Set in the years leading up to the French Revolution, this is the story of Jean-Marie Charles D’Aumont, whom we first encounter eating beetles from a dung heap. His parents are minor nobility and have starved to death, in debt and virtual paupers.
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.
The young Jean-Marie is rescued by the Vicomte d’Anvers who has come to hang the peasants who have looted from his parents’ chateau. Under the Vicomte’s patronage the five-year-old Jean-Marie is taken to a school where he meets and becomes friends with young nobility who will dominate the political landscape of France prior to the revolution. His bourgeois friend Emile is also a dominant figure in the novel. All are fictional characters; the only historical figures besides the French royal family are Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican statesman whose main purpose is to identify Jean-Marie as a creature of the Enlightenment rather than a revolutionary figure.
Jean-Marie is a Zelig placed in the context of extraordinary times and he witnesses the changes in France: the corruption of the nobility, the resentment of the peasants and the rise of the bourgeoisie. From his birth as minor nobility, through patronage and his own virtues and character, he attracts the attention of the rich and powerful and becomes an influential figure, while maintaining a distance from the epicentre of French politics – the Palace of Versailles:
As we leave the gilded cage through gates decorated with the boyish face of a long-dead king, I feel my headache lift and my lungs fill with fresher air. Within five miles my nose is no longer clogged with palace stink, within fifty its foulness is a memory.
There is Dumas-like adventure; this is a clever novel, and Jean-Marie is an intriguing and amiable hero with admirable qualities and virtues. When he is invited to spend the summer with his titled friend Charlot, he manages to save Charlot’s sister Virginie from a wolf during the hunt. At his next visit he again saves Virginie when the young people are pursued by outlaws. Charlot’s father the duke buys a title and land for Jean-Marie so that he can marry Virginie.
So I tell him my parents starved to death when I was small and I grew up in a school for the poor; that my title and the castle behind us I owe to having killed a wolf and travelled downriver under an upturned boat. Had these boyish adventures not happened I would, at best, probably now be dead …
Jean-Marie settles into his new home with his love, and enjoys his life as a landlord, improving his land and gardens, corresponding with Voltaire and experimenting with his cooking. From the first time we meet him Jean-Marie is obsessed with smell and taste. Like an early Heston Blumenthal he delights in creating authentic recipes and scientifically ascertaining how to conceal odour and gamy meat. This leads to an early episode in the novel when he cooks an unpopular schoolmaster’s dog after hanging the animal and also to the novel’s delightfully black and triumphant ending.
This is a book about smells, sensuality, pungency and sex. Yet while Jean-Marie is enjoying his experiments and managing his estates in the spirit of the Enlightenment, revolution is brewing – riding in his carriage he notices the change of mood in France.
The novel’s set piece is Jean-Marie’s visit to Versailles, where Grimwood lovingly describes the odours of the palace and its inhabitants and sets the novel on the way to its conclusion. Jean-Marie meets the Dauphin and becomes the Lord Master of the Menagerie. He creates his own zoo at his chateau, which includes his beloved ‘tigres’.
When Jean-Marie’s oldest son dies, Virginie becomes melancholic, and nearly dies giving birth to his second son. He is induced to become the King’s envoy to Corsica and argue the case for France acquiring the then independent state. He is betrayed and kidnapped and taken for dead before returning to his beloved chateau, where he awaits his fate as the revolution in Paris spreads to the provinces.
The Last Banquet brings to mind Perfume by Patrick Suskind and Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker but can only pale in comparison with either. Yet, without any pretence of being a well-researched historical novel like Wolf Hall, it is an enjoyable romp through French history.
Jonathan Grimwood The Last Banquet Canongate 2013 PB 368pp $27.99
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