"When I am down on my luck for a short period... I go and have my hair cut. But when the period of depression has been long and anxieties seem to be becoming too much for me, I make a bolt for Provence." Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) was hardly alone in his enthusiasm for Southern France; nearly everyone who has once lived there -- from Petrarch to Ezra Pound -- tends ever after to yearn for this land of olive trees and jagged rocks, of Matisse-like sunlight and knife-edged Mistral.
In Ford's best known poem, "On Heaven," (1918) he described heaven as a small town rather like Aix or Arles, where one might drink pastis is the cool evening after walking on a tree-and cafe-lined main street. In Provence (1935) Ford pays further homage -- through a sometimes exasperating hodgepodge of personal experience and medieval history -- to this province and people devoted to love, independence, fresh air and simple living.
"Provence is not a country nor the home of a race, but a frame of mind." In the midst of the Depression, when civilization seemed to be "staggering to its end," Ford believed that only by fostering a Provencal spirit -- one that emphasized an appreciation of the arts, the benefits of a simple died, and a healthy sensuousness -- could the world be saved from barbarism, indigestion and heavy industry. All in all, his plea resembles that of the Southern Agrarians (he dedicated the book to Fugitives Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon) and at times even takes on a polemical tone as he inveighs against the world "where the Studebakers grow."
The contrast between the easygoing culture of the South and the industrious, Protestant North -- here pictured as the "garret of a gloomy, fog-filled undignifiedly old, London house... a cavern of draughts" where Ford writes -- goes at least as far back as the Germania of Tacitus (though the Roman historian preferred the Teutonic North to the decadent South). Notwithstanding a rambling prose style that may put off admirers of the strict and fugue-like Good Soldier (1915), Ford does offer an alluring vision of an E. F. Schumacher world of "small men each labouring two small plots -- his own ground and his own soul." And if his writing is somewhat uneven, perhaps London is partly to blame: "If I write a sentence it comes out as backboneless as a waterhose... when I get back to Provence... I shall write little crisp sentences like silver fish jumping out of streams." (Ecco, paperback, $6.95)