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).
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).
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.