The Last Banquet, out this week from Canongate, is Jonathan ("Jon Courtenay") Grimwood's first foray outside of the speculative arena. The result is, no pun intended, suitably fantastic. Despite the disconcertingly direct prose, The Last Banquet is a complex feast, with a lot to say about itself. (Yes, I mixed metaphors.)
The story - an autobiography - begins in 1723. Jean-Marie d'Aumont is a young boy, sitting by a dung heap and eating beetles. He is an aristocrat and an orphan, and his family lands (such as they are) have been looted by local villagers. Were it not for the good fortune of a passing vicomte, Jean-Marie would have met a grisly (or perhaps merely pathetic) end. As it is, the young boy is distressed to be taken away from his wriggly snacks - and suitably consoled with his first taste of blue cheese.
The vicomte takes Jean-Marie under his wing, at least, for long enough to deposit him at a military academy for the upper crust. There, Jean-Marie makes his first friends, finds his first love, comes of age, saves his first life and, perhaps most importantly, continues to nibble on everything in sight. For, no matter how he's swept up by adolescence and society, Jean-Marie remains firmly anchored to his culinary curiosity. (Better metaphor!) He is determined to taste everything.
With adulthood, Jean-Marie's life becomes no less complicated. France is on the verge of a crisis - her power in Europe is on the wane, and, within her borders, the king and nobles maintain an increasingly tenuous grasp on power. Jean-Marie, often against his will, is caught up in plans great, devious and occasionally awe-inspiring - but, at the same time, he rises above it all. For whatever his obligations to family, state and friends, his quest remains the same: to understand flavour.
And here is where the book's thematic beauty comes into its own. However you may slice it, The Last Banquet provides a hearty meal. (Better?) For one, we have in Jean-Marie the consummate intellectual - devoted to theory, to natural history, to exploration and knowledge in its purest form. His investigation and research is constantly interrupted by the grim reality of his surroundings - or, Mr. Grimwood would have us question, is it the reverse? Jean-Marie's greatest discoveries in terms of flavour, his most unusual - and arguably abandoned - tastes come from the results of his dabbling in politics. His zoological appointment, his trip to Sicily - moments where he becomes a factor in the "world" are correlated with his quest for the most sublime tastes. Is it that Jean-Marie is held back from the ivory tower? Or, more probably, that he can only know the world when he is in it.
Another theme at play is Jean-Marie's role as an early scientist (a word not coined until the 19th century, but I'm going to use it anyway). His quest, his recipes, they're a way of organising the unknown - of biting away at chaos and darkness, trying to bring a system to the world. This comes as no surprise given the chaos of his life and his childhood. His work, we realise, is no different from the political philosophers of the era, also busy trying to construct order, although with far bloodier effect. But in taste, Jean-Marie has a surprisingly perfect metaphor for the complex relationship between reason and romance, order and chaos. Jean-Marie is trying to capture and describe the indescribable, he is trying to create order where there was only anarchy and tradition, and, of course, he's willing to get completely filthy in order to create something pure.
This last point leads on a third theme (and the last - for now): The Last Banquet is an utterly filthy book. I mean this purely in the Victorian sense: this is filled with sex and food and the occasional, gooey intersection between them. Jean-Marie isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, nor any other part of him, and some of his experiments are truly stomach-churning. Yet, France before the Revolution was a dirty place - it takes someone like Jean-Marie to see it (or to admit it). Versailles is a horrible, stinking place; the entire country is rotten. The aristocracy paint make-up over the top, or add another layer of gilt, but the core is still festering. Jean-Marie is willing to explore the disgusting: to admit the existence of what others ignore, to experiment with it, find value in it and, ultimately, and create something new and beautiful. To some degree, any two complex systems can be spun into a metaphor, but Mr. Grimwood's mixture of food and politics is particularly apt.
The Last Banquet is aided by Jean-Marie's matter-of-fact prose. The narrator has no qualms about turning his scientific eye upon himself, and quietly judging his own actions. His recollections are understandably patchy, and, as Jean-Marie grows older, time dilates in odd and meaningful ways. A recipe means more than his family; a moment with his wife holds his attention more than years of his schooling. It is a beautiful tale, made more so by Jean-Marie's attempt to remain aloof. Even as he writes calmly and humbly, trying to keep his distance, it becomes clear that there's a very sensitive man behind the pen. The prose is simple - often stark - and all the more powerful for it.
Mr. Grimwood has written a truly exceptional book. This will come as no surprise to those who have been reading him for years, and I'm delighted to say that one of the books I was most anticipating not only met my inflated expectations, but exceeded them. The Last Banquet is like a cake, an onion, a feast, a clock, a... it is your metaphor of choice: something both simple and complex, instantly comprehensible and infinitely layered. Filthy and beautiful, provocative and sensitive, this is one for the ages.