Map of Another Town by M.F.K. Fisher

Essays on Aix en Provence

While I usually steer clear of memoirs set in France, M.F.K.Fisher (1908-1992) is a writer I’ve long intended to read. She was an American nonfiction writer whose wrote about food, considering it from many aspects: preparation, natural history, culture, and philosophy.

Since no-one can visit Aix-en-Provence right now, here is another way to visit the town, through the imagination and evocative style of this talented writer, a specialist in evoking the senses.

Fisher lived in Dijon for a few years as a young bride, but now it is 1954 and she is a widow with two young daughters spending a year in Aix-en-Provence at a time when France is still reeling from the effect of the second world war. Fisher too is recovering from raw emotional wounds.

While being in Aix makes her feel alive, a sense of frustration seeps through the pages as she describes feeling largely invisible and worse, looked down upon.

She is keenly aware that the grand dames consider her an ‘outlander’, an emissary from a graceless, culture-less people.

Living here has given her a thick skin, a confidence and an extra sense with which to navigate the world.

Over the years I have taught myself, and have been taught, to be a stranger. A stranger usually has the normal five senses, perhaps especially so, ready to protect and nourish him.

Then there are the extra senses that function only in the subconsciousness. These are perhaps a stranger’s best allies, the ones that stay on and grow stronger as time passes and immediacy dwindles.

It is with these senses that she creates her map of the town, Aix-en-Provence.

Le Cours Mirabeau

She finds just the right words to describe the near indescribable, whether it’s the cafes, the main street or the people, and though all of the characters she writes about have long gone, the edifices remain and it is easy to imagine how this place we live in was back when she inhabited it. In reality, little has changed, except that today it is a ghost town.

After reading the initial chapters, I stopped reading for a couple of months just after the chapters The Gypsy Way and The Foreigner, which were somewhat xenophobic. Then I picked this up again and was relieved to find the next essays as delightful as the debut and way more humorous. I found that Fisher was more entertaining when observing herself than she was observing others.

My favourite essay ‘A Familiar’ didn’t even take place in Aix, it’s a stream-of-consciousness narrative of six hours spent in the train station of Lucerne after being sold a ticket for a non-existent train. Refusing to allow herself to venture outside, she orders a vermouth-gin in the station restaurant to ease her awkwardness.

I would have liked to order at least two more,  but although I had to laugh at myself I was afraid that the maid, already somewhat alarmed at my ordering such a potion … a woman alone … would report me to the police who must be somewhere handy in the enormous station.

And in the essay ‘The Unwritten Books’, she visits a cake shop, asking the pastry chef to make a cake, one drawn by her young daughter, a cross cultural hilarity, not to mention the proprietors constant refusal to hear her other request, to provide her with a calendar of culinary events, for which there is only ever one reply, an(other) invitation to visit the calisson factory? Priceless!

A must read certainly if you know and love Aix-en-Provence, this is an outsiders insight into the old city, one who has fallen for its charm, cursed by her inability to meld completely into it. Humorous in some parts, cringworthy in others, overall a delight and superbly descriptive.

This new edition with an introduction by Lauren Elkin, was re-released in 2019 by Daunt Books. Thank you to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

7 thoughts on “Map of Another Town by M.F.K. Fisher

    • Oh great Judy, I’m so happy to bring this one to your attention. I’ve seen her books in the library over the years but until this one came my way I didn’t know she written a book about Aix either. You’re going to love it! And what better time to indulge in a book that will awaken old memories.

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  1. Loved your review, Claire! This looks wonderful! Haven’t read an M.F.K.Fisher book before. It is so nice that this gives an outsider’s perspective to Aix. Has Aix changed a lot from what she has described?

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    • Normally I would say No, it hasn’t changed, except that if she came here today she would find the markets closed, the shops and cafes closed, and the streets empty of people. Also one of the cafes she talks about Les Deux Garçons which is the oldest in the town, built in 1660 and functioning as a cafe since 1789 was closed in June 2019 facing bankruptcy and then gutted by fire in Nov 2019. Hopefully it will all return to its former glory.

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  2. I read four books by Fisher more than ten years ago, and have more than that number waiting here unread. For several months hers seemed to be the voice I loved to hear – I never figured out why. Reading her reminded me of my mother and grandmother, though neither was anything like her in any way.

    Map of Another Town was one I read, but I didn’t remember it by that name. So I just now hunted it down and it is in a two-book edition paired with A Considerable Town (about Marseille) and re-titled Two Towns in Provence. I read it when I had just begun blogging, and I even began a draft post, hoping to express something about her writing and why it charmed me. But it got left in the drafts too long.

    Often I do some stretches on the floor next the the bookcase where Fisher’s books are lined up on the bottom shelf, so I often look at them sideways when I am down there. She has kept her spot, even through the several purgings, which must mean that I’m hoping to listen to that fascinating voice again.

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    • Oh, I didn’t know she’d written one about Marseille, I’d like to read that too. I’m so happy to find you are a fan, I hope you might pull one out to read. I love that you acknowledge her when you’re doing your stretches, you must write a post about her and dig deeper into why you feel that connection, it’s intriguing, she has such a distinct voice.

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