I found this story in BASS 2010; the story was published in Glimmer Train in Spring 2009, and it is also the title story of her January 2009 collection.
This story was a strange journey for me, but the ones that aren’t never make it to these pages, they’re read and forgotten. I had several points of complaint, then read the afternotes (I completely forgot, which is odd since the afternotes are my favorite part of the BASS volumes) and discovered my complaints were the product of my own ignorance. This is quite embarrassing. Perhaps the story should come with a warning: know a little about Martha Gellhorn, Mitterand’s last meal, and the Maupassant’s story “Boule de Suif” before reading.
Before I even got to the story, the title reminded me of the introductory passage from Anthony Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, which I read and posted about here about three weeks ago. He recounts some secret underground dinner, attended by chefs who are not named but who, the reader is assured, are widely recognized, and features a ritual eating of ortolan (small finches), now illegal to hunt, traditionally (but not in this case) blinded, overfed, and drowned in a distinctive brandy, pan roasted and fried in oil and butter, eaten whole – yes, bones, beak, guts, and all, just dropped into the mouth feet first – while a napkin covers the face of each diner. At the time I wasn’t sure if his account was a dark fantasy (it smacked of The Freshman, which featured a dinner of endangered species) or something real.
Groff’s story includes, in flashback, an account of female war correspondent Bern’s affair at age 16 with the mayor of Philadelphia and their attendance at such a feast in Montreal. Having just read of this ritual made me fond of the story, because I felt like an insider – my hand waving wildly over my head, “Hey, call on me, yes, I know about this, I’ve heard of it!” But it also struck me as odd, that I should hear about something so strange twice within three weeks, having never heard of it before. Then again, the list of things I’ve never heard of is quite long, by its very nature far longer than I realize. Groff mentions in her afternotes that this ritual dinner was reputed to be Mitterand’s last meal in 1995, and apparently it’s been a quite popular topic lately, at least to those in certain circles. Oops, my bad.
I wondered about the timeline of the story. The character Bern was 22 when covering the Spanish Civil War, awfully young for a war correspondent, and making her 16 some time between 1930 and 1933 – during the Great Depression, which is not mentioned even in passing during her recollection of the limo drive to Montreal where they are served this exotic meal under silver. And then she a prize-winning story published, which has people calling her L’Ortolan, as her last name is Orton. This seems a bit coincidental and forced. Groff’s afternotes again to the rescue – she based the character on Martha Gellhorn, who was indeed a novelist and war correspondent (and Hemingway’s third wife) at a very young age, though not quite as young as the character Bern. My bad again.
Overall the story carries some interesting and hard-hitting images of WWII, and the “delicate, edible birds” image works throughout, applying to French countrymen strafed by a German plane, to pretty much everyone in the path of the Nazis as they occupied France, to these journalists, to women in general, and to Bern herself. They are racing to get to Bordeaux, believing it to be safe there. I’m a little hazy on the Occupation and Vichy France and all, but my understanding is that journalists were interned at Lourdes and Baden Baden, safely and relatively comfortably, so I had trouble understanding the urgency to escape – but I am willing to accept that history may show things very differently from how they would’ve been perceived at the time, and had I been a journalist I would’ve been quite eager to get the hell out of there before any swastikas showed up. And again, Groff’s afternotes point out that the Maupassant short story “Boule de Suif”, as well as the collected letters of Ms. Gellhorn, were the basis for the journalists’ escapades. And by now I’m downright embarrassed by my stupidity. And as a result, of course, I hate this story. Wouldn’t you? But I realize that isn’t fair.
The crux of the story of this carload of journalists – from Italy, Russia, the US and England – is whether or not Bern should sleep with a civilian captor to obtain his help to flee the approaching German army. There is little surprise here; it’s a story not of plot but of people, interactions, backstories, and personality, though the people don’t surprise me either. Their French civilian captor (with his family of aged mother and two sons) at times seems like something out of a cross between the playwright in The Producers and the banjo people in Deliverance, but then he becomes quite eloquent and articulate, which seems odd, as if the character changes. But I may be supplying the oafish quality on my own.
There’s something about the story that I enjoyed, and I’m not sure it was limited to the “Me, too” phenomenon. It seemed a little too precious at times (one of the male correspondents sees Bern as “the future” and I’ve already mentioned her last name being coincidentally similar to ortolan). And maybe, if truth is stranger than fiction, I’d rather read about the real Martha Gellhorn than the fictional Bern, because, frankly, Bern seems a bit too staged to me. But there’s great potential as a discussion piece. How would it go down today? What are the motives of the men as they urge her to act in one way or another? How does the time in the barn change things? When she says, “It isn’t about courage” what is it about? Does she go because the men pressure her, or because she, too, is scared? There are many powerful moments, particularly regarding the car of journalists passing a crowd of straffed French civilians, and the backstories the journalists reveal. It’s a story worth reading and contains a lot of food for thought (other than birds). Especially for those smarter than I.