Cuisine Novella by Antoine Laurent (Viking: $16.95; 256 pages)
Annabelle Fleury, an attractive young fashion designer, is having lunch alone one day in a belle epoque brasserie along the Boulevard St.-Germain in Paris when in sweeps the Marquis de St. Lyre, "his long, black cloak swirling about him and his fedora set at a rakish angle."
Annabelle has ordered the champignons a la provencale , and when, "after only one forkful . . . she winces and pushes her plate away," the marquis strides over and says, "Mademoiselle! You're not seriously considering eating any more of this? I hope not. I've never come across anything so disgraceful."
Stammering, Annabelle agrees--and thus does she become unwittingly enmeshed in one of the most phantasmagorical voyages in contemporary fiction.
The mysterious marquis is a master chef, with his own restaurant in Provence, and he quickly induces Annabelle to accompany him on a train trip there so he can teach her all the secrets of the gastronomic art. But the marquis is also a master storyteller--a man possessed by unmentionable demons--and therein lies both his real secret (hinted at several times but only disclosed near the end of the narrative) and Annabelle's real education (which ultimately requires her to absorb the burden of the marquis' terrible secret).
"There is only a narrow divide between man's various creative enterprises," the marquis tells Annabelle; someone skilled in, say, painting, music or sculpture can also become skilled in, say, fashion design, cooking . . . or storytelling. Indeed, he argues, "Cooking and storytelling are part of the same process . . . both are subject to the same principles and . . . are ultimately ruled by the imagination . . . . What cooking and storytelling share is the peculiar ability to take basic ingredients and to then elevate them on to a much higher plane."
Fine Art of Storytelling
On the train south, the marquis proceeds to indoctrinate Annabelle in the fine art of storytelling--under the seemingly simple guise of searching for the perfect ingredients for champignons a la provencale --the perfect mushrooms, garlic, olive oil and parsley. He weaves one imaginative story after another, each not so much a story as an experience; various sleeping compartments on the train are miraculously transformed into enchanted sets for the marquis' bizarre tales--one featuring a leopard woman, another a mummy, a third a dwarf expelled from the royal court. Each tortured creature tells the story of his own anguish; then the marquis frees the character from unendurable pain in exchange for the instant gift of one of the pure ingredients needed for Annabelle's champignons a la provencale .
There is much pop philosophizing by the marquis along the way ("Nothing is more pathetic than ignoring one's origins, failing to finish anything or . . . lacking control over the forces that have shaped you") and there is also a bit of self-conscious posturing by the author. Antoine Laurent, who writes powerfully and persuasively in the mystical milieu, is less effective when he lapses into coy asides to the reader (". . . as it is not in our interest to have doubts cast over the steward's version of reality, we will momentarily break the narrative framework, borrow from the omniscient mode and . . .").
Metaphor for Class Struggle
Laurent also labors unconvincingly for a full page to turn a hair in Annabelle's bowl of soup into a metaphor for class struggle, "a cri de coeur . . . a salvo of liberty" against capitalism. But these are relatively minor diversions-cum-drawbacks in Laurent's engrossing and instructive work of imagination. Just as knowledge of the elements of fine cuisine can help teach one the elements of telling a good story (and vice versa), so both can provide valuable insights into other human endeavors.
Surely, the marquis' lectures on the importance of determination, concentration, careful planning and using one's full potential have as much application to a lawyer, a teacher or a journalist as to a chef or a novelist. Besides, how many books will make you consult both Julia Child (to check her recipe for champignons a la provencale ) and Webster (to check the meanings of such delightful words as susurration, coprophagy, metonymy and transmontane ) .
It's enough to give one an acute case of dacrygelosis over one's digestif .