Malmsten, B (2001) The Price of Water in Finistère Vintage
There’s nothing more unpleasant than romantic books by women of my generation who flit around their garden in cloche hats and flip-flops . . . those pestilential phrase-sprinklers, those ladies dripping with bon mots. Those – poetesses.
So instead, a fifty-something Swedish poet and novelist Bodil Malmsten gives us her own quirky take on the genre. More an improvisation on the theme than a conventional memoir of escape.
In the same way as there’s a partner for every person, there’s a place. All you have to do is find the one that’s yours among the billions that belong to someone else, you have to be awake, you have to choose.
The Price of Water in Finistère follows Malmsten as she abandons her native Sweden and drives south until she reaches the end of the road, her own “parcel of paradise” in Brittany.
I’m the 838,688th Finistèrian!
The book is filled with descriptions of the minutiae of her new-found simple life; buying carefully chosen plants (or those which happened to be on sale in hypermarkets), fights with the garden pests, problems with sewage and watering, conversations in broken French with neighbours and village officials. Into this there are interwoven the writer’s memories of her Swedish childhood, parents and grandparents.
I mix fertilizer into the soil and then carefully flatten it down with my hands.
So this is what it comes down to. On my knees, messing about with some sweet-pea seeds, why didn’t anyone tell me that from the start?
That all you need is some horse shit and a few seeds. A spade. A bit of warm soil, warm the way the soil is in Finistère.
At the heart of this fictional memoir is an axiomatic conviction that the happiness to be found in Finistère will not allow itself to be, cannot be, expressed in writing. However, embroidered around this seeming paradox are poignant, outraged and thought-provoking observations on the widest range of subjects: how not to buy plants, the elicit pleasures of bargain-hunting, the misery of writer’s block, social democracy, racism, tulipomania, the stubbornness of bank managers, the controlling of moles and slugs, death, political hypocrisy, and the wild delights of raw westerly weather.
Malmsten’s passion and wry humour shine through every episode she describes, however minor, offering the reader a window onto a solitary life at once touching and thought-provoking.
The Price of Water in Finistère is a work that slyly slips between categories of fiction and non-fiction. It’s structured as an the account of a never-named fictional alter ego’s first year in France, for the first six months of which “being happy” is goal enough, demanding and sometimes elusive. But inevitably, while getting ready her house and garden in a small coastal town, learning sufficient French to deal with both neighbours and officialdom, and exploring the region of which she is now a resident she travels back in her mind to her own country, to what has compelled her to uproot herself, despite success and relationships. In truth, in idiosyncratic short paragraphs and sentences, Malmsten reveals herself throughout this lively and deeply serious book. It can be read in a day. It’s a breath of fresh air.
Memory isn’t deceitful, memory is the most faithful thing there is, memory is identity. Between then and now there is no obscuring distance.
Then is now.
Now is then.