A YEAR IN PROVENCE
By Peter Mayle
Knopf. 207 pp. $19.95
Book reviewing may be neither an art nor a science, but it sometimes can resemble a labor of love. Thus, I confess to having read this delightful memoir not once, not twice, but four times now -- above and beyond the call of duty, to be sure, but definitely just what the me'decin ordered for anyone as "homesick" for southern France as I usually find myself to be 10 months out of every 12.
Peter Mayle, a former London advertising executive now living with his wife outside the village of Menerbes, has been a full-time writer for the past decade and a half. In the British edition of "A Year in Provence," first published there a year ago (owning a transatlantic copy has enabled me to savor its contents at regular three-month intervals), he claimed to be approaching "50 as slowly as possible," an understandable goal.
Whether or not he's still managing to keep that momentous birthday at bay -- the American version doesn't say -- it's hardly retirement age. It is, though, traditionally a time when one imagines how one's existence might be different and begins to daydream about such changes.
Peter Mayle is notably his own man when it comes to life shifts, and having already precociously departed one world, the world of business, he was unlikely to balk at taking leave of another. So, when occasion arose to buy a beautifully situated mas (the name given to Provencal farmhouses -- those sand-colored, terra cotta-roofed, organic-seeming buildings that dot the landscape) and restore it, the Mayles hesitated less than an instant. But instead of making this new possession their annual holiday destination, they decided to make it home.
In short order, writes the author, they'd "taken French lessons, said our good-byes, shipped over our two dogs and become foreigners." But like a transplanted Monsieur Blandings, of "Dream House" fame, Mayle finds the formula -- dilapidated but charming old house plus rural setting -- for early retirement bliss is a volatile one, especially when enhanced by strong sun, local wine and lovely, garlicky food.
In truth, probably, this realization -- everything happens tomorrow, nothing goes as planned, "tomorrow" may mean next month, next year or never -- came as little a surprise to the author as it does to us hardened veteran readers of this particular sub-genre of memoir, or to anyone anywhere, for that matter, who's ever renovated a house while living in it. But for those of us who've dealt with French village masons, those indispensable mecs who are as agreeable as they are unreliable, or who've watched the Gallic bureaucratic propensity for insanely needless paperwork qualify ordinary citizens for sainthood, "A Year in Provence" has that special zing of dear familiarity.
For other readers, who won't long be strangers to the territory thanks to Mayle's vivid, witty narrative, the difference between Menerbes and, say, Minneapolis is soon made very clear. Moreover, as someone with a cherished small collection of Provencal guidebooks, memoirs, cookbooks and the like, I have to say that I really haven't before encountered a volume that so completely mirrored my own experience of the Luberon (the mid-Provence mountain range) and the Vaucluse (the de'partement in which it is located).
Whether choosing to mention Cavaillon's rather seedily rococo fin de sie`cle cafe or the colorful Sunday morning marche' paysan at Coustellet or the hidden-away Auberge de la Loube at Buoux, Mayle seems to me to be perfectly on target in what he chooses to enjoy and where he prefers to go. He's utterly right when he despairs of ever getting the kissing right (you may think one on each cheek, but other combinations are not only possible but likely, causing momentary confusion for the newcomer at all encounters) and when he describes the panic that comes over the dinner guest who suddenly realizes, as yet another unexpected course appears, that the delicious meal, begun with such gusto, is far from over.
More seriously dreadful is the crazed pop-pop-pop that marks the first sunrise of the hunting season every September, as all the pastis-swilling Elmer Fudds take to the hills. Yet another noise that's awfully annoying but not so potentially lethal is the drone of the cement mixers, competing with the cicadas on peaceful rural lanes and heralding the arrival of over-designed vacation villas or under-designed village "suburban" sprawl. Mayle notes these characteristic Provencal sounds, along with such other phenomena as the raucous goat races, the footmark lavatories and the invasive reality of a blustery mistral, the famous wind that has often seemed to me like an invisible giant, shaking the shutters trying to get in.
A British acquaintance of mine with a house in the Luberon complained disgustedly to me that this book was far too cheerful, that Mayle got it all wrong, that the Provencal villagers were dishonest and bigoted, cheating foreigners whenever they could, and that the sun's seductive powers only hid but did not dispel the darkness at the heart of the Provencal nature. It would be foolish to pretend that I did not know what he meant, for I have encountered episodes of venality, prejudice and cowardice, among other of humankind's less attractive traits, as I have interacted with my neighbors there and listened eagerly to stories of local life.
But I know, as well, that the kindness, generosity, warmth and friendship I've also experienced, along with the instant opening of my senses that always seems to occur the moment I step off the plane at Nice, all leave me anguished at every departure. I do envy Peter Mayle his residence there, even as I know that I'm not sure it's what I want for myself all the year round. At least not yet. So I'm grateful to him for giving me not only a portrait I can recognize but also, in this anecdotal almanac with its chapters headed "January" through "December," the saga of those 10 months during which I'm absent.
The reviewer is the author of "Momilies: As My Mother Used to Say," published in France as "Les Mamandises."