which I with sword will open." Ms. Clark corrects our collective thinking on the most famous oyster metaphor in literature, indicating it has nothing to do with a pearl, or as she delightfully says, "but we would rather think not." Ms. Clark dazzles the reader, certainly this one, with her remarkable erudition, which she has focused on the raising of one seemingly simple sea creature, on the south coast of Brittany in France. Ecology, biology, sociology, history, zoology, literature are some of the intellectual areas that are drawn upon to create this one-of-a-kind book that made Locmariaquer an essential destination. But so much has changed, been lost, and yes, even improved since Ms Clark wrote her book at the end of the `50's, long before the coming of the TGV, and before the death of many of the species that she writes about. It was also long before the era of mass tourism.
This area of Brittany has long been poor, noted for two things: the baby oysters, and the large prehistoric megaliths at Carnac. The author describes the Parisian gourmet's excitement with the arrival of the season's latest harvest, carefully listing the classifications and prices, but also contrasts this seemingly ephemeral interest with the harsh reality of producing this crop with an image hard to forget: an 18 year old girl wanted out - drank a bottle of muriatic acid, it took her half the afternoon to die, and "they had heard her screaming way over at Saint-Pierre."
In chapter five Ms. Clark covers the oysters significance during the period of the Second Empire, giving the reader delightful dollops of history, and sociological insight from that period. Many of the greats from this period, as well as the lesser known make their appearances.
It is the quality of her observations that also helps place this book in the unique category. Concerning the revival of Brittany's "folk culture," she says "...embarrassing revival of bagpipes, folk dancing, folklore, etc., as if the word "folk" used that way weren't a death warrant in itself." Also, for the late `50's, the prescient: "Let's face it, there are too many people. The shores of the temperate zones are simply not big enough to hold them in July and August."
La Villemarque, a regional writer, is placed, as a pearl if you will, within the context of the national writers, Malraux, Sand, Proust, et al. Cassanova's famous exploits, and the "driving energy" are also wonderfully described.
Though the species have now regrettably changed, and the flavor probably diminished, there is a wonderful "oyster bar" in Montparnasse that would be the ideal setting for digesting this masterful book in many settings. After the second glass of wine, one might also speculate what her life might have been like, with her husband Robert Penn Warren, known most famously as the author of "All the King's Men."