Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
March 6, 2019
“My Twenty-Five Years in Provence”
“After several months our luck finally changed. We found a house on a hillside,
with several thousand acres of the Luberon Natural Regional Park at the end of the back garden,
a modest vineyard and the fine old village of Ménerbes two minutes away.”
Peter Mayle (1939-2018)
My Twenty-Five years in Provence, 2019
Peter Mayle and Provence have been as one, since his first book A Year in Provence was published in 1989. He and his wife, in their early fifties, had moved two years earlier from England to the small village of Ménerbes in the Provence region of southwestern France.
Mr. Mayle, who died in January 2018 at age 79, was the author of sixteen books, most dealing with Provence, four of them novels set in the region. He was best when describing life in the small village where he lived. This book comprises twenty-two vignettes – a series of sketches – that reflect his quarter century in the region. It is a rambling romp through the years, from the drizzly day when he and his wife first decided they might move permanently to the area where the sun shines 300 days of the year: “The further we drove from Aix, the more blue sky we saw pushing away the clouds.” Later, once established in their new town, they adapted to its slower pace: “Did it really matter if the occasional chore was postponed in favor of lunch? Time was elastic; there was always tomorrow.”
The chapters’ titles are evident of his light, deft touch and reflect his understated British sense of humor: “Learning French, Inch by Inch” (“As a first step, we would start speaking French to the dogs.”); “Nostalgia is not Always What it Used to be” (“Memory is at its best when it’s selective…”); “The Pulse of the Village” (“It would be a tragic loss if this unique and delightful institution [the village café] were to go the way of so many other victims of modern life.”); and “Summer Invasion, Autumn Exodus” (“But just when the crowded streets and the flurry of international faces begin to feel permanent, August ends, September begins, and with almost shocking speed the crowds are gone.”). In a chapter devoted to the weather, a preoccupation of all those who live in small towns as I can attest, Peter Mayle writes with lines that seem appropriate to our discombobulated time: “It is one of those grey mornings and this is reflected in his appearance.” [He is writing of an acquaintance, Jean-Jacques]. He looks ill-tempered, his ruddy, normally cheerful face set in an expression usually reserved for discussing politics.” The pleasure the reader gets, flitting around in these essays, is akin to dining at one of the cafés that dot the region – a plate of asparagus-risotto seasoned with truffles, accompanied by a glass of rosé, for which Provence is famous. Perhaps preceded by an aperitif of a native pastis.
Like all writers, Mr. Mayle likes feed-back. He writes of letters that were often replaced by personal visits – visitors arriving by car, bicycle or foot: “…it was sometimes a welcome distraction…I’d go back to work greatly encouraged. There’s nothing like an appreciative word from a satisfied reader.”
Technology has increased the pace of our lives and Provence is not immune. Peter Mayle ends his book with four trademark aspects of Provençal life that he hopes will never change: pastis, Provençal timing, boules and markets. Let’s hope the world hears and heeds his call. This is a short book of 179 pages, a warm paean to a place he loved. It is illustrated with photographs taken by his wife Jennie; it was published posthumously – a fitting farewell, as the dust jacket says, from an author, beloved by his neighbors as well as his readers.