I am not a chauvinist. I am a Marseillais.

This is a double review of two books from my longer term backlog, both read last year while travelling on trains between Montpelier and Marseilles. I picked them because they were by authors I enjoy and because they seemed to fit idle Mediterranean days. Unfortunately, neither of them entirely worked out for me. The first is an Izzo; the second a Camus.

Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil, by Jean-Claude Izzo and translated by Howard Curtis

A while before I started this blog I read Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos and was blown away by it. It’s a brilliantly written slice of Marseilles noir, the first of a trilogy. I’ve long planned to reread it and then to read the sequels.

Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil (wonderful title) is a collection of Izzo essays about the Mediterranean, about Marseilles, and finally about Fabio Montale (the protagonist of the Marseilles trilogy).

Garlic

The essays here are mostly brief thought pieces, slightly reminiscent of the Bustina di Minerva column that Eco does for L’Espresso in Italy. Feuilletons essentially, Joseph Roth would have recognised them.

Izzo’s philosophy as set out in these pieces is warm, humanist, inclusive. You shouldn’t read this when hungry, as he lavishes sensuous attention on the food of Marseilles and the Mediterranean. The essays pulse with a love of life, a sheer joy in physical existence.

Izzo takes joy too in fellowship, in people breaking bread together or sharing a drink on a summer evening. He abhors rigid borders, closed doors on common humanity. Some of what he writes here is remarkably timely, particularly when you consider that Izzo died in 2000. When he speaks of our facing a “choice between the old economic, separatist, segregationist way of thinking (of the World Bank and international private capital) and a new culture, diverse, mixed, where man remains master both of his time and of his geographical and social space”, that seems to me a choice that remains urgent today.

Izzo feared a Europe that defined itself by what it wasn’t, and that in its drive to close itself off lost part of itself in the process. He was concerned that an insular Europe would have nowhere left in it for people like him:

It’s enough to make you despair. Because I don’t see any European future for Marseilles. In spite of what they say. Marseilles is a Mediterranean city. And the Mediterranean has two shores. Not just ours. Today, Europe only talks of one, and France is all too ready to fall in line. Making this sea, for the first time, a border between East and West, North and South. Separating us from Africa and Asia Minor. On behalf of the lost Andalucias, the silent Alexandria, the divided Tangier, the massacred Beirut, we ought to remember that European culture was born on the shores of the Mediterranean, in the Middle East. Europa, lest we forget, was a Phoenician goddess abducted by Zeus!

I suspect Izzo would feel today that his concerns were being borne out, particularly as we now face an ever narrower conception of the European model; a selfish and shrinking Europe which may next leave behind the Greeks, the Italians, the Portuguese, as it puts economic dogma ahead of people. Izzo recognises the ease with which we can turn people into unknown others, and the dangers of a world too sharply divided between us and them.

I also like to think that there is no point going anywhere else if we do not recognize ourselves in the eyes of the Other. That, I think, is why most tourist resorts resemble fortified camps. We don’t try to meet the Other. We only want what belongs to him. His sea, his beaches, his palm trees.

Izzo holds out Marseilles as an alternative. For him we could have something better than armed borders and fearful populations staring at each other in envy and resentment; we could have an appreciation of our own marvellous diversity and a shared delight in the sheer marvel of being alive. It’s impossibly romantic, as I’m sure he knew, but that doesn’t make it any the less powerful.

The only thing that matters is the essential, not the superfluous. And the only thing that exists here is the pleasure of the day. Tomorrow belongs to tomorrow, and is quite another story. That is the happiness of the Mediterranean, a way of giving meaning to the day, day after day.

I enjoyed these pieces and Izzo’s thoughts on food, how to live and the Mediterranean as model for the rest of Europe. It’s hard however to escape a feeling of slightness to the book.

The total page count is about 120 pages and the final fifth or so of that is pieces relating to Fabio Montale. There’s a definite bottom-of-the-drawer sense to these. They consist of a short story; a short piece by Izzo where he talks about Montale’s character in the course of which he discusses the ending of the Marseilles trilogy, which I haven’t finished yet; then some lists of places Fabio Montale likes to visit, music that relates to each book of the trilogy and finally some books Montale likes (or which are otherwise relevant to him).

Ultimately, Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil has some lovely essays which shine with a warm humanity which I think most readers would find hard to resist. Izzo’s billets would work well on the back page of a magazine or in a features section of a newspaper, amusing or mildly provoking the reader. The trouble is there just aren’t very many of them. By the time you throw in the Montale stuff at the end there’s a sense that there wasn’t really enough material for a full book.

To end with an analogy I hope Izzo might have appreciated, this is a meal consisting of a great starter, a tasty but too small main course and a pudding (in the shape of the massive spoiler) which leaves something of a sour taste. For all that though, if you have read the trilogy or are prepared to skip the Montale essay this is still worth reading, just don’t expect it to fill you up.

The Sea Close By, by Albert Camus, translated by Hamish Hamilton and Justin O’Brien

That takes me on to the second book of my train trip, a reissue by Penguin of two Camus essays – The Sea Close By (1954) and Summer in Algiers (1938).

Sea close by

These are short pieces by Camus, written at different ends of his life but sharing common themes. They’re both effortlessly quotable, even at his slightest Camus has a wonderful prose style. These are summer essays, drenched in heat and light. They’re lovely to read, but surprisingly hard to remember even moments afterwards (save perhaps for an impression of light glittering across the waves, but perhaps that’s fitting given Camus’ philosophy).

The famous Camusian existentialism (absurdism, properly speaking) makes its appearance here, but perhaps less harshly than in some of his more famous works. This sentence, for me clearly born of a Catholic upbringing, is I think tremendously powerful:

For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.

Unfortunately, it’s all rather undercut by the description of the Algerians themselves, which is colonialist if you’re feeling kind and just plain racist if you’re not. Camus here treats Algerians as a form of noble savage, people in touch with some essence of life but devoid of culture. They are beautiful animals to him, denied their own interiority:

Here intelligence has no place as in Italy. This race is indifferent to the mind. It has a cult for an admiration of the body.

It’s an ugly note and one that for me rather poisoned the whole piece. Izzo romanticises, but he makes himself part of what he romanticises and he does so I think knowingly, because he’s creating a dream of a better Europe. Camus here romanticises as a tourist, rendering human beings into scenery.

There’s actually a lot more to it than that of course, and like all Camus pieces it’s easy to dig deeper and pull out much more meaning (so why haven’t I? I read these months ago and quite frankly they just don’t stick in the memory the way, say, The Stranger does). Still, it’s a slight read with some unfortunately patrician undertones and I think there’s a reason this part of the Camus back-catalogue isn’t better remembered. Lovely cover though.

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11 Comments

Filed under Camus, Albert, French, Izzo, Jean-Claude

11 responses to “I am not a chauvinist. I am a Marseillais.

  1. I’ve never been to Marseilles.
    The image I have of it is on one hand a city with marvelous calanques and on the other hand a place where a non-native Marseillais has trouble adjusting. I bet Izzo doesn’t mention the crime scene (hit men), the mild corruption of politicians and the local business traditions. I’ve heard businessmen say “I want to expand my business, but not in Marseilles, it’s too complicated there”. Maybe it’s unfair and inacurrate but it’s the image the Marseillais have and they need to live with it or do something to change it. (Tough love, I know)

    Otherwise, I agree with him, Europe should take into account their wonderful Meditarrean heritage. I think France is in the middle geographically -of course- but also culturally.

    I’m disappointed with Camus, really. This quote shows how much arrogance inhabited the French living in Algeria and why they got kicked out after the independance.

  2. Marseilles certainly has a bad reputation, even extending to here in Australia. People warn against visiting it, in the way that they do about Naples. (We were even warned against visiting Naples when we were on our way there en route to Pompeii, by fellow train-travellers who were native to the city!) I suspect that the real thing is nothing like the stories… people do love to get on a bandwagon once it’s rolling.
    I like the sound of this Izzy, thank you for introducing him to me.

  3. Max, I’m glad you found time to write about the Izzo. I’ve looked at Total Chaos a couple of times but hadn’t seen a review or recommendation of it from anyone I trusted. It sounds like a must buy. Shame about the Montale spoiler at the end of Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil, that’s very annoying.

    If you’re ever interested in reading more on Marseilles, you might want to take a look at Transit by Anna Seghers. It’s a novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. There’s a review at mine if you’re interested. Guy thought it was a tremendous novel – there’s a review at his blog too.

  4. I had to google calanques. It does have a lovely harbour.

    The crime scene and corruption are addressed as I recall in the novels, but not in these essays. These are a positive humanistic dream based on the best of Marseilles, not really a realistic appraisal of the place.

    Isn’t Germany in the middle? Once we factor in the East Europeans possibly culturally too? But yes, for me the Med is the birthplace of Europe and still has much to teach the rest of us.

    Camus was very young I think when he wrote that. Other reviews I saw online were generally much more positive, but for me I couldn’t remember much content-wise (ie it was slight) and I thought the colonialist attitudes had an unpleasant whiff to them.

    Lisa, I’ve studied a bit in Naples and been there a lot. It is a rough city, but I rather love it and provided you’re sensible there’s no reason you should get into trouble. I think sometimes though they like their own reputation as being a bit dangerous. Marseilles seemed very prosperous, the days of Pepe le Moko I think may be long past but the reputation echoes down the years.

    Izzo is great. Total Chaos is a really solid novel. He also has some stand alone novels, which is probably what I’ll read by him next before restarting the trilogy.

    Jacqui, the spoiler was a real groan-out-loud moment. I’ll try to read his The Lost Sailors later this year which is a stand alone and you can see what I make of that. I think you’d like Total Chaos though.

    I’m aware of the Segher and it’s on my TBR pile. I have your and Guy’s reviews saved to reread after I’ve read it myself. I’d forgotten or not realised that there was a Marseilles link though.

  5. I’m preaching to the converted! Glad to hear you intend to read Transit. Yes, a large chunk of it is set in Marseilles (a major exit point from Europe at the time). Looking forward to reading your take on it as and when the time comes.

    I’ve added Total Chaos to my list. Cheers.

  6. I’ve read Total Chaos but was unaware of the essay book and of the Camus pieces. Both sound like good reading for a train trip between Montpellier and Marseille. But really I’m just writing in to defend Marseille and Naples, two of my very favorite cities. All of the Marseillais I know are crazy about living there.

  7. Don’t know Marseilles well enough to defend it (only a day trip), but I love Naples. It needs no defending from me. Great city.

  8. The Elena Ferrante trilogy is a wonderful representation of Naples. And I have friends who’ve been there on an academic tour and had a great time. My view is that I’m more likely to come to grief driving to work in my own city than in some foreign clime. If you only ever go to ‘safe’ places, you’ll have a very dull life.

  9. I’m looking forward to Ferrante, though I’m probably starting with one of the standalones rather than launching straight into the trilogy.

    Definitely agree re ‘safe’ places.

  10. leroyhunter

    I’ve looked at a couple of Izzo’s books over the years without ever deciding they were for me. This collection sounds quite charming, except for the stuff about his own work. The distinctive Europa cover reminds me I have another of theirs on the shelf – Massimo Carlotto, who I decided to give another try.

    Camus seems to have become deeply unfashionable in the last 20 years. I read something about him fairly recently that explored his seemingly very complex relationship with and attitude to Algeria. There’s something about a struggle between belonging and alienation in that quote – it’s still a troubling sentiment, but I don’t think it’s quite fair to describe Camus as a tourist. I reread L’Etranger a few years ago and a lot of what lies just underneath the description of the killing is similarly awkward and ill-fitting from our perspective.

  11. I’m a fan of Camus, so my comment should be taken in respect of this piece rather than more generally. I think there’s a reason this piece hasn’t been part of the Camus canon, it’s just a bit slight.

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