New Adventures in the South of France
By Peter Mayle
Knopf. 225 pp. $23
"As happy as God in France" -- so goes a famous old saying. But where precisely would the Almighty choose to set up his residence? He would probably want -- as who would not? -- a pied a terre in Paris, perhaps on the Ile de la Cite, but any supremely intelligent deity would almost certainly opt for some prime real estate in Provence for his principal household. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if God's little acreage didn't resemble Peter Mayle's, with slightly better grape vines and some really efficient help.
Of course, efficiency goes against the Provencal work ethic, if one can call it that. According to Peter Mayle in his latest collection of essays about la douceur de vivre en Provence, the French Southerner ardently believes that a leisurely lunch is the ultimate basis of culture. And after reading these enthusiastic paeans to olive oil, truffles and bouillabaisse, usually washed down with a good local vintage or a glass of pastis, only the most Puritan American is likely to disagree. Most of us will start daydreaming about a Concorde flight to Paris, followed by an express train ride to Avignon, Arles or Aix.
"Returning to a place where you have been happy is generally regarded as a mistake," observes Mayle in the opening piece here. Huh? Most readers of A Year in Provence and such lighthearted caper novels as Anything Considered probably thought, as I did, that Peter Mayle had never left France. Not for long anyway. I mean, what fool would leave paradise?
Still, the former advertising executive and his wife apparently spent four years in New York -- what a falling off was that! -- before deciding it was time to check up on their old farmhouse near Apt and see if Provence had changed much. No doubt, a publisher's advance played some small part in these decisions.
And certainly Mayle must have wondered whether his critics could possibly be right. Wasn't he widely blamed for encouraging marauding retirees to bus-tour through Cezanne country, for inspiring well-to-do Americans to acquire faux-peasant vacation homes near Les Baux, for inducing well-meaning Anglo-Saxons to love Provencal culture to death? In large part, then, Encore Provence aims to demonstrate how little has in fact changed south of Lyons and how traditional Provencal ways flourish in the midst of fax machines and cell phones. "Provence is still beautiful," concludes Mayle. "Vast areas of it are still wild and empty. Peace and silence, which have become endangered commodities in the modern world, are still available. The old men still play their endless games of boules. The markets are as colorful and abundant as ever. There is room to breathe, and the air is clear."
To all appearances, Mayle's chapters here -- on the training of a perfumer's nose or the search for the perfect corkscrew -- are the most casual of casual essays, no doubt originally printed as articles in glossy travel magazines. Sometimes it's even hard to know where reporting stops and reverie begins: lazy siestas, the ideal village, the dangerous pleasures of Marseille, tramping the hills at dawn, various ways to spend a musky summer afternoon -- everything really seems quite Edenic. One's inner skeptic yearns to dismiss it all as sentimental mythologizing, yet Mayle is just so darn engaging. His voice soothes, his sentences flow along, lightsome, nonchalant, amiable:
"It was going to be one of those brilliantly clear winter days when the scenery looks as though it's been polished."
"Old age is unlikely to be a keenly anticipated period in anybody's life, and no amount of euphemistic camouflage by the senior-citizen lobby can make it any more attractive than a long-awaited bill that finally arrives."
In other words, Peter Mayle possesses the 18th-century art of being agreeable, and like his friend Regis he has learned how "to take pleasure from the simple fact of being alive." As a result, Encore Provence offers no profundities about life -- other than the importance of living it with a certain gusto -- but lots of amusing anecdotes and stories. A handsome, small-town butcher starts to sleep with the housewives who frequent his shop. What are the cuckolded husbands to do? A visitor accidentally spills wine on his pants and must take them to the local dry cleaner, where he is taken aback. "Madame spread the trousers on the counter, examining the stains with a professional eye and a discouraging shake of the head. It was possible, she said, that the stains could be removed, but that would depend on the wine. Was it a Chateauneuf or one of the lighter Luberon reds?"
Best of all, Mayle listens to raffish Marius describe how he plans to die, after a sumptuous luncheon with his old, and very stingy, friend Bernard:
" `This is how it will pass,' he said. `We have eaten the meal of a lifetime, we have drunk like kings, we have laughed and exchanged stories, lied about our successes with women, vowed eternal friendship, drained the last wonderful bottle. And yet the afternoon is still young. We are not quite ready to leave. Another glass or two to settle the stomach, and what could be better than a cognac made in 1934, the year of my birth? I raise my hand to summon the waiter -- and then, paf!'
" `A crise cardiaque, a fatal heart attack.' Marius slumped forward on the table, turning his head to look up at me. `I die instantly, but I have a smile on my face.' He winked. `Because Bernard gets the bill.'
"He sat back in his chair and crossed himself. `Now that's a death.' "
Is Provence really as idyllic as Mayle depicts it? Thirty years ago, on the night I first arrived in Marseille, I stood awestruck by the finest sunset I've ever seen, and the rest of my own year in Provence actually lived up to that Technicolor evening. Reading Mayle I remember eccentric bar owners I once knew, and a couple of pretty girls I never got to know, and a glorious seven-hour lunch. I can't say if Provence is really still this wonderful -- memory, as Peter Mayle reminds us, is a notoriously sentimental editor -- but it should be. I'm sure that God wouldn't want to change a thing in his own backyard.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.