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Best known for her food writing, in Map of Another Town the American writer M.F.K. Fisher takes us on a virtual tour of the French town of Aix-en-Provence. She first moved there not long after the Second World War, taking her two young daughters with her, and this book covers two periods of the family living in Aix.
Fisher covers many aspects of living in Aix and paints a vivid portrait of the town and its inhabitants. We meet various people, from her inimitable landlady Madame Lanes and her head servant Fernande, to the stately waiter Ange, who works at The Glacier where Fisher and her children often eat. Mary and Anne, her daughters, are ever present in the book and we see them growing up through the two periods of residence, which took place some years apart. When the Fisher family first moved to Aix the effects of the Second World War were still being keenly felt, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the townspeople.
Describing Madame Lanes, she writes: “She was on guard when I first knew her, wary but conscious of the fact that she had survived the Occupation (which was really three: German, then Italian, then American) and had escaped trouble in sprite of being such a staunch worker on the Underground for all of its duration. She was remote and hard … When I saw her next, in 1959, she was younger. A year later she was younger still.”
The book is structured into twenty chapters, each of which concentrates on a particular theme, such as the lively main street in the town, or the two cafés that Fisher and her daughters frequent. Most chapters are subsequently split into three or four shorter essays, all loosely linked by the chapter’s theme. I really like the way the book is structured. The reader is taken back and forth through time, and is able to wander around the town with certain characters crossing our paths time and again, like old friends. One minute you are wandering down the Cours Mirabeau listening to the great fountains, the next you might be stepping down carefully down the narrow, slightly eerie Passage Agard, where the daughters think they are being haunted by a gypsy woman.
Regular readers of Fisher’s work will be used to her delectable food writing and there are some delightful flashes of it in Map of Another Town – she can make even the simplest ham baguette sound absolutely delicious. Describing one of the great pastry shops in the town, she writes: “the shop always smelled right, not confused and stuffy but delicately layered: fresh eggs, fresh sweet butter, grated nutmeg, vanilla beans, old kirsch, newly ground almonds…” If I close my eyes, I am transported into that bakery and I can smell it.
What really works for me in this book isn’t just Fisher’s writing (full disclosure: I was already a big fan of hers) but the way she takes us off the beaten track and away from the tourist attractions, really introducing us to the life and the heartbeat of the place. We meet doctors, tramps, priests, neighbours, students, shop owners and more, all of whom are described with intimacy and in Fisher’s trademark style. I have never been to Aix but after reading Fisher’s descriptions and after tracing her own personal map around the city, I would love to visit there myself and seek out some of these places – and ultimately create my own map of this town.
Map of Another Town is out now from Daunt Books.