Between Meals with A.J. Liebling
Like so many of the books that sit around my apartment untouched a year or more after the first passionate interest drove me to acquire them, I can not remember where I discovered Liebling. It was James Salter's 1986 introduction, quoted on the back of the book, that led me to finally pick it up (again) a couple of weeks ago.
"Though not a novel it has a novel's grip - there is dialogue, character, description, and the unmistakable signature of a real writer: an entire book thrown away on nearly every page. The result is astonishingly fresh and deserves to stand on the same shelf as A Moveable Feast."
Liebling was a journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker, and an American Francophile with unwavering dedication. He was never a novelist, but he was a committed writer. Between Meals covers a few decades of Paris memories, beginning with his first visit as a child in the early 1900s and ending not long before his death in 1963, though it is anchored around the year 1926-7, when he lived there on his father's generous funding under the presumption that he was actually attending classes at the Sorbonne. (He never did finish college) These years between the wars is now famous for hosting some of America's and Britain's writers of stature, though Liebling apparently knew none of them. He spent much of his time in the Latin Quarter, the academic part of the city. He writes in a chapter titled "Afterglow," which he wrote to assuage curious readers inquiring if he did anything in France besides eat and drink, about his dislike for the notorious and artistically steeped Montparnasse neighborhood.
"I had come to France for the same reason that at home I would go out to a beach and swim out just beyond the breakers. There I could loaf. Lying on my back, I would paddle just enough to keep out of the pull, and draw my knees up to my chin and feel good. The Americans in Montparnasse, sitting at their tables in front of Le Sélect and talking at each other, reminded me of monkeys on a raft. They were not in the water at all. One reason I didn't think I liked them was that they had all decided they were writers, or painters, or sculptors, and I didn't know what I was."
Liebling had a voracious appetite that left him in ill health later in life and ultimately caused his death. His portrait, however, of Paris during this romantic and nearly defeated era, is superb. He's witty and intelligent without being pedantic. The book is a history lesson as much as biography. He's honest, and writes almost exclusively about the dishes he ate and their makers, usually mom and pop little shops with a finely tuned craft in the kitchen. He talks about wine, too, Tavel being his favorite, though a few of the great Burgundies - Échezeaux, Romanée-Conti, Chambertin and the like - receive space on the page with equal enthusiasm.
I enjoyed his frank picture of Paris and of himself in Paris, capturing what has become, like almost every other city on the planet, nothing of what it once was. Nostalgia can be a nice place to live for a couple hundred pages or so. I highly recommend Between Meals: And Appetite for Paris.