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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: France

The Pastis:  Henri Bardouin

www.distilleries-provence.com

The Books: Suspended Sentences and Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

France has had it hot this summer. I suspect there’s been a lot of sipping of that favoured French summer drink — pastis. Where I live, an August not quite so hot, but made for a sip of pastis, together with a pair of books set in Paris and Provence.

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THE PASTIS

Most prefer it with water, often as an aperitif. I take it chilled and neat. Straw yellow in the glass, with herbaceous green highlights. On the nose, a potent aromatic mix, liquorice/star anise holding forth. On the palate, the anise stands its ground, surrounding a complex, intriguing infusion of 65(!) plants and spices, among them cardamon, mint, rosemary, chamomile, wild thyme, mugwort, lemon verbena, kidney vetch, borage, garden angelica, grains of paradise. Some summer days I relish a vigorous, inspired aniseed drink, (as I did this year on the day a partial solar eclipse did a colander-cut across the bottle). (45% abv)

Pastis is the French branch of the family of anise-flavoured spirits. Others include sambuca, ouzo, arak, raki (see the blog entry for January 2015), and mastika. The mix of the multitude of plants and spices to be found in Henri Bardouin pastis is the creation of Distilleries et Domaines de Provence, located in Forcalquier, a small town in the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in southeastern France. The distillery was established in 1898, refining the centuries-old tradition of making tonics and digestifs from the abundance of medicinal plants to be found in the terroir of the Montagne de Lure. Pastis means “mixture” in the Provençal language, and while all makers of pastis combine many different ingredients (foraged locally or imported), none use so many with quite the same refinement.

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The dried plants and spices are first macerated, each in its own optimal quantity of alcohol, at a strictly-regulated temperature and duration of maceration. Distillation follows, again the approach varying from one plant or spice to another. And finally the various flavour components are brought together, in a precise order dictated by decades of experience.

It makes for an uninhibited drink of earthy proportions.

THE BOOKS

When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, much of the literary world outside France was left confounded. Few Anglo-American readers knew anything about the author, given that only a handful of his many published works had been translated into English, and most of these were long out of print.

Publishers rushed to catch up. Suspended Sentences brings together three novellas from 1988-1993. It has been said of Modiano that “he is perhaps the most repetitive novelist in world literature.” There is a distinctive similarity among this trio, indicative of the style and preoccupations that fill the author’s total literary output since his first book was published in 1968.

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If there is a starting point to understanding Madiano’s work it is his discovery of his own father’s past during the WWII Nazi occupation of France. A Jew in Paris, he refused to wear the yellow star, and was detained by the Gestapo, Auschwitz his likely fate. However, he was released due to the intervention of a friend. As an older teenager, his son (born in 1945) came to the realization that his father survived the war because he did business on the black market and was associated with the Rue Lauriston gang, the French criminal underworld in league with the Gestapo.

It is a circumstance that underlies the whole of Modiano’s fiction. Though his writing might surround itself with the Paris of the post-war period, it consistently turns back to the Nazi era, seeking, but never finding, a satisfying understanding of it. It is fiction with the author never far removed from a storyline shaped by inadequate memory, overlaid with a directionless melancholy, while thinly embodying the genre of the detective novel.

The three novellas — Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin — are portraits of Paris, of its streets and cafés, and the secretive lives lived behind its shuttered windows. It is fiction that weaves in and out of stories, never with a firm grasp, struggling to makes sense of a fragmented past. Fiction fascinating in its momentary detail, and fascinating as variation on a single theme.

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Honeymoon (1990) opens in a stiflingly hot Milan in August. At a hotel bar to escape the heat before catching a train to Paris, a documentary film-maker, Jean, learns that a Frenchwoman, Ingrid, has committed suicide in the hotel two days before. And he is astounded to discover that, as a young man of 20 hitchhiking in the south of France, he had encountered the very same woman, together with her lover Rigaud.

Jean casts aside his film plans and disappears into the outskirts of Paris, in pursuit of the story behind Ingrid’s death. Not surprisingly, to those who know Modiano’s work, it leads back to the time the Nazis occupied the city. And in this case also to Provence where Ingrid and her lover had escaped on the pretext of a ‘honeymoon.’

The fragility and inconclusiveness of the story is to be expected of Madiano, and to be relished. His words, spare and illusory, never quite reach a point of clarity, assuredly capturing the desolation of its human narrative. The novel circles the unknowable, exposing the entanglements of memory. It is fleeting and evocative, as atmospheric as a ‘film noir’ scene set in a Parisian café along an all but deserted street in the 1940s.

 

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The Cognac:  Cognac de Collection Jean GrosperrinFins Bois 1990

www.lagabare.com

The Books:  In Search of Lost Time: Vol. V, VI, and VII by Marcel Proust

As I head into the Proustian homestretch I think I’m in need of something special—a fine, aged cognac. French, fluent and gratifying.

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THE COGNAC

It’s a pool of bright amber in the glass, with a rich, pleasing nose, displaying citrus and floral notes, both subtle and classy. The palate is authoritative, tempered by a spicy, vanilla creaminess. Elegance with a maturing bite. (45.9% abv)

Cognac de Collection Jean Grosperrin is one of two brands marketed by La Gabare, one of the last family-owned cognac houses in France. La Gabare doesn’t actually make cognac. Rather, it buys quantities of the double-distilled spirit from the hundreds of winemakers in the Charente department of France (where the town of Cognac is located, and which holds the AOC designation for cognac). These are winemakers who over the years have skillfully distilled small amounts of cognac and often left them to mature for decades in their cellars. They are secret stores, backed by their own special stories, making up what Jean has called “the exceptional heritage that sleeps in the cellars of Charente.” Left unblended, they make for prize cognacs “that have their own distinctive personalities and which are made with family skills.” Skills which, sadly, have been lost in many modern estates.

Jean worked for many years as a cognac broker in the Charente department. The job allowed him access to the some of the region’s finest private stocks of maturing cognac. He decided to establish his own cognac house in 1992, with the philosophy of keeping the cognac he purchased intact, to allow it to mature further in their original barrels (or transfer it to “dames-jeannes” to halt maturation), to the time it was bottled, unblended, as vintage, single estate cognac. He felt “a true sense of urgency in the need to save just a few drops of this individual know-how, dating back 40 or 50 years to a time when the winegrower made all the decisions, without the knowledge and sophisticated techniques we have today.” It was in many ways a project to help preserve the cognac-making heritage of France.

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In 2004, with his health failing, Jean Grosperrin turned the business over to his son Guilhem. He has embraced his father’s artisanal philosophy, searching throughout the region for barrels of cognac bearing the elusive combination of “complexity and personality,” and with certifiable vintage. No easy task. Yet the Grosperrin stockpile of cognac amounts to the equivalent of over 80,000 bottles, some stock dating prior to 1940.

Our 1990 vintage comes from a small farm in Patreville, in the Fins Bois region of the  Charente department. It is from the 1990 wine harvest. Impressed by the quality of the cognac, the winegrower had set it aside. La Gabare purchased it in 2012 and prior to its bottling in 2016, it was further aged in Grosperrin’s cellars located on the banks of the Charente River in the community of Saintes.

For me, a fitting complement to Proust–inherent quality, nicely aged, with a distinct narrative.

THE BOOKS

Volume V:  THE PRISONER

The Prisoner has sometimes been translated as The Captive, but Albertine is more accurately Marcel’s prisoner. He has convinced her to come to Paris and live with him in the family apartment. His mother is conveniently away, but the long-standing family live-in servant Françoise is around, and none too pleased with the arrangement. Indeed it does seem odd that Albertine (with her guardian aunt turning a blind eye) should give herself over to Marcel’s erratic control. She is hardly let out of the place and when she does go off on her own it sets in motion Marcel’s raging jealousy, absolutely certain as he is that Albertine is having lesbian affairs.

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[from a 2011 film for French television by Nina Companéez, with Caroline Tillette as Albertine and Micha Lescot as Marcel]

His love for her does reach a fever pitch, but only when she’s away from him. Nor does Marcel actually seem capable of consummating his love for her. He seems most content observing her sleep. Marcel’s preoccupations make this the most bizarre segment of the entire book. I don’t think I am alone in thinking— for heaven’s sake, man, get yourself together and get on with your life.

It is a relief when the scene changes for an extended period and the narrator secrets himself away to the salon of Mme Verdurin, and we return to the social antics of Baron de Charlus. Morel, his on-again, off-again lover is there, impressing everyone gathered with his violin playing. But the Baron has irked the Verdurins by his control over the evening, and fireworks ensue. When Marcel finally returns home, a quarrel with Albertine erupts, spoiling the next two days, until finally Marcel wakes to find that his sometimes beloved has packed up and fled, leaving Marcel agonizing over what has gone wrong. Only Françoise is relieved that Albertine has finally seen the light. Well, Françoise and the reader.

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Volume VI:  THE FUGITIVE

Albertine is gone, but of course not forgotten. Marcel schemes to get her to return, but nothing works, not even an offer of 30,000 francs to her aunt if she can persuade Albertine to return to Paris. Nor does a hint to Albertine of a yacht and a Rolls-Royce. At his most frustrated, Marcel receives a telegram. Albertine has been in an accident. Thrown from her horse while riding, she struck a tree and was killed.

Marcel is swirling in grief. Yet he cannot help himself from searching deeper into Albertine’s life just passed. He discovers she has had numerous lesbian affairs. It adds a new dimension to his pain, although it is not long before he returns to his social circles. Who should he encounter but his old flame, Gilberte, the daughter of the now deceased Charles Swann. The young lady has come up in the world, her mother having remarried, to Baron de Forcheville this time, allowing her entry into the Guermantes clan. In addition she has inherited a fortune from a dead uncle, enough to make her one of the richest women in France.

Proust portraitIn the meantime, and on a refreshing note, Marcel and his mother finally make their much anticipated trip to Venice. Marcel is spellbound. The enchantment of the city is well-served by Prout’s prose. On the train back Marcel learns that Gilberte plans to marry Marcel’s old friend Robert Saint-Loup. Swann’s Way and Germinates Way have been united!

Lest the reader get too comfortable, Saint-Loup also turns out to be homosexual, or, as Proust delicately terms it, an invert. The object of his affection — Morel! The former lover of his uncle, the infamous, now declining Baron de Charlus.

Like Proust’s own world, it’s an all-consuming, passionate, jealousy-ridden, but ultimately minor, focus.

Volume VII:  FINDING TIME AGAIN

It is 1914 after all. Europe is at war. Young Frenchmen are being killed in their tens of thousands.

Yet, oddly, the book seems only marginally concerned. Marcel does lose his friend Saint-Loup to the fighting, but it is not something that preoccupies him for long. It seems secondary to the intricacies of relationships among the social elite. Marcel spends much of this time in a sanitarium, away from Paris, so his disconnect could be seen to be justified.

With the war over, Marcel returns to the city once again. The salons are still active, but the people have changed markedly. They are considerably older and closer to the inevitable. Baron de Charlus, especially, has not aged well. It leads to lengthy musings on death, a reflection of course of Proust’s concerns about his own demise. It makes for some of the most affecting passages in the book.

The narrator’s recollections of his past life, all the way back to the years in Combray with his mother, this ‘finding time again,’ is the catalyst he needs to begin, as a writer, to capture the life he has led, a life whose end he now knows is not far off. His world, as idle and and elitist as it has been at times, must be the stuff of his literary creation. Suddenly there is an urgency to get on with it. As he says, “It was high time.”

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These seven volumes (here published in six books) are proof of Proust’s determination. Years of lying in bed, writing doggedly through the night, constructing what many would argue is the foremost literary achievement of the 20th century.

In Search of Lost Time changed the face of fiction, making a sharp break from plot-driven narratives. It is all about the many facets of character, about introspection, about the role of memory in shaping the many aspects of our lives. Tedious at times, it nonetheless sustains our interest and admiration over its great length and through some of most intricate literary prose ever composed.

I have every belief Proust died a satisfied man.

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The Whisky:  EdduSilver Brocéliande

www.distillerie.fr

The Books:  In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III & IV by Marcel Proust

It’s month 2 of my 3-month Proustian quest to read his 7-volume mega-novel In Search of Lost Time. To lubricate the challenge I turn to a French whisky, distilled in Brittany, a part of France that Proust knew as a young beginning writer. Brittany inspires. I read and sip.

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THE WHISKY

It’s a cheery amber in the glass. Florals and vanilla oak on the nose. On the palate, engaging forest notes, lingering vanilla, all with a nutty, spicy bite. A pleasing cereal aftertaste that leaves you pondering what makes it different from anything you’ve tried before. (42% abv)

Maybe it’s the buckwheat! Eddu Silver Brocéliande is the only whisky in the world to be distilled entirely using buckwheat. Brittany’s own black buckwheat (blé noir in French, eddu in Breton).

The origins of Distillerie des Menhirs (named after the ancient standing stones common to the area) date back to 1921, when Francès Le Lay, the great-great grandmother of the present owners, began distilling and aging a hard cider brandy called lambig. That tradition passed down through the generations and in 1986 Guy Le Lay and his wife Marie Anne built the present distillery, initially for the production of cider, using only local ingredients, the distinctive Pommeau de Bretagne (with AOC designation since 1997).

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In 1998 they turned their attention to the distillation of whisky. But not just any whisky, rather one authentically Breton, using local buckwheat (at considerably more expense than barley). A separate building was constructed and a pot still acquired for whisky production alone. Their first buckwheat whisky, Eddu Silver, went on the market in 2002. Soon the three Le Lay sons were an integral part of the business.

Recently the even more idiosyncratic Eddu Silver Brocéliande came into production. Brocéliande is the fabled Paimpont forest of Brittany, where many of the Arthurian legends are said to have taken place, and where, if you looked hard enough, you might even find Merlin’s tomb. Distillerie des Menhirs sources oak from this magical, mythical domain and uses it to construct barrels for the secondary maturation of its Brocéliande whisky.

Buckwheat tenderized by The Lady of the Lake. Cheere! as medievals would say.

THE BOOKS

Volume III:  The Guermantes Way

I was not long into this book when I noticed an article on a news website detailing how a Canadian professor researching at the Centre National du Cinéma in Paris had uncovered what is believed to be the only known film footage of Marcel Proust. If it is indeed him, he is descending the steps of L’église de la Madeleine in Paris in 1904, following the high society marriage of Armand de Guiche and Elaine Greffulhe.

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Interesting that the church should be Madeleine, given how the madeleine, the French pastry, is forever associated with Proust. But more interesting is the fact that the Count and Countess Greffulhe, parents of the bride, were Proust’s inspiration for two central figures in this book, the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes.

The brief film clip is a further glimpse into how Proust, weaving solo down the steps past several richly garbed couples, was a part of this aristocratic milieu, but somewhat distinct from it. His pearl gray overcoat and bowler hat, favourite attire of Proust, is out of line with the black tuxedos and top hats of the other male guests.

At the beginning of Volume III the narrator moves into an apartment adjacent to the suites occupied by the Guermantes and is quickly enthralled by the prospect of becoming part of their social circle. Proust himself was constantly attracted to the salons of Parisian high society, and therefore it should be no surprise that they should occupy much of In Search of Lost Time. More than one hundred pages of The Guermantes Way is devoted to the personalities at play during a single visit to one such salon. A repertoire of diverse characters jostling for societal position make for engaging, but ultimately laughable scenes. Proust goes to great lengths, with his characteristically intricate sentences, to draw a sweeping group photograph of these characters. It does get tedious at times, as the Belle Époque itself must have been for the economic underclass which made up the majority of French citizens. The salon segments are at their most interesting when they touch on the famous real-life Dreyfus Affair, exposing the anti-Semitism that coursed through Parisian society at the time.

Volume III has its more universal and lasting moments, among them the death of Marcel’s much-loved grandmother, or when for a brief period the focus is on the clever Robert de Saint Loup and his army pals. But the class conscious Proust has mostly other preoccupations, so we need the thoroughly witty, thoroughly snobby Duchess, the painful Princess of Parma, and the grossly obnoxious Baron de Charlus, if the life of the salon is to come alive. They are all excellent reminders of why the French aristocracy of the day was on its last legs.

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Volume IV:  Sodom and Gomorrah

As the title suggests we’re in for forbidden sexual intrigue, much of it homosexual, albeit in language that reflects the guarded public discourse about the topic at the time of Proust.

The fourth volume of his masterwork opens with Charlus having his way with the much younger Jupien, something which the wide-eared narrator inadvertently overhears, confirming just what an insufferably fake the Baron is. It’s a storyline which is all the more intriguing when you know that Proust himself was gay, but went to great lengths to conceal it. His publisher, André Gide, thoroughly chided Proust for making his main character heterosexual. In fact, if you were to think of the narrator’s lovers as male, rather than female as they are portrayed, it would go a long way to understanding his behaviours. And a long way too in appreciating the frustrations Proust himself must have felt, plagued as he was by desires society would not permit him to exhibit. A friend of Oscar Wilde, Proust knew only too well the potential consequences of being open about his sexual direction.

Much of Volume IV is set back in the seaside resort of Balbec. The narrator’s love interest, Albertine, is not far away, as are the distasteful Verdurins, ensconced in a rented château and preoccupied with creating a rustic parallel to the salons of Paris. Pretension abounds, with the Baron de Charlus at the centre of much of it. The Baron has a new lover, the violinist Morel, but of course goes to great lengths to disguise the fact. The other relationships (and there are several of both sexual persuasions) are never anything but complicated. But, as we well know from the previous volumes, exploring the depths of human relationships is a strong suit of our man Proust.

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Now, for certain we understand the need for the cork-lined walls of the bedroom where Proust wrote and rewrote in his lined cahiers. He needed to be supremely focused if he were to translate his observations of the world he knew into this vastly perceptive, very long novel.

Three more volumes to go. Bring on another bottle of something French.

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The Calvados:  Lecompte – 12 years

www.calvados-lecompte.com

The Book:  In Search of Lost Time, Vol. I & II by Marcel Proust

There is nothing like a 7-volume / 3,000-page book to enlighten the dark days of winter. For this reading marathon I’ll need three months and three bottles of something wonderfully French. Since much of the first two volumes of Proust’s masterpiece is set in or near Normandy, the first pour will be a time-honoured calvados.

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THE CALVADOS

Nut brown in the glass, the contents release roasted hazelnut aromas infused with spice, notably cinnamon and nutmeg. Creamy and mouth-rich, it’s a caramelized apple, peppery compote showing a touch of fire. Complex and flavoursome. A delight.

No time lost here. All dozen years have worked together to bring this calvados to perfection. Lecompte certainly knows what it’s about.

Its history began in 1923 when Alexandre Lecompte, local trader in wine and spirits, decided to forgo his other holdings and focus on his store of well-aged calvados. Decades later, in 1980, Lecompte was purchased by Yves Pellerin, and is now one of the most acclaimed Maisons de Calvados in the Pays d’Auge, the region of Normandy which bears A.O.C. status for calvados.

3731933081Lecompte distillery, La Morinière, is located in the picturesque village of Notre-Dame de Courson, surrounded by apple orchards that produce some of the finest fruit in Normandy.  It uses double distillation in two traditional Charentais stills. Its eight cellars hold some 800 oak casks, all under the watchful eye of Richard Prével, a third-generation Cellar Master who has overseen operations at Lecompte for a quarter century.

The Lecompte line-up includes 5, 12, 18, and 25-year-olds, a couple of limited editions, and the ultra-premium Secret, a blend of over 100 individual batches, none any younger than 42 years, and with a few casks laid down at the time Lecompte was founded in 1923!

That’s just one year after the death of Marcel Proust.

THE BOOKS

Volume I: The Way by Swann’s (or Swann’s Way)

To understand In Search of Lost Time it helps to know something of the life of its author. From childhood to his death at age 51 Proust was plagued with asthma, and was seriously ill for much of his life, the last three years of which he spent confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping by day and completing his monumental novel at night, propped up in bed, using his knees for a desk. (The bedroom has been recreated in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.)

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He was something of a misfit. He embraced writing as his sole employment, a situation made less daunting by the fact he lived at home into adulthood and when, in his early 30s, his parents died he received a substantial inheritance. It gave him lots of time to read and contemplate the artistic life.

In his youth he spent long holidays in the village of Illiers (the model for the fictional Combray) and his student days gave him access to the upper levels of French society. He became enamoured with the so-called “salons” of the rich, earning him the reputation of being a social-climbing elitist. He was homosexual, but denied it throughout his life. All material for his fiction, of course. It could never reflect the life of the ordinary Frenchman, but would allow him penetrating analysis of upper crust of society in fin-de-siècle France.

The reader is fifty pages into the book before coming upon the famous scene when the petite scallop-shaped cake, the madeleine, is dipped in lime blossom tea. It triggers a flood of memories of his childhood holidays in the home of his eccentric great-aunt Léonie. He escapes to time past, to reflection well beyond surface detail, to extended moments of deep introspection.

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The opening section of Volume One unfolds over a summer in Combray, ostensibly from the perspective of young Marcel, although the viewpoint often switches, as it does throughout the novel, to that of an older narrator. The boy takes near daily walks in the direction of property belonging to Charles Swann, a rich stockbroker and friend of the family, or in the direction of a summer residence of the Guermantes, a bizarre family who inhabit the pinnacle of French society. Paris is where they live most of the year and it is there the reader will meet them again.

The book turns to the story of how Swann became entangled with Odette de Crécy, the woman who will eventually become his wife. Here we see to what lengths Proust will go to create a picture of personal relationships and their implications for shaping the society in which the characters are immersed. Proust is the master of intricate, though readable sentences, some of which go on for a half page or more. The reader enters the labyrinth, never knowing what verbal contortions the author will take before nicely disentangling himself and coming to a full stop. As a reader, there is no notion of resisting; you take the ride and learn to appreciate the multiple diversions along the way.

The fruit of the Swann marriage, the red-headed Gilberte, who made a brief appearance in Combray, resurfaces in Paris, in the Jardin des Champs Élysées, pursued by the now teenaged Marcel. It will be one of his many infatuations that never seem to go anywhere. Then again, plot was generally secondary to Proust. His concern was the passage of time, and our attempts to hold to what is invariably lost. Remember the author Proust spent much of his life resting, often in bed. He himself wasn’t going anywhere. He had vast amounts of time to reflect on where his limited life had taken him.

Volume II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s masterwork, which the translator called “Remembrance of Things Past” (now much discredited as a title), remained the standard for several decades after it was published in the 1920s. It is considered a classic of English translation and is still widely read. But recently other translators have taken on the task, with results that have been praised by critics who feel the newer versions are closer to what Proust intended.

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I started with Moncrieff (updated by Terence Kilmartin), augmenting the experience with a recent graphic novel version of Volume I, and  “Paintings in Proust” by Eric Karpeles, a book which brings together the multitude of artwork referenced through the six volumes.

Then, partway through reading the second volume, I switched to the James Grieve version, part of a multi-translator edition first published in the UK in 2002. Though I occasionally found the word choice too current, I took to it immediately. To me the book breathed more easily.

“In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” the title Grieve gave his Volume II  (a mindset away from Moncrieff’s awkward “Within a Budding Grove”), immediately sets the focus. Marcel is in love, especially with a troop of adolescent girls who wander about the beach at Balbec, in Normandy, where much of this segment of the book is set.

First though there is his further pursuit of the Swann daughter, Gilberte. The love is unrequited and eventually Marcel comes to his senses (or as much as he is capable) and sets her aside, turning instead to his friendship with her parents, who continue to prove to be an enigmatic pair.

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The scene changes to Balbec (based on the resort town of Cabourg, and above depicted in Nina Companeez’s 2011 television adaptation of the novel). In Balbec an older, though seemingly no wiser, Marcel (still under the wing of his grandmother) quickly turns to a new love interest, several in fact. The “gang,” as Grieve calls them, are an inducement for Marcel to schedule outings beyond the hotel that will give him the best chance of encountering the girls. The painter Elstir is something of a help in getting to know them. A newfound aristocratic friend Robert de Saint-Loup, as much as Marcel admires him, proves a distraction. As does the reemergence of another acquaintance from Volume I, Albert Bloch. Bloch is Jewish and threads of anti-Semitism begin to take hold in the novel, another angle in the depiction of the French bourgeoisie at the time of Proust.

Marcel has settled on Albertine Simonet as his love for life. She has not settled on him. The narrative weaves in and out of the relationship, Proust using any incident that arises along the way as a route to an ever wider analysis of it, analysis that is at times so far-ranging that we can easily lose sight of where Proust is taking us.

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Of course he is taking us anywhere he wants, and that is sometimes the frustration, but more often the pleasure of the book. Incident evokes conjecture, which turns into scrutiny of character, and thus speculation on the direction the French society was headed.

Encasing it all is the masterly Proust prose. Two thousand pages of which remain. I’m eager to press on.

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The Whisky:  P&M Single Malt – 7 years

www.corsican-whisky.com

The Book:  The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari

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Islands seem to have a way with whisky — Islay, Jura, Japan. . .Corsica. Maybe being surrounded by water forces distillers to focus, knowing a whole island’s pride is at stake.

THE WHISKY

P&M Single Malt stands bright mahogany in the glass. Sophisticated aromas of citrus and vanilla. In the mouth, tannic measures of caramel and chocolate. Smooth but not sweet, a mouth-rich heat that enlivens the herbal notes. (42% abv)

P&M — sounds rather like a business blend.

In 1996 the Pietra craft brewery opened in Furiani in northeastern Corsica, the creation of Armelle and Dominique Sialelli. Using a unique combination of malt and chestnut flour, the amber Pietra beer proved a big hit. With each of four subsequent releases the brewery went from success to success.

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About the same time, Jean-Claude Venturini founded Mavela, located not far from Aléria, and began distilling fruit-based spirits and liqueurs. It, too, quickly developed a winning reputation. In time Jean-Claude passed the running of the distillery to his eldest son Stefanu.

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In 2001 came an inspired partnership  between P (Pietra) & M (Mavela). A new entrepreneurial enthusiasm about what could be accomplished in Corsica, followed by several trips to distilleries in Scotland and the U.S., led to the creation of the island’s first and (as yet) only whisky. P&M had been born, and so had a distinctive whisky, one that captured the aromas and flavours of the island’s terroir, what is locally referred to as les herbes du maquis.

1170606_604360646269906_953931426_nAt Pietra malt is carefully selected and crushed, before brewing begins using naturally-filtered mountain spring water. This is followed by fermentation with a yeast culture unique to the brewery. The tanks are then transported to Mavela, for distillation in a Holstein still. The concentrated heart of the distillate is separated out from the head and tail, and stored for maturation in select French oak casks that previously held muscat wine from Domaine Gentile. Two blends and this seven-year aged malt have been the result.

The single malt in particular has gained a great deal of attention, including 95 big ones from Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible of 2014, just ten years after its first production. A jubilant Stefanu Venturini sees it as “the culmination of years of hard work” and confirmation of the choice “to make small batches with unmatched taste.” It has put P&M and Corsica on the whisky map in short order.

THE BOOK

Born in Paris in 1968, Jérôme Ferrari is a writer, translator, and professor of philosophy. After graduating from the Sorbonne, he headed to Corsica, the birthplace of his parents. He taught in the town of Porto-Vecchio for several years before heading off for teaching stints in Algiers and then Abu Dhabi. In 2015 he returned to Corsica, to teach at Lycée Giocante Casabianca in Bastia. He has referred to Corsica as his “natural literary milieu.”

Ferrari is the author of seven novels, two of which have been translated into English (both by Geoffrey Strachan). “Where I Left My Soul” is about the French war in Algeria, the second is set in Corsica. It won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2012, and bears the somewhat peculiar title “The Sermon on the Fall of Rome.”

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Anyone versed in the early history  of Christianity would recall that the original Sermon on the Fall of Rome was preached by St. Augustine in 410 following the sacking of the city by the Alaric and the Goths. It is a reference point for Ferrari and the author uses quotes from Augustine to frame the novel.

The book follows the downfall of another empire of quite a different sort: a long-lived, grimy small-town bar whose manager suddenly quits and disappears without a trace. The owner hires one replacement, then another, both of whom fail miserably. It’s feeling rather like “the plagues of Egypt.” Finally she lands Matthieu and Libero, a pair of childhood friends ready and eager to abandon their studies of philosophy in Paris for a chance to return home to Corsica. And to find life’s calling in the revival of the struggling watering hole. What defeats some is a godsend for others, and so the bar, with a string of attractive young female employees and a smooth-tongued musician, quickly turns into a bustling social hot spot.

Running parallel to the bar scene is the story of Matthieu’s grandfather, Marcel Antonneti, once an administrator in French West Africa. It is Marcel who sets the story in a broader, multi-generational context, while at the same time delving into Corsica’s past and that of France, in particular the collapse of the country’s colonial empire. It is in the contrast of Ferrari’s storytelling that his writing truly shines.

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In the end, like the French empire, the bar self-destructs. As Ferrari puts it, “the same mechanism can apply to empires, a village bar or to the hearts of men.” St. Augustine, French West Africa, a bar in Corsica, saints and sinners, no matter when or where, they have their common ground. Only an exceptional writer could make perfect sense of bringing them together.

 

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The Whisky:  Distillerie WarenghemArmorik Double Maturation

www.distillerie-warenghem.com

The Books: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

www.peirenepress.com

A double-matured single malt from France. Like the books, matured in two languages. Translates to very fine experience.

THE WHISKY

This Armorik is bright, light copper in the glass. Spirited cereal on the nose, with a current of caramelized apple. A creamed, woodsy profile, spicy and dry. Peppery finish, tempered by a little salt sea air. Assertive, but very likeable. (46% abv, unchillfiltered)

Distillerie Warenghem has a history of making fruit liquors that goes back more than a century. For the past thirty years, it has turned its attention to the making of whisky. It’s one of several distilleries in Brittany, the most notable whisky-producing region of France. Warenghem is said to deliver the most Scotch-like single malt in the country, perhaps a nod to the region’s Celtic roots. Whatever the reason, it an expertly-made dram, with a reputation that now extends well beyond France.

At the helm are Gilles Leizour and son-in-law David Roussier, two men proud of their distillery being the first in France to produce a single malt. Distillerie Warenghem is situated in the Breton town of Lannion, a few kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. A borehole on the property, running over 100 metres underground, extracts granite-filtered, spring water for use with local wheat and barley.

Distillation is in two modified Charentais-type copper stills. The spirit is first matured for five years in oak harvested from Brittany’s Armorique Regional Nature Park. Breton oak is less porous than regular French oak and  provides a slower, more subtle maturation. Another two years of maturation takes place in Spanish Oloroso sherry barrels.

Whisky production at Distillerie Warenghem has made award-winning strides in a few short decades, with the output of its single malt and blended products now reaching a quarter million bottles annually. An encouraging statistic in the country that consumes more whisky per capita than any other in the world.

THE BOOKS

Just recently I discovered the brilliant books of Peirene Press. I had noticed titles with distinctive, similarly minimalist cover designs showing up each year on the shortlists of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I purchased one, that led to another, then two more, and now I eagerly anticipate the arrival of still more titles from this London-based publisher of European novellas in their first English translations. Often less than 150 pages long, perfect for reading in one sitting, writing of exceptional quality, and by authors completely new to me. Literally, reading heaven.

These are three titles, all by female authors, all notably well translated, all particular favourites.

German-born Birgit Vanderbeke wrote The Mussel Feast in 1989, a few months prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. A mother, teenaged daughter, and son wait at the dinner table for the arrival home of the head of the household. In the centre of the table, growing cold, is a large pot of cooked mussels. A wait of minutes builds to hours, and all the while a portrait of the absent, tyrannical father emerges.

Life with this man is related by the daughter, in hermetic increments. Through wonderfully nuanced prose we learn how each of the three at the table copes with the father’s skewed expectations. It is quietly intense, a riveting study in character, with political overtones that in the reunified Germany made it an instant, hotly-debated success.

Amazingly, it was Vanderbeke’s first novel. Born in what was then East Germany, she moved to the West as a young child, growing up in Frankfurt. As a beginning novelist, she lived with her husband and children in Berlin, but in 1993 moved permanently to southern France.

France is also home to Véronique Olmi. Beside the Sea is a hypnotic story of a mother and her two young boys, a story that slowly draws the reader into the minutia of their family life, leading to the point when there is no turning away from its disturbing, stunning conclusion.

The mother’s life is plainly lived, defined by poverty and mental distress. She dearly loves her sons, and wants for them what she cannot give. Neither can she imagine them being absorbed into the world outside her own.

From the moment the three board a bus in the opening lines, the reader realizes the trip to the seaside will go badly. The 105 pages it takes to find out just how badly allows us into the mother’s mind, sharing its moments of anguish and raw tenderness, knowing it is a mind we cannot fully comprehend. It’s a brave, unforgettable piece of writing.

Despite its success in Europe, it took ten years before the book appeared in English. Peirene Press, committed to publishing strong, innovative fiction in translation, chose it as its very first publication.

Its eighth publication is by Danish author Pia Juul. Despite the title and a setting at the edge of a fjord, the reader should not expect anything that would rest easy in a stack of recent Nordic murder mysteries. There is for certain a murder (page three) and finding out just who did it remains the great unanswered question. But rather than dwell on who might have pulled the trigger, the reader’s attention is taken up with figuring out just what Bess (the narrator and partner of the dead man) is all about.

Why is she not grieving more? What exactly was her relationship with the murdered man? Why, ten years earlier, did she abandon her husband and young daughter? All absorbing questions. Yet there are no straight-forward answers, no mysteries completely solved by the last page.

The Murder of Halland is a fresh take on crime fiction. Juul has played a genre-bending literary game, for those who like their murders, and narrators, particularly perplexing.

Three fine short novels, leading to more Peirene, please.

 

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The Whisky:  UBERACHSingle Malt

www.distillerie-bertrand.com

The Book:  The Ogre (Le Roi des Aulnes, The Erl-King) by Michel Tournier

I have come to Alsace on holiday, where storks are everywhere. I’ve brought along Michel Tournier’s novel, part of which takes place in this region of France. In recent years several whisky distilleries have emerged in Alsace. I am not wanting anything smooth and predictable. A book set in France and Germany at the time of WWII is in need of a whisky that unnerves the drinker. Uberach could well be the one.

Sometimes a whisky might ease a path through a disturbing book. Here it intensifies the text, for I find Uberach to be a difficult dram. It has its moments of pleasure, but it takes a good deal of getting used to.

THE WHISKY

Uberach (pronounced u-beu-rar) whisky is not readily available, except in Alsace. There are only 1500 bottles produced each year, a single malt and bottlings of special release single casks. It appears to be something of a sideline for the distillery. At this point at least its website makes no mention of whisky! I know of it only because it is profiled in the “world whisky” sections of a couple of the books I own, sometimes favourably, sometimes with a note of caution.

Distillerie Bertrand dates back to 1874 and is very well known for its production of fruit brandies — eaux-de-vie. It is located thirty kilometres north of Strasbourg, in the town of Uberach. Only since 2003 has it been making whisky. In a shop in Ribeauvillé, I had the opportunity to taste both this standard single malt and one of its single cask releases. For purchase I went with the one I found to be a little more well-rounded, and the one I assume is more readily available.

The water comes from the mountains of Les Vosges; the malt is sourced locally. The whisky has been partly matured in casks that originally held grand cru Banyuls, a sweet yellow wine from the south of France.

It sits golden in the glass. There’s a powerful nose. Although I am not endeared by what wells up from the surface, it is interesting and has a certain rugged complexity. There are traces of sulphur. That’s generally not considered a positive trait, but in this case it is surely an intentional one. It’s a whisky for the stout-hearted, as confirmed by its taste — rich yet arresting, incisive, irascible. I found dark chocolate to be a good accompaniment. (unchilled filtered, 42.2%)

Uberach has its advocates. But it doesn’t speak to everyone.

THE BOOK

The Ogre (first translated as The Erl-King) has had its advocates, most notably the jury for France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in a rare unanimous decision in 1970. It is masterwork. Yet it has not retained the profile, for example, of Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum,” to which it is sometimes compared. It cuts deeply into the obsessions of Nazism, and is an unsettling, profoundly affecting novel, here translated by Barbara Bray.

Through a combination of first and third person perspectives, Tournier slowly, with calculated precision, reveals the story of Abel Tiffuages, a mechanic in pre-war Paris. This tall, thin giant of a man, who wears very thick spectacles, is a survivor of an odd childhood. His recent relationships with women have led him nowhere. He develops a fascination with youth, which, in the latter part of the novel brings him into the confines of a military style training school for hand-picked Aryan boys, set up by the Nazis in East Prussia. Tiffuages, a prisoner of war given new freedoms, finds himself a recruiter, a collaborator, a man unexpectedly party to the workings of the Third Reich. His story is vivid and ultimately terrifying in its detail, especially as the German war machine begins to crumble.

Along the way his encounters with other facets of the war — most notably as a keeper of homing pigeons and a worker on Hermann Goering’s hunting preserve — create a fascinating portrait of this astute misfit.

The book is lifted by the excellence of Michel Tournier‘s writing, his subtle yet powerful use of symbolism, the rigour of his characterization. The book is a disturbing portrait of evil, spellbinding in the way it reveals the dark corners of humanity through a central character who is both repulsive and engaging, whom the reader wants to like but can’t, perhaps until the very end. The final pages of the book are remarkable.

During my stay in France I’ve taken in a couple of museum exhibitions which demonstrate the devastating effects of Nazism on Alsace. The book gives further depth to that experience, in the way that only a richly realized novel can.

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