d’Aumout, eating beetles by the side of the road. He’s a penniless orphan but by the grace of having a ‘d’ in his name is distinguished as nobility and sent to a military academy for schooling. From there unfolds a series of adventures and we see Jean-Marie as many things – soldier, diplomat, loyal friend, spy, lover, scientist and, above all, a chef. For it is Jean-Marie’s pursuit of culinary perfection and the need to taste everything that underpins every twist and turn in this gripping saga.
Some historical fiction can get bogged down in detail, the author trying to prove the thoroughness of their research. Not the case here. Grimwood’s prose is authentic but light – take the romp of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the debauchery of Maurice Lever’s Sade: A Biography and the quirkiness of Michael Allin’s Zarafa, and you’ll get the gist of The Last Banquet. Descriptions of life in court (the Palace of Versailles) and the feeling of social unrest are woven throughout the text. Of the nobility, Jean-Marie says –
“We disgusted Europe with our degeneracy. We disgusted ourselves.”
and of Versailles –
“…I’m left in a room that stinks so fiercely from a nearby latrine that no amount of gilded cherubs or paintings of pink-nippled shepherdesses can make good the smell.”
As Jean-Marie’s story unfolds, the social order of France shifts. In the beginning (1724) he says of the peasants –
“And though we might see a wide-eyed boy only a little younger than we were, or a girl pretty enough to make us notice her, we knew what they would become. It had always been this way and we believed it always would. More to the point, they believed it and so it was.”
and by the end (1784) –
“The sourness I’d first tasted in the air at Versailles years earlier had spread across France like malign marsh fog. Where there had been misery there was now misery and anger.”
There are secondary characters in this story, notably his friends Charlot, an aristocrat, and Emile, whose bourgeois circumstances set him apart from the other school boys (of course, history tells us that the tide will turn for Emile). Grimwood uses these characters nicely to give context to the unfolding revolution yet it is the themes of taste and hunger that stand out.
I was both riveted and repulsed by the descriptions of food in this book. In fact, I use the term ‘food’ loosely because much of what Jean Marie puts in his mouth wouldn’t be found on a menu – tadpoles, sparrow’s eggs, pickled wolf’s heart, dog, three-snake bouillabaisse, tiger, flamingo tongue, breast milk from a wet-nurse and more. Jean-Marie’s recipes and notes are scattered throughout the text, which reminds the reader that his culinary pursuits have an element of scientific inquiry to them, pulling them back from the territory of the perverse.
“A pike was dressed in hot vinegar that turned its scales to the blue of a gun barrel. Its cucumber-and-black pepper sauce had the texture of cream and smelt of spiced grass. The fish tasted of river weed…”
The pursuit of the perfect taste drives the plot of The Last Banquet to the very final pages, the conclusion a fitting and thrilling climax.
And a final word on Grimwood’s style. Exquisite. He combines the perfect and the grotesque with ease –
“Whichever way you enter Paris you hit squalor. Rue Saint Jacques is ankle deep in shit, the church cold and Emile’s bride so brittle she could be spun sugar.”
4/5 – Whilst tadpoles and roasted cat may not be to your taste, this book is an absolute ripper – enjoy.
I started keeping a list of all the food references in The Last Banquet but there were so many it was interrupting my reading! Pair this book with a simple slice of Roquefort cheese, one of Jean-Marie’s earliest and fondest food memories –
“It tasted as I remembered, of mould and horses’ hooves clipping on brick and dung beetles and sun.”