Sunday, October 26, 2014

2009 Esenzia Old Vine garnacha -- and Envy

The label below represents a memory of a past life, when I worked as liquor buyer for a small grocery store chain and had the authority to take a chance -- not that anyone was paying much attention -- on small scale products from very small distributors, or even independent brokers. I never quite understood whom brokers worked for, or how they made a living at all. The one who sold me this hung on valiantly for a long time, and only recently switched to another industry.

thick, opaque purple
grapey scent
very dry
earthy, bittersweet chocolate
rustic and tasty

Retail, about $10.

Talking of old vines, and industries come to think of it, brings to mind old things. Are old vines really better for the grapes? Are old cultures always better in the most important ways, more noble, dignified, wiser, more fun, etc. etc.?

I ask because I happen to be revisiting an old fascination of mine, and that is what I like to call the French Envy industry. My current exemplar for the subject, an audiobook I am listening to in the car, is Debra Ollivier's What French Women Know. Many years ago I enjoyed her Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding her Inner French Girl, of which, I must say, this newer book is something of a rehash. And I must say also that the next time Ms. Ollivier reads one of her own books for the public, I hope she changes up her delivery just a little. That "distinctive, upward American lilt" at the end of every sentence -- historian John Keegan, of all people, noticed this on our behalf in his Fields of Battle: the Wars for North America -- after a while becomes merely expressionless. Her voice is sweet and her diction nice, so there is room for improvement here. Perhaps even a second career if need be.

Not that she'll need a second career, because as long as she can keep writing for the French Envy industry, she'll be fine. As to that: or, "that said," as she says much too often -- anyone can look at the shelves of an American bookstore or library and see that, for a long time, publishers have been making lots of money selling lots of books to American women instructing them that French women are all happy, beautiful, and at peace and we are not, but we can try to be. It all seems to hinge on their not denying themselves frivolous pleasures as we would. Butter, flowers, expensive lingerie. Nude models on political billboards and anatomically correct dolls for children also have something to do with a simple acceptance and enjoyment of what life looks like, so good probably for everyone's emotional health. But I decided these books represent an industry, capital I, both on the strength of Debra Ollivier's first one being shelved in the Self-Help section, and on the strength of she herself telling us that this unacknowledged project seems to have begun at least as far back as the career of our grande dame novelist Edith Wharton. She wrote French Ways and Their Meaning in 1919. I read it. After some perfunctory nods to large matters, even she focused rather uncomfortably on lessons for American women. We are apparently the problem children, emphasis on children (wide-eyed, easily hurt, badly dressed) of the human race. Since 1919 other titles by other women seem never to have stopped flooding on. Ultimately, the mystery, the unattainability of all this Frenchness must be vital. If one never really masters l'art de vivre, then there will always be a need for more books about it.

Ollivier's audiobook kind of goes on and on. I have taken to pulling out one CD and putting in another at random, depending on how well I can hear anything over the roar of trucks on the expressway. Last night at the beginning of Chapter 6 -- I was in a parking lot and could hear everything -- she told a really funny joke. And it made me turn the entire long project of the French Envy industry on its head.

The joke concerns people of ten different nationalities stranded on ten different deserted islands, two men and one woman per island. "After a month, the following has occurred: the Italian men have killed each other over the Italian woman; the French men and French woman are happy in a ménage à trois; the Japanese men have faxed Tokyo for instructions; the British men are waiting to be introduced to the British woman," and so on. Last of all, the two American men are contemplating suicide because the American woman will not shut up about what the sun is doing to her skin, the essence of feminism, her relationship to her mother, how her last boyfriend respected her more, the nature of commitment, how the palm trees make her look fat and why didn't the two men bring a cell phone so they can call 911 and get the hell off this island so she can get her nails done and go shopping. (There's more.)      

Ollivier says "you won't hear this joke in France," so I assume she means an American thought it up. She seriously worries that it's stereotypical and politically incorrect. What she doesn't admit is that it's gorgeously pungent, and that though only a joke, the most interesting character in it by far is The American Woman ... who is then supposed to go out and buy books about how to be more happy, beautiful, and at peace. Like the French. Of whom, the first lesson we learn is that they don't care what anyone thinks of them. Circle upon circle. The Envy Industry grinds away. Would it not be delicious, ironic, if at some future date cultural historians, or perhaps visitors from another planet, look back at us and say, "Pah, they were all dull as tombs, except for American women. Ah, those women! There was a place called Hollywood, where a few of the finest were kept -- of course there were millions more, incredible -- one could die of joy -- ." And anyway -- that said, and back on the earth of today -- may we ask why there is, for example, no Spanish Envy industry, publishing books on What Spanish Women Know? We remember we began our talk, above, with that nice Spanish wine.

Perhaps the envy industry is solely French because Louis XIV really is responsible for permanently turning l'état's economy to the production of luxury goods, so that for all time to come, all civilized people who wanted a dose of the divinely sensual in life would have to pay for it in francs. Joan deJean says so in The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour (2005), another light and pleasant cupful poured into the flood. Along with unattainability of course it's the lightness and the fantasy that matter throughout. Not a one of these women writers gazing wide eyed at the Eiffel Tower will tell us about anything as gritty as the banlieues, the Muslim suburbs ringing every French city, or about besieged French synagogues. Debra Ollivier won't connect France's generous-chic social welfare policies to high taxes, low birth rates, and unabsorbed immigrants (see: banlieues). Never mind that French women are supposed to be cerebral and aware of their world. That's not what we are after.

I remember reading once that publishers estimate one-fifth of all guidebooks to Paris are bought by people who have no intention of traveling to Paris. We support the industry, and we want our fantasy pure. Purity has endless nuances. Corruption is just the one thing. Besides, maybe we're too busy being interesting to go.

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