We are thrilled that Malcolm Spector will be accompanying his wife, Nancy Ludmerer, on our flash fiction retreat to France next June. Malcolm and I chatted about all things French: authors, music, cooking–and Malcolm even has some advice for spouses of writers:
Nancy Stohlman: You have spent lots of time in France! Have you been to the region around Bordeaux? If so, what would you say makes it special? If not, what are you most looking forward to?
Malcolm Spector: I lived in Montreal for many years teaching at McGill University. My conversational French is fairly good if a little rusty. I have spent quite a bit of time in France over the years. In 1975-76 in Paris as a Fulbright scholar, I taught sociological methods to attorneys at Paris II. Nancy (Ludmerer) and I have done some touring in France, in Paris, Normandy, Brittany, the Ile de France, the Dordogne, and in the south. Many years before that, I spent some time in Burgundy.
I have not been to Bordeaux, but it is the most famous wine-producing region in France. I hope there is an opportunity to visit a winery or to learn about some of the wines of the region, and sample them with local breads and cheeses. Otherwise, I would like to explore the forest, the countryside, possibly nearby towns, either on foot or by bicycle (I could buy or rent one.). I would welcome the opportunity to join other spouses or partners of writers in some of these activities. I’m also an amateur flutist. I might bring my flute and some music and spend several hours a day practicing and working on some new repertoire.
Nancy: You’re a flutist! Is there a particular composer you are drawn to? French, perhaps? Debussy? Satie?
Malcolm: Johann Sebastian Bach is my favorite. He wrote beautifully, but not that much, for the flute of his day. Many of his unaccompanied works for violin and cello have been transcribed for the flute. I have transcribed some preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, originally written for keyboard, for flutes and other woodwinds. After Bach, the string quartet literature is my favorite. Many composers wrote their best chamber works for the string quartet. Beethoven comes to mind.
France has a special relationship to the flute. The modern flute was perfected and rationalized by Theobald Boehm and presented at the Paris Exhibition of 1847. Although Boehm was from Bavaria, his flute and all modern flutes are called “French-style” flutes. Once the modern flute was perfected, many more composers wrote for it, including many French composers. For better or worse, much of this literature is too challenging for amateurs like myself. All flutists practice some of the daily exercises of Paul Taffanel and Philippe Gaubert, professors at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Nancy: Many people like to immerse themselves in the writers of the region when traveling. Who is your favorite French writer?
Malcolm: One of my favorite authors is Marcel Proust. I might immerse myself in his work, but this time in French.
Proust of course was Parisian and his character vacationed with his grandmother in Brittany, where Nancy and I visited the very hotel where the narrator stays with his grandmother. One of Balzac’s main characters, Lucien Chardon de Rubembre (from Lost Illusions and A Harlot High and Low) was originally from Angouleme, which is nearby. I might have to revisit Balzac and Angouleme, where it appears there is a museum devoted to comic books.
Nancy: In that case, react to one of my favorite quotes by Proust: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.
Malcolm: I have also seen this translated as: Mystery is not about traveling to new places but about looking with new eyes. Of all the 3000 pages of A la recherche, the most intense and moving passages, for me, are things that the narrator sees happen. I mention only two. First, at Balbec the narrator first sees “the little band” of girls, including of course Andree and Albertine, galloping along the boardwalk, their nostrils flaired, their muscles rippling, totally at ease with their bodies, vaulting over deck chairs and anyone in their way. It is not just that Proust describes this action, but that it is the narrator who sees it happening, and it goes on for pages and pages. The second is a moment when Swann tells Mme de Guermantes that he will not be able to be her guide on a trip to Egypt in the spring, because, by that time he will have died from a fatal disease. The narrator is in the courtyard and observes this scene. For a brief moment, the duchesse is transfixed, but then she turns and runs upstairs to change out of her “horrid” red shoes into black shoes while her husband brays at her that they will be late to some event. As powerful as these scenes would be anyway, the “seeing” of them takes them to another level.
Nancy: I also hear you are quite a cook! Do you cook French cuisine? Our retreat hosts are former French chefs and have run restaurants, so you may get a chance to do some French cooking. What would you most like to learn in the French kitchen?
Malcolm: Cooking is one of my passions. I love to work with vegetables, soups, stews, and garden to table. Also, we eat a lot of fish. I have volunteered in a kitchen where we cooked for over 100 people and I learned a little how to do things on a large scale. More of that would be great, including going to the markets to shop. I lived in Italy for several years and my go-to methods are Mediterranean if not strictly Italian. Perhaps there is some setting where I could learn something of the regional cuisine, perhaps by volunteering in a kitchen.
Nancy: You’ll be accompanying your spouse, Nancy Ludmerer, on this retreat. What’s it like to be the spouse of a writer? What advice to you have for other spouses of writers?
Malcolm: As the spouse of a writer I have seen: the writer’s need for isolation and solitude in order to concentrate; the drumbeat of rejection irregularly interrupted by acceptance and publication; the discipline of patience for revision, rethinking, and editing over many drafts; the tremendous value of having fellow writers with whom to talk and work; how writing to prompts, submission deadlines and competitions can stimulate new work; how, even non-writers, like a spouse can occasionally make a helpful suggestion or edit; and best of all, how the writer turns the experiences of everyday life into the greater truth of fiction.
Nancy: Thanks for sharing a bit about yourself, Malcolm! We are looking forward to getting to know you in person next June!