Richard Olney’s Final Book, Reflexions

by Jim Harrison, March 2000

Richard and Kermit © Gail Skoff

I was thoroughly swept away by Richard Olney’s Reflexions, which made me all the more saddened by his death this past July. There is ample evidence in Reflexions that no one on the planet has sat at better tables, most especially his own, or drank consistently better wines than Richard Olney. The evidence here and in his many other books, all of which I revere for their lucidity and range as books about food and wine that suggest, but not obtrusively, that there are standards that must be kept, no matter how implausibly high these standards might be. And this is all against a backdrop, a diorama, of a life lived with devotion and honor, of life lived as art itself.

If I have ever been to a home that may suitably be called magic it must be that of the Peyraud family in Bandol. The place has all the delicate mystery one senses in reading Alain Fournier’s Les Grandes Meaulnes (in English, The Wanderer) but also the very visceral, sensual quality of the best food one is likely to eat, prepared by Lulu Peyraud. Once there, there is not the slightest desire to ever leave, not for Paris let alone home.

I had been to Lulu Peyraud’s for lunch once before I met Richard in the spring of 1996. In the earlier trip I was with a Franco-American, Guy de la Valdène, who had taught me a great deal about both the French and their cooking. I was very excited at the time to learn that Richard lived in the area because I was so devoted to his work, much in the manner that I would have been in Mississippi had I known that Faulkner was down the road frying bacon for lunch to go with his bourbon. I’ve never been interested in differentiating between genres. The best is the best and we must take it on the rare occasions that we find it.

So in 1996 when I was on a French book tour, no more delightful than an American book tour except that, unlike in America, the food will carry you through, I drove to Lulu’s for lunch with my friend the French literary fixture and translator, Brice Mattieussent. I was a bit flustered, actually stunned, to find that Kermit Lynch and Gail Skoff were there with the fabled Richard Olney. In a curious, not improbable way, I had the same set of feelings I had had years before in London on spending time with John Huston. Were either of them still alive the comparison might strike them as far-fetched, but I can guarantee they would have been drawn to each other. In both cases I knew the work thoroughly before I met the man. And in both men there was an uncompromising, tenacious, and indefatigable pursuit of excellence, an implicit splendor that accompanies Kierkegaard’s “purity of heart is to will one thing,” whether it be the art of food and wine or the art of cinema.

In Reflexions and in person one senses that like many artists Richard was quite human, only more so. He was perhaps too indulgent with some of his friends but that is part of the territory, and I remember his laconic twinkle when I was carted away after a four-hour lunch and a great deal of wine to address a large audience in Marseille. He was sympathetic but knew the situation was comic. Luckily with a gallon of excellent Domaine Tempier Bandol in my system the audience became a flowery blur.

The next morning on the train from Marseille to Paris I remember reflecting that there was a specific grandeur to Richard Olney. This was a largehearted man, and his largeheartedness is everywhere in Reflexions, from his single-minded devotion to his work, to his lifelong love for his five brothers and sisters and his many friends. One can only imagine the loss felt by his close friends such as Kermit and Gail, Lulu Peyraud and Alice Waters, and his brothers and sisters and their children who were so close to him. Reflexions is an enchanting memoir of this life.

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