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#169: MANGEZ! MANGEZ!

#169: MANGEZ! MANGEZ! In his vast series of novels and stories known collectively as La Comedie Humaine, Balzac begins with the Swedenborgian notion that man has only a certain supply of spiritual energy, which is dissipated by various worldly and carnal activities. His approach is almost zoological: protagonists are given a ruling passion, very much in the manner of Renaissance humors, and the end result was to be a kind of taxonomy of human behavior. But the Comedie was also a novelistic panorama of the first half of the nineteenth century in France, in which Balzac felt that the dominant forces of money and power, the grotesque results of Guizot’s phrase “Enrichissez-vous,” had become license to indulge those very passions, avarice and selfishness and gluttony. So in Anka Muhlstein’s study Balzac’s Omelette (Other Press, 2010) we get not only a sharp and charming inspection of the author’s—and the characters’—obsession with food, but a nice sketch of how in that period the manners and economics of food began to take on a very modern face. This was the time of Brillat-Savarin, who wrote “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are,” and no novelist before or since Balzac has so cannily demonstrated this notion. In Muhelstein's book nothing in the subject is entirely left to lie where we found it: yes, part of Balzac’s prodigious productivity was connected to his staggering intake of caffeine; yet there are several paragraphs about the recently-discovered refinements in the making of coffee and Balzac’s devotion to his pet types and brands. His enthusiasm for food was proverbial; but in the novels the indulgence of gluttony was the ruin of many a character’s life. Other novelists spoke of aphrodisiacs; but in Balzac a passion for food was not at all a food for passion—or at least, a success in the world of love and marriage. His cast of mind made the novels almost cautionary; his most passionate characters do not come to happy ends; and yet in his novels there is a constant and cunningly evoked delight in the pleasures of the table. All this, yes, may be terribly French: his story La Rabouilleuse is the only novel I know of featuring death by foie gras. But its lessons are universal, and Muhlstein has a fine old time with them.

There are many fine stories and films in which the experience of dining edges past the merely culinary: “Les Deux Banquets,” for instance, the brief fable that is the last story in Michel Tournier’s collection La Medianoche Amoureux (Gallimard, 1989), in which we skip lightly across the border between meal and ritual; or in Stanley Tucci’s film Big Night, in which the arrival of Italian ethnic food in New Jersey tells us a good deal about competition and the loyalty of brothers. In both categories a wondrous and charming title is “Babette’s Feast,” the story by Isak Dinesen, in Anecdotes of Destiny (Vintage, 1958). Two sisters’ household in a religious colony in Norway becomes home to a woman fleeing the violence of Communard Paris; in its forty pages, we get a panorama in miniature of unforgotten love, the tempering of asceticism, the need of an artist to express herself, the stubbornness of personal identity and, in the titular feast, the curative and generous power of great food, as the sisters and their guests are given “one hour of the millennium.” The story has the snow-white beauty of Isak Dinesen’s steady and simple prose; in Gabriel Axel’s film we get the careful evocation of the villagers’ lives and, as Babette, the reserve and thoughtful frown of Stephane Audran to keep the transcendence from getting too soupy. In both forms it’s a marvelous one-off work, memorable and moving, a rare chance to see good deeds go unpunished.

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