The oyster climbs the Great Chain of Being: Eleanor Clark’s Locmariaquer

“…But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster….” – Geoffrey Chaucer

The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark (image courtesy Goodreads)

Anyone who reads Eleanor Clark’s classic The Oysters of Locmariaquer will come away from the book convinced of two things: 1) cultivating oysters is a complex and difficult task that might well suck the life out of one foolish enough to try to do so; 2) if the people from any place are up to the task of cultivating oysters, it is the Bretons. Clark’s book falls into that interesting category of nonfiction made famous by the great John McPhee. That is, Eleanor Clark, like McPhee, combines meticulous research (there is more in this book than anyone this side of an ichthyologist would want to know about the biology of oysters and the history of human/oyster relations) with personal narrative (there are stories of the lives of Breton villagers who are tied to the oyster industry – or to Brittany – that can move even the most jaded soul).

Of course, Clark antedates McPhee, and perhaps he owes her a debt for combining the scientific and historical with the personal in ways that can engross the reader and make one learn in spite of oneself. After all, Clark won the National Book Award for Nonfiction with this tale of Belon oysters and the Breton people who raise them in 1965, the same year McPhee published his first significant work

That said, while The Oysters of Locmariaquer is a book one would certainly be glad to have read, it is not always a book one will enjoy in the midst of the reading. Clark’s style is discursive in the extreme, and at times she seems hellbent on making sure that the reader works hard to follow her meandering sentences. Then, too, there is the matter of how well she integrates the science of oyster biology within the story of a small area of Brittany where they used to be cultivated (alas, the Belon oysters she discusses so thoroughly, known in Latin as Ostrea edulis, are no longer cultivated there as a result of their decimation by parasites in 1973-74). The honest answer is that, unlike her spiritual heir in this sort of writing, the aforementioned McPhee, Clark sometimes seems to get slightly lost in her detailed explanations of Belon biology – and as a result, so may her readers.

Then, too, Clark favors a somewhat fragmentary style of storytelling. At times (though she never definitively uses stream-of-consciousness methods) she will give part of a villager’s story, then “jump cut” away (the cinematic term seems an apt description because of the abrupt nature of some of her departures) to a seemingly unrelated description of oyster cultivation, tourist behavior, or Breton literary history or geography. To give her her full due, it all adds up in the end – in truth, beautifully. But until one simply gives in and follows her mind in its rambling, the narrative may frustrate readers seeking a more conventional style of storytelling. She is also fond of long, long sentences – not Faulknerian monstrosities, mind – but sentences long enough – and, for this reader, at times annoyingly arrhythmic, that force some re-reading to make sure one has their sense:

There is involved in all this, along with the specific trademarks of Locmariaquer and its environs, some general mystery of character shared with the rest of Brittany, pride of place, pride of being and of being in a certain rapport with the sea, that a foreigner can’t fathom and the rest of the French can’t either.

Such sentences, appearing as they do at irregular intervals and often mixed into a group of simple declaratives, do not come “trippingly on the tongue.”

So, in sum, The Oysters of Locmariaquer falls into that category of works where, for me, Henry James’s works reside: I am glad to have read it, but I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the reading as much as I should have liked to.

3 replies »

  1. I agree. At times during the book, you have to have faith that it’s worth it. (It is.) I take a bit of issue that cultivating oysters can suck the life out of you. In many cases it’s the reason for getting up in the morning. My favorite quote from the book: “The energy of these women is prodigious. There are children, cattle, a vegetable garden and everything else to see to before and after eight hours of oystering … Yet there is hardly a women who doesn’t find time to grow flowers.”

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Kim. I think maybe that life sucking comment comes from the story of Francoise, her mother, and her tragic daughter. And my compliment to the Bretons is based at least partly on that very quote you note above…they are remarkable people…and they still don’t really think of themselves as French…. 🙂

  3. I read The Oysters of Locmariaquer in 1967, after a Time magazine review of it that intrigued me. For more than 3 years I had been working at our local public library. My education up to that time had been 3 years at a world famous theatrical school in Southern California, my career advancement in acting cut short by an hereditary heart ailment unknown to me until 2 years ago.. The head librarian was an old maid with a bad case of DEGREE SNOBBERY: unless one had that piece of paper from a recognized university, she looked down her nose at me.

    [I hasten to add that I have lived in L.A., Chicago, London and South Florida; I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’d never lived anywhere else but here all my life!] And THAT’S MY SNOBBERY!!!

    The head librarian’s reaction when I showed the review to her was a prissy sniff and a comment, “Well, I don’t think people around here would be interested in a book about some oysters cultivated off the coast of France.” {This area is popularly known as ‘The Redneck Riviera,’ where ignorance is bottled in bond and touted with pride.] My parents were rednecks from Georgia; I was born in Jacksonville, FL and my father brought us here in 1947 when he bought a small business that he made successful.

    I’d been a voracious reader since childhood and was deeply impressed with the review of Clark’s book, so I bought it and was enraptured with it. To this day, at age 79 with an M.A. in Theatre from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, behind me, I still treasure that book as one of the most outstanding reading experiences of my life. Ha! And boy, did she ever have to eat crow, when Library Journal announced that The Oysters of Locmariaquer had won the national book prize for that year!.

    Imagine my inner glee when she came to me several months later and showed me the news in Library Journal that Ms. Clark’s book had won the National Book Award — then she HAD to
    order it for our Library!