My introduction to Jean-Claude Izzo's work has been through his essays collected in Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil: Essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean Cuisine and Noir Fiction, a wonderful little collection of about seventeen essays. Most are very short, and they are often effusive in tone. Here you can see Izzo's passions and get a sense of what he was like, what he believed and what he loved. At the heart of it all is the city of Marseilles as so many of these writings are really a love song to his city. I've long had an impression of Marseilles as being a large, sprawling metropolis, maybe one that has seen better days, filled with travelers and immigrants (being a port city) and maybe a little gritty and rife with criminal elements. I'm not sure how close or how far off I am, but Izzo writes about it so lovingly that now I want to travel there myself. It sounds warm and inviting and wonderfully exotic to me at the moment.
Sadly Izzo passed away in 2000 when he was only in his mid-50s. In his introduction author Massimo Carlotto describes Izzo as foremost a good person for whom he felt much warmth. Izzo, an autodidact, was the son of immigrants, an Italian father and a Spanish mother, and his own background reflects so much of the essence of what is Marseilles. He began his career as a left-wing journalist after having written for both film and television. He eventually moved on to writing fiction, particularly noir fiction exemplifying what is known as Mediterranean Noir. His most famous works are a trio of books (Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea) featuring policeman Fabio Montale, who seems to have more than a passing resemblance to Izzo himself.
Massimo Carlotto calls Izzo's work (particularly Total Chaos) innovative. With a nod in the direction of Albert Camus (The Outsiders), James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice) as well as the works of Davis Goodis and Jim Thompson (though ultimately all the way back to the Greek Tragedies), he helped establish Mediterranean Noir, which has spread throughout the region. Mediterranean Noir is all about tragedy--"the tragedy of modern societies"--both individual and collective.
"His (Izzo's) use of the noir genre is not limited simply to description but penetrates deep into the heart of the incongruities, leaving room for sociological reflection and for a return to his generation's collective memory, and above all, gives a sense to the present day."
I'm reading Total Chaos now and the story exudes the Mediterranean. The smells, the sounds, the sea, the culture--music especially, the cosmopolitan mix of people is all there. And you can find it all in the pages of this book, too. I find the explanations behind the story and the development of Mediterranean Noir really fascinating, which I will share more about (what I've been reading about--not just Mediterranean Noir but it's development from the earlier days of Hardboiled fiction) later. Garlic, Mint, & Basil is the perfect introduction to Izzo's trilogy.
The essays are divided into three sections: The Mediterranean and Its Noir, Marseilles, and Fabio Montale. Much of what he writes is introspective. The essays are almost best thought of as meditations. I think the Mediterranean and Marseilles was in Izzo's blood--it's intertwined with his writing certainly. There's a little history, a little politics, a little geography, even a little cuisine in this book, and a lot of what makes Izzo tick all wrapped up in the Mediterranean culture.
"Marseilles is, and always has been, the port of exiles, of Mediterranean exiles, of exiles from our former Colonial routes, too. Here, whoever disembarks in the port is inevitably home. Wherever you are from, you feel at home in Marseilles. You see familiar faces on the streets, you smell familiar smells. Marseilles is familiar. From the moment you first look at her."I suspect I'll be referring back to this little book when I get around to writing about his novels. In the meantime I am keeping this by my bedside to dip into now and again as I read about Izzo's city, which features so predominately in Total Chaos, which by the way, is so far an excellent read.
"That is why I love this city, my city. She is beautiful because of that familiarity, which is like bread to be shared by all. She is beautiful only because of her humanity. The rest is just chauvinism. There are plenty of beautiful cities with beautiful monuments in Europe. The world is full of beautiful harbors, beautiful beautiful bays, magnificent ports. I am not a chauvinist. I am a Marseillais. That means I am from here, passionately so, and from everywhere else at the same time. Marseilles is my world culture. My initial world education."