Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Map of Another Town (by MFK Fisher)

There are those who say that Mary-Francis Fisher is the greatest prose writer of the 20th century (WH Auden, no less) and her name came more and more into my radar as I read people like Julia Child (another fan) and Jeffrey Steingarten. Unfortunately, her works are out of print and my local library offered slim pickings when I went looking for her books: she's a popular writer it seems, as all but two of her books were out. One that was available was a collection of "odd and old receipts to assuage the ills of man and beast" which had no appeal, being "a book of "comforting remedies for all kinds of ailments, from headache to mange". I'm not even sure what mange is, but have no interest in finding out.

The other
the other was her account of living in Aix (in Provence, in France) during the mid 1950's and then again in 1960 - 61 with her two daughters, Map of Another Town. The title is derived from the fact that no matter the physical geography of a place, every visitor will have imprinted upon them their own very specific map which reflects their personal experience of a place and, no doubt, their own tastes. So, the writing process for Fisher was both a grappling with her own identity and a record of her personal map of Aix - I guess this will be true of most good travel writing. Given her reputation as a gastronome, I was surprised to find that there was no information at all about cooking: indeed, she seems to have lived in a couple of genteel boarding establishments and a hotel and only cooked about a third of the meals she ate, without making any mention of them at all.

Of course, there was talk of food, and domestic relations within her various abodes and within the two cafes in Aix she considered worth visiting. After reading of the service levels in these cafes, I was briefly inspired to seek out the cafes in Dunedin which might be our analogues - perhaps Nova Cafe in the Octagon has the most similar style and feel to a French cafe from the 1950's. Other preoccupations were her health and the near impossibility of finding a good trustworthy doctor, Gypsies and "mendicants", the local art (Aix is the home town of Cezanne) and intellectual scene - the sort of things that an intelligent well bred American woman of around 50 trying to find her cultural niche would be looking at. That makes her focus at least two, if not three, removes from any focus I myself might have, were I to go there. Although I have no doubt I too would take an interest in the local cafe scene, and the university and book shops, she reports on the place as it was 40 - 50 years ago. Having said that, one of the cafes - Deux Garcons - was established in 1792 and is apparently still going strong. Such longevity is incomprehensible to an inhabitant of a country which hasn't even been around that long! Her other cafe, the Glacier, is still there as well.

She describes both in the chapter "The Two Havens":
In Aix, and I presume in every other respectable town of France, both great and small, cafes are known by the company they keep, and in one way or another the towns are known by their cafes. For most of this century Aix has been for itself and its visitors the Deux Garcons, the Cafe of the Two Waiters. About 1750 it was a chess and checkers club for gentlemen ... which they entered through the rear door ... to still any rumours of commercialism; and now respectable citizens, students who one day will be the same, and tourists both ordinary and extraordinary make it, still, their club in their various well behaved ways...

Inside the main room, there is an ornate gaslight in each corner. They are kept in working order, and like everything else they are well dusted. It is because of a city ordinance: every public gathering place must be prepared to illuminate itself adequately in case of no matter what kind of blackout of electricity. It could be a riot, a strike, an assassination, a prank, one is informed with a shrug. This tacit recognition of any good cafe's tinderbox subnature is generally ignored, except about twice a years when new students ... serpentiine through all the cafes on the Cours, bellowing in doggedly virile camaraderie...
And so she goes on for several pages, describing the cafe and telling a couple of anecdotes about the place, revealing that it was the kind of place where you could go every day for six months without being acknowledged as a regular or knowing anything about the people who work there. Mind you, in the three years or so she went there, she finally did get through those barriers. It is this sort of thing that makes this book quite different from other travel books, as it concentrates on the day to day and, indeed, there is very little movement at all. But she is very clever, and I get why some might claim her as the finest prose writer etc, because she writes very well and provides lots of little segments like this one:
The first landlady in my life happened as swiftly and as irrevocably as a bullet's flight: I went to the students' office at the University of Dijon, the small elderly secretary gave me a list of boardinghouses, I walked two hundred feet down the first street on the right, rang a doorbell, and became part of a household for two shaking and making years of my life.

It was very different, the last time, in 1954.

I went to Aix for six weeks or at most three months. I stayed well over three years, in two or three periods, and partly it was because of Mme Lanes. I found her in a roundabout way, not at all bulletlike.

In my first interview with her she taught me the French meaning of the word 'neurasthenic', which American friends in psychiatric circles frown upon, so that I am careful not to use it anywhere but in Aix....
Oh, and my last quote is this great one about the Lanes family cat:
They were very handsome big cats, always lazy except when Minet would yowl for a night or two of freedom. This always excited Henriette [the daughter of the household] and the maids, who obviously felt more desirable in an atavistic way at the direct approach to sex of the tom. He would pace in front of the wide windows that opened into the garden far below, and then, practiced as he was, he would station himself by the carved wooden door to the apartment and at the right moment evade every effort to catch or chase him, and streak down the great stone staircase and into the staid street. In a few days, he would return, thin and weary, and revert to his cushion and his voluptuous naps.

This blatant maleness, a never ending titillation to the younger females of the house, interested neither Madame nor Louloute the other cat, and they seemed oddly free and happy when Minet was on the tiles.
There is another book, A Considerable Town, which I will no doubt read to see how she accounts for
Marseille (which I have actually visited). Hopefully, I will also get to read some of her acclaimed food writing.


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