FRENCH LESSONS Adventures With Knife, Fork and Corkscrew By Peter Mayle Alfred A. Knopf: 228 pp., $24
Irrepressible, like springtime, like ants at a picnic, like Nixon. I've given up criticizing Peter Mayle. It's time to join him. He's having so much fun, in "French Lessons" especially, pretending (by his own admission) to be a journalist, wandering into villages, writing about food festivals, from snails to cheese to frogs (Miss Grenouille of the smooth thighs!) and, yes, wine. "I always find it difficult to make intelligible notes when I'm enjoying myself, possibly because my hand is often holding a glass when it should be holding a pen." He's been criticized for his arrogance and for his bourgeois complaints about regular French folk, but ask yourself: How much damage can he really be doing to the merchant class of France? The man is British; you cannot forget this. Being British means: 1) He complains more than the average traveler and 2) There are fewer miles for his romanticism to travel before he falls, weary of the world, into the arms of France. He doesn't have to love every stonemason, every restaurateur, and if you don't want to read about the trials of the middle-class homeowner in Europe, you don't have to read him.
Mayle makes up in exuberance what he lacks in sophistication, even grammar. He's a grand old uncle who hasn't lost his willingness to ask the obvious questions about life in another country. (How do they make such delicious omelets?) This book clinches the deal: Mayle loves France, not necessarily the French. Plenty of Americans feel this way about America.
IN MAREMMA Life and a House in Southern Tuscany By David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell Counterpoint: 160 pp., $24
"The most useful thing anyone living in Italy can learn is how to be bored." Unlike Peter Mayle and his love-hate relationship with France, David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell take their fascination and love for Italy very seriously. I imagine that they are less obtrusive in their village in southern Tuscany, more realistic about the lives of expatriates than Mayle ever was. They are honest about what they love and what they don't love, as well as about what they miss (peanut butter, for example, and BLTs). They write about the Italian bureaucracy with a kind of horror and with many references to fascism. "There is no charm in any of this," they write about getting a driver's license. "Every garden has its Lucifer, and it is well to lose the innocence that conceals the truth." Still, they remind a reader of E.M. Forster characters, drawn with a backdrop of Italy, even as they protest that "Italy has a way of refusing to remain only in the background." The lovely effect this has is that you don't yearn to uproot your entire life and move to Italy, as some of us might after reading Mayle's accounts of France. Instead, you drive down your own Main Street in the morning, wherever that might be, and you notice the people having their cappuccino outside. You notice the people washing their cars at the local carwash. You watch yourself drop off your own children at school as if, for one glorious moment, you were a traveler, a tourist, a visitor, a foreigner. The mundane is made charming. Priceless.
ON THE WINGA Young American Abroad By Nora Sayre Counterpoint: 256 pp., $24
Now forget backdrop. Nora Sayre was a young woman who traveled among people, barely noticing the food or the scenery or even the art. She instead has an ear for conversation and a memory to match. In "On the Wing," she recalls London in the late 1950s, where she ended up in her early 20s, on the run from the demi-monde of New York and her parents in the center of that world. But she had spent her early years in Los Angeles, and this gave her an extra understanding of London. "Rapidly I found that sexual candor was matched by dramatic indiscretions: Everybody seemed to inform everybody about their own and others' most intimate moments."
There is also her love of glam, her willingness to play the audience to such personalities as Arthur Koestler, A.J. Liebling, Graham Greene, Tyrone Power, Kenneth Tynan. She spends a great deal of time describing her much-loved friend Mai Zetterling. She also exposes some brutally misogynistic behavior, Koestler's and Cyril Connolly's in particular. It's very entertaining but sometimes silly: "English literary warfare was as cruelly direct as karate, as poisonous as Germany's gases of World War I." That kind of hyperbole often ends in indiscretion with Sayre. But this is always the downside of the patricians: suffering is often remote and not understood and, therefore, a handmaiden to humor and frivolity.