July 17, 2013 by markstani
The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood (pub. Canongate) is a ravenous novel by any standards, a swirling account of life amid the crumbling nobility of 18th century France, propelled by its narrator’s insatiable appetite for food and flesh.
It starts with a scene in which the newly-orphaned Jean-Marie d’Aumout is found feasting on beetles on a dung-heap. Because of his aristocratic origins he is rescued and sent to a military academy, setting a course for life among the nation’s ludicrously over-privileged elite.
Notable friendships and random acts of bravery conspire to fire d’Aumout all the way to the flanks of Versailles themselves, where royalty lounge seemingly oblivious to the dirt and destitution that is edging ever closer to its door.
The futility of their preposterous excess is indicated in d’Aumout’s ever-more outlanding eating experiences, many of which he faithfully reproduces: there are recipes for wolf’s heart pickle and three-snake bouillabaisse, most of which, he can’t help noting, taste like chicken.
Despite such decadence, the author has created a highly credible character, fiercely loyal in relation to the times, clearly ill-at-ease in such high courts, and one you can’t help but cheer on in his latest clattering quest: in the final part of the novel, he is sent by the king to Corsica to try to broker a deal to bring the island under French control. Typically, he accepts the task not out of any great sense of nationalism, but out of a desire to taste a possibly mythical Corsican cheese called Brocciu di Donna, made from the breast milk of new mothers.
That the ending is inevitable does not for one moment slow this novel’s sense of urgency, and Grimwood succeeds in inveigling the reader in d’Aumout’s ambitious, thickly-coated quests.
It’s a damning indictment of an 18th century nobility that was soon to cease to exist, and a reminder that life is better shaped by simple pleasures.
Grimwood is the pseudonym of Jon Courtenay Grimwood, whose science-fiction novels have won a number of prizes. If, like me, you have something of an aversion to the sci-fi genre, or historical fiction itself, my advice is to shelve it and savour this book as you might a surprising and entirely welcome new flavour.