Mathias on Marquer (2017)

Marquer, Bertrand. L’Autre siècle de Messer Gaster? Physiologies de l'estomac dans la littérature du XIXe siècle. Hermann, 2017, pp. 324, ISBN 978-2-70569-453-1

Nineteenth-century France saw an explosion of writings on food and to date there have been several studies on the overlaps between literary and gastronomic writing. Most examine the aesthetic role of the culinary in a writer’s literary practice, or the psychoanalytic implications of literary engagements with food. Marquer’s study, on the other hand, takes a history of ideas approach, focusing on the gastronomic press, medical writings, and four writers: Balzac, Flaubert, Huysmans, and Eugène Le Roy. The central argument is that over the course of the nineteenth century, the stomach becomes the embodiment of the dominant bourgeois order, participating in “l’édification d’une norme” (7). This norm is social, political, and medical, as writers from a range of fields take up the Rabelaisian figure of Messer Gaster as an ideological symbol. 

The book is divided into three parts: the first establishes the increasing dominance of gastronomy in the nineteenth century as a sphere that has little do with hunger, and a great deal to do with the propagation of social norms. The second considers the implications of these norms for the literary qualities of gastronomic writings and the broader use of culinary metaphors in spheres such as literary criticism. The final part focuses on the preoccupation with food in literature, examining the development of a “poétique physiologique” (14) in the works of specific authors. Marquer carefully reconstructs how the term “physiologie” moved beyond the medical sphere in this period and was used to analyse various aspects of French society. This “imaginaire physiologique” (10) is the main justification for the book’s focus on the nineteenth century: following the Revolution, for example, Marquer argues that the body politic entered a new phase after the beheading of the king. And although the field of gastronomy continued to rise in the twentieth century, the constant nostalgia for the previous century illustrates the coherence of this period as one in which Messer Gaster reigned supreme. 

Marquer argues that both gastronomy and hygiene (in the nineteenth-century sense of preventive medicine) played a central role in the development of bourgeois identity, not only as a political but also as a cultural entity. He views these discourses as active agents in the development of cultural and political norms. Marquer notes, however, the ironic and humorous dimensions of gastronomic writing such as articles in Le Gourmet, especially in his chapter that traces Rabelais’s presence in such texts. He argues that by drawing on “le rire Rabelaisian” (57), writers could position themselves between the serious and the comic in relation to the eating and digesting body. This irony is nonetheless not an attempt to destabilize the social hierarchy, but to decentre it, such that “le prince estomac” (66) can take center stage as the incarnation of the new political order. 

The imposing belly is, according to Marquer, taken up by several literary writers as a symbol of triumphant materialism, be it in Flaubert’s comments on socialists or Zola’s depictions of shopkeepers in novels like Le Ventre de Paris (1873). Therefore, whereas gastronomy aimed to establish a new form of civilized discourse, its links with the newly developing bourgeoisie brought it into contact with the dominant values of egotism and materialism. Marquer therefore emphasizes the social and especially the political role played by gastronomy, rather than its dietetic or medical dimensions. By considering the sphere of digestive hygiene as a means of imposing social norms and hierarchies, Marquer largely adheres to the Foucauldian tradition of reading French medicine in this period as an insidious instrument of power.

In alignment with Priscilla Ferguson’s argument in Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine, that “it was the expansive culinary discourse, not the dishes and meals of a confined culinary practice, that is responsible for the iconic status of the culinary in French culture,” (92) Marquer analyses gastronomic discourse as one that is fundamentally reliant on words rather than actions, for example, through the use of culinary metaphor in art and theatre criticism. The literary sphere’s engagement with the digestive system is viewed throughout the study as a symbol for the dominant bourgeoisie or, at times, as a metaphor for literary creation itself, especially the realist writer devouring and conquering reality. The chapter on Balzac focuses mostly on Le Cousin Pons and argues that in his works, dietetics are political. In the case of Flaubert, Salammbô provides the focus, with the argument that eating and especially cannibalism are ways of asking questions about civilization. Autophagy is, in turn, posited as a basis for Flaubert’s own style, and there is an emphasis on Flaubert’s physical relationship with reading and writing that would have benefitted from some discussion of Larry Duffy’s excellent 2015 Flaubert, Zola, and the Incorporation of Disciplinary Knowledge

Huysmans’ ironic relationship with gastronomy is figured as an “antigastronomie” (243) which, rather than offering any alternative to dominant dietetic and social discourses, uses dark humour to mock and undermine. Eugène Le Roy’s novels of the 1890s are examined as examples of regionalist writing that show essential connections with food and eating. In Le Roy’s writing, Marquer argues, food is not only an essential element of a regional identity now under threat, but also part of a progressive political vision for the future.  

This book’s originality could have been more clearly articulated through engagement with the substantial body of Anglophone publications on the topic. Rebecca Spang’s The Invention of the Restaurant (2001), for instance, would have been an enriching intertext here, as would Elizabeth A. Williams’ important studies of appetite and the stomach in the history of French medicine. On the whole, however, this is a thoroughly researched and thought-provoking study: one of the first to include serious analyses of the gastronomic press as part of its broader argument on the stomach, and to consider the broader impact of physiology not only as a science but also as a form of ideology.

Manon Mathias
University of Glasgow