Book Note:
Richard Olney’s memoir
27 February 2018

The other day, I came to the end of Richard Olney’s memoir, Reflexions. It’s a strange book, left unfinished, I believe, at the author’s unexpected death but, from the look of it, published as-is. I can’t remember reading a more uneven text. Alongside uninformative thumbnail references to trips here and there are detailed menus and wine lists from long-ago feasts, often illustrated with pictures of the menu. Instead of a conventional narrative account of Olney’s life and career, we’re given extracts from letters written to his siblings, mostly to his brother, James. A small clutch of regular characters, such as the rambunctious restaurateur Georges Garin and his second wife, an old friend of Olney’s, carry on in the background. Julia Child and James Beard are shown not to be on their best behavior.

Elizabeth David can do no wrong, though, and Sybille Bedford wafts about like a fairy godmother. We see a lot of David and Bedford during the six-year stint in which Olney produced The Good Cook, a series of books for Time-Life, working mostly in London. On one unpleasant evening, Bedford fails spectacularly to hit it off with David Hockney; on a more agreeable occasion, David opines that MFK Fisher’s writing is “too detestable.” The last pages of the memoir are given over to an extremely unfavorable review of Lisa Chaney’s biography of David. What I liked most about Reflexions, in fact, was its endearing portrait of the formidable Elizabeth. 

Every now and then, Olney shares an amusing shred of gossip, but reflections are very rare. The writer does not seem to have been a truly thoughtful person. His views were formed very early in life, along with an instinctive culinary aptitude and a gifted palate, especially for wine, that seem almost inexplicable in someone who grew up in rural Iowa. Although he intended to be a painter when he arrived in France, in 1951 (he was not yet 25), he was already a self-assured and self-possessed man. In the pages of Reflexions, he accrues fame, if not fortune, invisibly, almost unaccountably. It all begins with an excellent pot-au-feu, the humblest of stews. Olney does not tell us how he dreamed up the recipe.    

I used to own a few of Olney’s best-known books, but I gave them away, because they were so discouraging. One of them, the opulent Provence the Beautiful, made it seem futile so much as to chop an onion farther than an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean. Simple French Food was anything but; I dimly recall going through a pound of expensive coffee to produce four demi-tasse cups of exquisite custard. I admire authoritative writing about food, but “magisterial” is not the tone that I look for in cookery books. Also, I was too late to the party: when I asked for sea urchins, a fishmonger told me that the vogue for urchins (launched by Olney’s French Menu Cookbook) had come and gone. 

Reading Reflexions, I wished that the book had a better photograph of Olney’s house at Solli├Ęs-Toucas, a village north of Toulon. It was the scene of many enchanted evenings (and afternoons, too), and yet all we’re shown is a snapshot of the ruin that Olney bought when he was still a young man; there is no hint of the charming place that it became over the years. All of the photographs, for that matter, seem torn from an old scrapbook, and most of them are not very good. This underlines the feeling of unwillingness that emanates from Reflexions, a book that seemed to ask, on every page, what business of mine it was to be reading it.  

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