French Lessons: Adventures With Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew
An Italian Affair
Pasquale's Nose: Idle Days in an Italian Town
In a cheeky bit of self-promotion on the jacket of his latest book, French Lessons, Peter Mayle reveals that his hobbies "include walking, reading, writing, and lunch." Given that Mayle has built a cottage industry out of escargot and duck confit, this boasting of a leisurely lifestyle feels self-conscious, if not self-indulgent.
It's no secret that Mayle lives well. In the mid-1980s, this British journalist wrote a tantalizing series of articles for GQ about the difficulties and the thrills of spending a lot of money: The magazine gave Mayle a corporate credit card and permission to snap up $1,300 loafers and $300 tailor-made shirts. His real agenda was massaging Americans' soft spot for gluttony. And his timing couldn't have been better. As our stock market soared and the national debt ballooned, Mayle reminded us how the Reagan-era tax cuts benefited the wealthy--but still allowed us to sample their lifestyles for a mere $2.50 at the newsstand. As a multimillion-dollar gourmand and consummate bon vivant, Mayle has spent more than a decade advertising a succinct mercantile mantra: It's okay to want foie gras, the table that seats 16, or calorie-rich ice cream. And it's all right--civilized, even--to cross the ocean to get it. This new guru of excess wants us to know that our lives can be better if we just pamper ourselves.
Following the success of Mayle's A Year in Provence, his memoir of refurbishing a country home in the south of France, publishers have hastened to meet the needs of readers yearning to escape their tedious lives. Bookshelves are clogged with such imitators as Daphne Phelps's A House in Sicily, Frances Keyes's Under the Tuscan Sun, and Derek Lambert's Spanish Lessons. Celebrated critics, journalists, and humorists like Adam Gopnik, Michael Lewis, and David Sedaris uproot their families to Paris, and report back in essays and journals on what they find there (namely, the French). The pages of mainstream glossies teem with "travel" features about the Amalfi Coast and the Riviera. Each month, a newly retired 35-year-old banker/writer/celebutante writes gushingly about his/her beautiful bungalow/villa/mansion overlooking Tuscany/Capri/Provence. Door frames are sanded down, stone fences erected, lawns manicured by native help. Miniature paradises appear above the fray of normal life. And if you need a shot of urbanity, here's where you can get a really good espresso nearby!
Mayle has ingeniously discovered that all Americans love the notion of the gentleman of leisure, especially if we can be brought along as cohorts. In this spirit of refined decadence, French Lessons offers a half-dozen tales about hunting down frogs'-legs festivals and the best chickens in the south of France. There are truffle blessings in cathedrals, and wine-sodden luncheons. The locals sniff at the self-effacing Englishman, who, to his credit, meanders through the countryside with a remarkable sense of humor. He looks on while Frenchies feast on oysters, freshly baked bread, and cheese, and even manages a nibble or two. Aside from a few references to carrying a notebook, Mayle is essentially on a permanent vacation.
But when it comes to the caliber of reporting, Mayle begins to let us down. As in many of Mayle's books, the locals become a kind of minstrel act. In one piece Mayle records the goings-on at an eating contest where the French uncharacteristically wolf down record amounts of food: "With a double mouthful, a last huge swig of cider, and a well-earned belch, the favorite finishes, raising both arms in a victory pursuit. He has eaten four pounds of cheese and drunk one and a half litres of cider in twelve minutes flat." With such anecdotes, Mayle draws distinctions between himself and the hoi polloi. Such gustatory showmanship borders on exertion, which is the last thing Mayle would want to be caught doing. Under the guise of appreciating good service, one dining passage subtly revels in the fact he doesn't have to labor to get by:
Now watch [the waiter] work. It seems effortless. There is no furtive wrestling with the wine bottle....Nothing is rushed, and yet all you need--cornichons to go with the pâté, or a good fierce mustard for the daube--is there on your table when it should be. The bread basket is refilled; the glasses are topped up. You don't have to ask for anything. Your man is telepathic: He knows what you need before you know it yourself.
In the arena of cultivated leisure, even a waiter's performance is a kind of entertainment. By including the readers as guests at the table, Mayle lavishes them with the voluptuous, yet still vicarious, delights of his carefree lifestyle.
Not surprisingly, this niche market of high-end international living has overtaken travel literature as a genre. Who wants to read about trekking through Afghanistan or the Sudan when there are truffles and afternoon naps to savor in France? Real journeys--ones that unsettle, unnerve, plot a deeper, more tectonic shift in our perceptions--are being supplanted by fantasies come true, stories about idle living that flatter our taste and pat us on the back for working so hard. Though the hardscrabble tales of Bruce Chatwin, Edward Hoagland, and Peter Matthiessen continue to enchant readers, their sales are dwarfed by the giants of today's travel writing, which luxuriates in the textures of E.M. Forster's world without venturing to the same depths.