The Oysters of Locmariaquer, by Eleanor Clark
Late in Eleanor Clark’s extraordinary book, she tells us the oyster needs the same landscape that a plein air painter does: a certain air, light, chemistry. “The explanation,” she writes, “might be quite simple, not esoteric at all—in some common equation of factors and atmospheres.” Only a writer like Clark could find such a commonality, the kind you wander back to long after you’ve finished the book.
Though if your mind likes to wander while you’re reading, better to hold off on The Oysters of Locmariaquer. Clark’s style is sui generis, with sentence constructions that require a certain patience—but the reward for your attention is being able to inhabit Clark’s mind. She seems to know virtually everything about this corner of northwestern France, the Celtic peninsula where Bretons have cultivated oysters for centuries—starting with a variety called Belon, or les plattes. You may not have heard of the famed oysters of Brittany, but they’re on the Smithsonian’s list of 1000 Things You Should Eat Before You Die. As Mark Kurlansky writes in his introduction, don’t expect a quaint travel book centered on francophilia. Clark is rarely sentimental and can shift between scholarly authority and the sharp studies of a Southern Gothic narrator.
A Life of Summers on the Northern French Coast
Clark summered in Locmariaquer as a child, and in the June of 1961, she and her husband, the poet and writer Robert Penn Warren (whom she called “Red” and to whom the book is dedicated), arrived with their two children to rent a house and do some writing. Clark came to her book of oyster history and culture unexpectedly. In Brittany, she found herself fascinated by the area’s history of oystering, and I wonder if having spent summers there as a girl, some aspect of the place hadn’t embedded itself long before. Here’s Clark on the Gulf of Quiboran, the inlet off the Bay of Biscay where the municipality of Locmariquer sits:
“There is something hypnotic about the Gulf of Quiboran…some tender hand or breath must control its character: it is all a cradle, moving, bemused, strung with the baubles of summer villas but discreetly, under a blowing baby-laundry of fresh little clouds…”
The success of Oysters and another memoir of place, Rome and A Villa, find Clark often referred to as a travel writer, though she also wrote novels, stories, and criticism. The Oysters of Locmariaquer (first published in 1964) is a kind of biography of a place, containing history, science, literature, oyster cultivation, habitat, and the local life, which at the time of the book’s writing, was caught between the old ways and the new. Clark shows us this place in time, and unpacks origins, meaning, and essence. Certainly this book is about oysters, from how they’re grown to how they mate, their eating habits and who, throughout history has eaten them. But the account is also about Locmariaquer, its people, history, geography, mythology, as well as the hard life that comes with oystering. With Clark’s assistance, we access the deeply personal, the thoughts and longings of a handful of characters, all of whom, difficult as their lives may be, don’t view their lives as tragic. A toothless elder whose daughter parks her under a local tree so she can see people and talk politics. A brother and sister who wonder at the horses corralled outside the abattoir. The terrible cold of 1963 that froze the oyster population and resulted in cultivating a new variety from scratch (a catastrophe that has happened more than once since then). These personal accounts bend the account toward the novelistic, an unexpected turn but surely one reason why The Oysters of Locmariaquer is widely considered to have stretched the possibilities of nonfiction and influenced the contemporary essayistic style. The book also received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1965.
Gems of Breton Color
In a single long graph, we may be led, for example, past the scarcity of televisions in Locmariaquer (only the rich oysterers have them), to an extended study of the local postmistress—the only person in town with a telephone (“She sits as she stands, straight as a lily in stone”), to a local library that contains a book on oysters the author seeks. You have to keep up with Clark, you can’t let your attention waver. Otherwise, you risk losing out on the buried gems of her prose, like here, as she describes the library, which is private, called The Society of Many Learnings:
It is reached eventually, in the garret or servants’ quarters of the Mairie, the imposing marble sweep of the first two flights of stairs giving way suddenly, through a small door, to a shabby little wooden third one leading up under the eaves. But this is proper. The true student wants no marble stairs and can do without a public toilet and a reading room; all he needs is books, and in this of all countries there must be plenty of those.
True, Clark’s collagist style has been influential—in all but one way. What has come to be known as the personal essay relies on the speaker-as-character in the narrative. Yet never once does Clark cast herself in that role. There’s not one “I” in The Oysters of Locmariaquer. Though there’s no need. Clark is present in every line.