In the beginning, supposedly, was the word; but surely the grape arrived first. Words, in my creation myth, appeared when harvest time came round and the winemaker realised he needed help to get the grapes in, but it’s probably a good thing they did, because what is a glass of wine without a conversation to accompany it?
Wine needs no translation – but then translation, rather like wine, can bring lucidity or muddle, depending on how you approach it. The Japanese, according to David Bellos’s wonderful book Is That A Fish in Your Ear?, have around 20 words for it, including one used for popular novels of the Danielle Steel variety, which means “translations that are even better than the originals”.
That word won’t be needed for Les Ignorants, by Étienne Davodeau, a charmingly odd graphic novel. Davodeau and his old friend, the Loire winemaker Richard Leroy, spend a year enlightening the other about their respective professions. Wine, so often the producer of mental fog, becomes instead an agent of clarity; the two men, to say nothing of Davodeau’s readers, learn a great deal about the painstaking processes that make a comic book or a bottle.
Whether you’re interested in wine, graphic novels or neither, it is hard not to warm to a book that has a chapter entitled “In praise of cowpats”. Étienne tries a lot of good wine and learns a great deal about the purist philosophy known as biodynamics, including more about sulphur than anyone except a biodynamic winemaker could reasonably wish to know. (Sulphur stabilises wine, which is particularly important when transferring it from barrel to bottle: biodynamic winemakers endlessly debate the advisability of adding even this.)
In return, Leroy visits editors, exhibitions and graphic-novel festivals; he even sits in on an editorial meeting (first question from this maker, and generous sharer, of white wines: “I presume you have a fridge?”).
He also reads his way through a library prescribed by his friend. The two visit novelists and winemakers; the conversation, as befits a book on wine, is rich, sophisticated and spiced with gentle mockery. The wine man can pinpoint a producer just by sniffing the contents of his glass, but he keeps forgetting the names of the books he’s read; after the first few bottles are opened, the writer’s tastebuds go on strike.
So it’s particularly irritating to learn that Les Ignorants, a book about ignorance and the joys of lessening it, has been translated not as The Ignoramuses (or even, Ignorami) but as The Initiates. Why? It’s an awful management-speak word; it puts me in mind of a 1934 New Yorker story by James Thurber, in which that great comic writer superciliously explains that the phrase mise du château on wine bottles means “mice in the chateau” and is intended to show that said chateau is authentically old, so makes good wine.
The phrase “is extremely simple,” he says repressively, “and it is astonishing how many Americans are puzzled by it.” The phrase is doggerel: a mouse in French is une souris, and even French “mises” are less than fussy about the vintage of their accommodation. Thurber was patronising the wine snobs – what the French call les buveurs d’etiquettes, (label drinkers): the people who care only about the words on the bottle rather than what’s inside it.
Words should enhance wine, and vice versa: if you want a creed, there’s mine. And not mine alone: at Drink and Draw, on 1 June, part of the Institut Français graphic novel festival, Davodeau will discuss wine and drawing while the wine writer Tim Atkin talks about wine and serves it, too, thus proving that even experiences that require no words do really, because what is a wordless experience if we don’t talk about it afterwards?
The books and the booze come out of Les Ignorants neck and neck (or should that be neck and spine?), whichever started first; but then again, it was never a race.