Wednesday 30 November 2011

Repas d'un midi lointain

From the first chapter of a discontinued, hopelessly autobiographical fiction. Set in the mid 1970s, in a village near Nice. First blogged in 2006. Whole chapter here. Re-posted as my submission to Issue 12 of the >Language >Place Blog Carnival, which has a special theme of food.

Delectable though it was, the food was not the best thing around that table. The best things were the conversation and, well, the love.

Here is another day. The midday meal is simple - hard, spicy sausages cooked long and slowly with finely sliced white cabbage and juniper berries. Louise, the cook, her arm pinioned close to her chest by the scars of surgery, asks Antoine to ladle everyone's portion from the deep pot. Steam wafts around the table, the heaps of cabbage glisten damply on our plates, hiding the dark chunks of sausage, nuggets of strong, satisfying taste. It is subtle, not to be hurried. I get lost in the nuance of scent and texture and juices, but surface to notice the nuance of words and looks, how Antoine and Jean-Paul dive into the food, smacking their lips and full of praise, only the edges of their eyes betraying concern for Louise, only the tiniest flicker of fear and dread at seeing her flinch in pain.

Louise is telling Jean-Paul which Alpine foothills farmer made the sausage, debating the merits of various breeds of pig, the hardships of small farmers. They debate everything - pigs, parenting, politics - in the same tone of passionate enjoyment. They care, the thought comes to me - for the food on their plates, for each other, for Marielle and Laura's future and the future of France. Despite their smiling irony, their fierce awareness of how little difference their caring makes, they care. They experience themselves as part of a family, part of a class, a region, a country. In this they are utterly different from the people I grew up with. No wonder their food and their smiles taste so different.

They speak of strikes and factory closures, of protests against nuclear power. Giscard, they spit. Mitterrand, they spit, with a sadder, more intimate anger. The long shadow of 1968, the failed, receding revolution, overlays the shadow of Louise's cancer and the shadows of Marianne's breakdown, Jean-Paul's infidelity and guilt. So many shadows, but so much warmth and light too. Here we are, around the table in my memory, a scene in chiaroscuro.

Here is my own pale, curious face, breaking into indignation as Louise points behind me. While Marielle distracted me with chatter, Laura has been picking out the chunks of sausage from her plate and feeding them to Obélix, the cat. Whiskers shining with grease, he looks over-full and slightly sick. Laura smirks unrepentantly. I am chagrined. I'm a bad child-minder. I didn't see. Louise puts her good arm around me. 'No, chérie, it takes a lifetime to grow eyes in the back of your head. I can see you love my grandchildren. Have some more sausage before that damn cat eats it all. Antoine, give her some more sausage. You like it, huh?'

Marianne is smiling too, one eye on us, one on Jean-Paul and his father who are onto their constant bone of contention. Jean-Paul and Marianne support the mildly trotskyist Unified Socialist Party. Antoine supports no one and nothing but the native cunning of the individual working man and woman. 'Middle-class,' he says. 'sectarian. Even if their hearts are in the right place.'

'Well, some of us are middle-class, yes, Papa. I suppose I'm middle-class now. Middle class and workers together, and we see the need for organising in the unions, for building consciousness, building a vanguard of support for change, even if it's going to be a long haul now, and perhaps a long haul to nowhere. You're becoming a nihilist in your old age.'

'I'm no nihilist!' Antoine waves his fork with a piece of sausage on it. 'I believe in the hearts of men, the strength and humour I've seen them show in the face of hardship. If you'd seen what I've seen, on the docks in Marseille... ' Louise is nudging him. 'Mm? Yes, yes, have some more sausage.' He puts down his fork to serve more sausage and take a deep draught of wine. 'You must eat, my little Laura, not give it to the cat. Eat and grow big and strong to make a revolution!'

Impossible to know where laughter, pain, sincerity, performance meet and blend.

'Revoloo... loo... loo...', Laura sucks on the syllables, hungry for long, spicy words, if not yet for spicy food.


Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Choucroute! I love it!
And your crystal clear memory of this wonderful family meal.

I wish you'd continue and gradually complete the telling of this time in your life.I remember when you first posted parts. Terrific.

earlybird said...

A wonderful scene, lovingly described.

Jean said...

Not exactly choucroute, Natalie, freshly cooked cabbage, not pickled... I love choucroute too, though.

Who knows, when I'm no longer an office-slave maybe I'll get back to writing a bit more.

Earlybird, you are certainly an inspiration.

Jean said...

Come to think of it, maybe choucroute can be with freshly cooked cabbage, but cooked with vinegar? Anyway, the version excavated from my memory here did not have vinegar.

Dale said...

So wonderful. Though so much is so different, in a way this is the story of me falling into Martha's family. They were so local, insofar as one can be in modern America. Nobody moved away. Everyone had to be taken care of, relative or neighbor or stray animal, no matter how exasperating they were and how much you complained about them. Whereas my family had atomized itself and dispersed before I even came of age, no two of them living in the same state.

I got lucky.

Anonymous said...

I hope that you go back to it, Jean.

vivinfrance said...

So very French - it could have been a meal with friends here in Basse Normandie! Beautifully written, like a sketch with all that's needed to see the scene and no extraneous detail.