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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: pastis

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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