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Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Last Banquet

Last Banquet

We seek the immortality of fame around the same time our bodies begin to seek the sweet peace of oblivion. Such is the contradiction of being human. – Jonathan Grimwood, The Last Banquet

I haven’t read a great many historical novels—really only a handful and they’ve all been reviewed here—and I wouldn’t present myself as a fan of the genre although I have been impressed by the lengths these authors go to in their quest to present the past as faithfully as possible. Indeed it strikes me that, for those people who are aficionados, a significant part of the pleasure they must glean from reading has to be derived from this quest for accuracy in all things. If this describes you then The Last Banquet has much going for it and I certainly learned a thing or two about 18th century France in the lead up to the French Revolution which is where the book ends.

That said, I have to say I groaned when I saw what Canongate had sent me. I’d seen the book in their catalogue and passed on by but as the book was here anyway I dutifully stuck it on my to-read shelf and, when its turn came, removed the dust jacket without bothering to look at it or scan the blurb and started reading. So I came to this book about as ignorant as one could be. By this time I’d even forgotten when and where the book was set. It begins as follows:

Dung-heap Meals

aphodius-fossorMy earliest memory is sitting with my back to a dung heap in the summer crunching happily on a stag beetle and wiping its juice from my chin and licking my lips and wondering how long it would take me to find another.

Beetles taste of what they eat. Everything edible tastes of what it eats or takes from the soil, and the stag beetles that fed on the dung in my father’s courtyard were sweet from the dung, which was sweet from the roadside grass. I had fed the horse the last of the hay and knew it was in a ramshackle stall behind me so the clip clop echoing in the courtyard’s arch had to come from another.

I could stand and bow as I’d been taught. But the sun was hot that summer and my mother and father were still asleep in their room with the shutters closed and I’d been ordered not to disturb them so I stayed where I was.

Luck brought me another stag beetle as the stranger cleared the arch and I popped it into my mouth before he could demand that I share.

What makes a good story? For me it’s only ever one thing: character. It doesn’t matter what the plot is or where it’s set, as long as there are good, believable and likeable-even-if-they’re-horrible characters—I’m thinking along the lines of Cruella de Vil here—then everything else is forgivable, even a tendency to overuse the word ‘and’. By the time I’d read the above—which is about all there is on the first page—I found myself wanting to like this child. I didn’t know its age but it was probably a boy since girls curtsey rather than bow and as much as the thought of eating a dung beetle disgusts me personally there was something equally appealing about this boy. I would’ve been disappointed if he were not likeable.

Literature is peppered with affable brats (most of them Dickensian, at least that’s how it feels) and young Jean-Marie—Jean-Marie Charles d’Aumount, to give him his full name (yes, he’s nobility)—is one of them although (sadly) he doesn’t stay a five-year-old for very long because by the next short chapter he’s turned six; at the start of the third he’s nine but within three pages he’s jumped to eleven. And the years fairly gallop by: 1730 … 1734 … 1736 … and all the way down to 1790. Whereas Dickens would’ve probably have stopped in young adulthood—I’m thinking along the lines of Great Expectations—we get to experience this whole man’s life beginning with the dung heap and ending with the barbarians at the gate.

Jean-Marie is living in interesting times. The thing is he’s not especially interested in the times. There are other things far more interesting that politics. Gastronomy for one. Some fifteen years ago, when Grimwood wrote the first draft of this novel, he’d called it Taste. That changed in time to Master of the Menagerie and finally ended up as The Last Banquet. All are decent titles—and emphasise different aspects of the book—but I can see why he went with the more obvious Taste first of all. The book has been compared to Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (which, in some other universe, is probably called Smell) and the comparison is a reasonable one. Over the years Jean-Marie pops most things in his mouth, from what he can get a hold of locally—mice (taste like chicken), sparrows (taste like chicken), cats (tastes like chicken), dogs (taste like sour mutton)—to the exotic—tigers, alligators, flamingos and cheese made from human breast milk. From an early age he records his attempts to cook these items and in time builds up an impressive (if esoteric) cookbook. But first he has to grow up.

The horse he hears in the opening chapter belongs to le Régent (the duc d’Orléans) and he takes a definite shine to the boy. The boy’s parents aren’t sleeping—they’re dead—and so le Régent takes the young Jean-Marie under his wing and arranges for his care. First he goes to an orphanage until he is of age to attend school and from there he moves on to military academy. Between these two establishments he Ranksmeets a number of boys who will become lifelong friends: first, Emile Duras—“[t]he lack of the particule, the de in his name, set him apart from the others”—then Jerome (Vicomte Jerome de Caussard, second son of the comte de Caussard) and, more importantly, Charlot (Charles, marquis de Saulx; his father is the duke).

Under the care and tutelage of these three, Jean-Marie finds his place in the world. Oddly enough it’s not in the kitchen—nobles don’t work—at least not officially; as he’s a good student his eccentricity is indulged. Charlot becomes the most important of his friends because it’s through him and an invite to the family home, the Chateau de Saulx, that he finds the means to ingratiate himself with the family and ultimately receive the duke’s patronage. It’s all about who you know although he doesn’t go out of his way to curry favour; he just happens to be in the right place at the right time and that place just happens to be standing between the duke’s second daughter, Virginie, and a ravenous wolf. From there on it’s only a matter of exercising a little patience and he’s in a position to ask for Virginie’s hand in marriage. He’s twenty-one by this time (we’re up to 1738) and Dickens—Austen for sure—would probably have wound up everything with a glorious marriage having taken six hundred pages to get there. Grimwood’s got us here in a mere 139 pages and there’re still just over two hundred to go. What to fill them with?

Europa coverThis is where I started to lose interest a little. Things happen, the story keep moving, children grow up, people die, Jean-Marie sets to restoring his family home and all the while in the background trouble is fomenting. And that’s the thing about this book. It’s a bit easy to get caught up in the action and not pay as much attention to the shifting setting, little things like the peasants beginning to meet the nobles’ gaze. Unlike Perfume Jean-Marie’s interest in experiencing every culinary delight he can never develops into quite the same obsession as smell does for Grenouille—it’s not as if he’s about to sell the family home to finance trips to foreign lands to experience exquisite new tastes—but he makes the most of the opportunities that come his way. For example, Versailles.

What do you think of what you hear the word Versailles? Opulence? Extravagance? Shit? I have to say I thought Grimwood was making stuff up when he writes about the Palace of Versailles but apparently not. I had to look it up to check:

Versailles fell into a decline during the last years of the Bourbons. It was inhabited by Louis XVI and his Austrian wife Marie Antoinette before they were sent ‘to the scaffold’. The troubles were a direct consequence of the monarchy’s weakness. It was running out of authority and it had run out of money. One thinks of Versailles as the grandest palace in Europe must also have been it most luxurious. ‘In actuality Versailles was a vast cesspool, reeking of filth and befouled with ordure…The odour clung to clothes, wigs, even undergarments. Worst of all, beggars, servants, and aristocratic visitors alike used the stairs, the corridors, any out-of-the-way place to relieve themselves… “I shall never get over the dirt of this country,” Horace Walpole grumbled, and he had travelled extensively. The approach to Versailles, the English agreed, was magnificent, along wide roads shaded with stately trees. But the squalor inside was unspeakable.’ Versailles in the time of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette,

Whilst there with his son, Laurant, Jean-Marie gets to visit the animals and he draws a comparison between the caged animals and Versailles itself:

Hearing the cry of a wild animal and remembering the menageries I realised what it was I saw.

A human zoo built by a king to keep his courtiers captive.

It was not even a prison. Those in prison know that’s where they are. That must be true. Animals born to a zoo know no other life; for them captivity is all the life there is and all there has ever been. Looking down at that edifice I knew I could never live there no matter what honour was offered.

When he learns that an old tigress and her blind cub are to be killed he says he’ll give them both a home. It is there and then that his old friend Jerome comes up with the title Lord Master of the Menagerie, making up the duties as he goes along; the position had not existed prior to this:

Don’t worry, there will be no official duties and you don’t even have to live here if you don’t want, since the king hasn’t demanded it…

Jean-Marie is grateful. He’s become quite the country gent and is keen to get back to his home with his new project. Of course he does intend to eat the tiger once she dies but not until she dies of natural causes even if she might be a bit tough by then.

2nd Europa coverThe young are endearing. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about young humans or young animals. The problem is that they have to grow up. The little boy we encountered in the first chapter is now a grown man and, although he has his quirks, not much of the child remains. Two things, perhaps: his willingness to sample anything new and the fact that, despite his position, he really has no airs and graces. When his first wife dies he even marries a commoner, his son’s nurse, Manon—there’s a name for it too: morganatic marriage—and she becomes vicomtesse rather than a full-blown marquise. The rich and their ruddy titles. It makes no difference to either of them; they’re not that kind of people:

There was a familiarity in the way she talked to me that troubled some of our neighbours. Our conversation lacked the formality found in their marriages, our affections and occasional irritations, best kept behind closed doors, bled into open conversation. So be it. We were shaped by how we’d begun.

I started to think of my life as clay. That day by the dung heap, my life was entirely malleable, soft to the touch and easy to shape. Slowly it dried and grew stiff, until I began to accept the shape it had because change was hard.

The book could easily have wound down at this point but we’re only at 1768 and unless Grimwood intended to bring the French Revolution forward a few years he needed to give something for Jean-Marie to do for a bit apart from improving his estate, building new kitchens and cooking and preserving whole pigs in gigantic glass jars. A diplomatic trip to Corsica proves a distraction as well as a visit from Ben Franklin in 1777 in his role as an agent for the American colonies. Naïvely Jean-Marie thinks his visit has been prompted by interest in his experiments. It falls to Manon to put him straight:

‘My poor boy,’ she says, ‘There is a war on. The American colonies are fighting for their lives. They have more important things to think about than how to grow potatoes or bottle a gazelle…’

The penultimate chapter begins:


The rest is history or will be for those who come to write it after us. I doubt they will be kind, and why would they? They will see our sins and forget out graces.

Out in the sticks it takes a little time for the wave of anger to reach him but by the time it does he’s prepared even if he doesn’t deserve what’s coming. For all he became rich and mingled with the even richer Jean-Marie never forgot who he was; he looked after his peasants as best they would let him. When the mob comes for his chateau—in lieu of supposedly unpaid taxes—it is empty apart from an old man and—in tigers’ years—an even older tiger. Time for the last banquet.

This is a biography, albeit a fictional one, and as such it suffers from the same limitations that a lot of biographies of worthy subjects do. Bits of Jean-Marie’s life are interesting—some even exciting—but most of his life is not. He’s had greatness—or at least a title and financial security—thrust upon him, he marries, has kids, loses people—some to death and others to politics—and he grows old and contented. So, no, for the most part this isn’t a riveting book in that regard. But despite its limitations it held my interest. There was a little too much sex for my tastes—seriously this guy wants to taste everything—but although descriptive it never becomes graphic and certainly not pornographic. We never get embroiled in the politics of the court. We’re aware of what’s going on, just as we’re aware of the peasants readying themselves for revolt, but Jean-Marie can afford to be in a wee world of his own and so stays there; the outside is visible through a skin of metaphorical soapy water but it’s distorted. Only at the very end does the bubble burst.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected but not as much as I’d hoped. Foodies will appreciate the recipes even if it’s doubtful they’ll even get a chance to savour any of them although Dragon & Tiger sounds interesting. (That’s cat and snake by the way.)

The book is up at Google Books where you can read a fair chunk of it here.


grimwoodJon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Malta and christened in the upturned bell of a ship. He grew up in the Far East, Britain and Scandinavia. Apart from novels he writes for magazines and newspapers. For five years he wrote a monthly review column for The Guardian. He has also written for The Times, The Telegraph and The Independent. Wikipedia describes him as a “British science fiction and fantasy author.” This is not inaccurate; The Last Banquet is his first literary novel.

Felaheen, the third of his novels featuring Asraf Bey, a half-Berber detective, won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. So did End of the World Blues, about a British sniper on the run from Iraq and running an Irish bar in Tokyo. His novels have been shortlisted for numerous other awards including the Arthur C Clarke Award (twice) and the John W Campbell Memorial Award.

The Fallen Blade, the first of three novels set in an alternate 15th-century Venice was published in 2011 and has gone into ten languages in twelve territories. The Outcast Blade, its sequel, was published in 2012. The final volume of the Assassini novels, The Exiled Blade, was published 30 April 2013.

His work is published in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Russian, Turkish, Japanese, Danish, Finnish, Dutch and American, among others.

He is married to the journalist and novelist Sam Baker, who recently resigned as editor-in-chief of Red magazine to work on a start-up. They divide their time between Winchester and Paris...

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