It is a melancholy task to write the review of the last book of a man who died shortly before its publication, especially when, as in this book, he describes how he was sometimes, during interviews, asked irrelevant questions, subsequently to discover that the interviewer was asking them as preparation for writing his obituary.
But at least Peter Mayle thoroughly enjoyed the last twenty-five years of his life, assuming that his accounts of his felicity in Provence are not too rose-tinted. His life there was a round of simple pleasures interrupted, though not ruined, by intervals during which he wrote undemanding bestselling books about his round of simple pleasures. His writing is the diametrical opposite of, and perhaps the antidote to, the misery-memoir in which an abusive childhood is followed by the twenty-seven years of psychotherapy supposedly necessary to counteract its effects.
The subtitle of this slight but amusing, pleasantly written, and easily read book is somewhat misleading. Reflections on Then and Now causes us—or at least, caused me—to expect a kind of lament for the ways in which Provence has changed, not, of course, for the better. It is nothing of the kind. Modernity, when it catches up with a supposedly traditional way of life, usually lends its kitschiest, most meretricious aspects. But in essence, fortunately, Peter Mayle’s Provence has not changed very much. Even the huge influx of tourists every summer (some of them trying to catch a glimpse of Mayle himself, as if he were a Romanesque church to be visited) has not altered the underlying pace or pattern of life. And a lot of Mayle’s life seemed to consist of simply prepared but delicious lunches of local produce washed down with copious amounts of refreshing local rosé.
A lot of Mayle’s life seemed to consist of simply prepared but delicious lunches of local produce washed down with copious amounts of refreshing local rosé.
One might even call his existence la vie en rosé, and I have little doubt that it will arouse the envy of many a reader. Money for him was clearly not a problem even before he wrote his books that sold by the millions. He had evidently drawn a winning ticket in what is sometimes called the lottery of life (though in fact he also earned the winning ticket), and it would be interesting to know how many people on reading of his apparently complete felicity do not secretly hope that it was not quite as complete as advertised. La Rochefoucauld said that there is in the misfortune of our friends something not entirely unpleasing; by the same token, there is in the happiness of those we know something not entirely pleasing. We like there to have been a worm in everyone’s bud.
Mayle frequently resorts to dithyrambs about Provençal produce such as asparagus, peaches, garlic, and lettuce, and certainly it is vastly superior in taste to the great majority of what is sold under the same name in most of the world. Still, I am not perfectly convinced that all of it is grown using purely traditional methods, without the aid of pesticide, fungicide, or fertilizer. My experience of peasants worldwide is that they are not reluctant to adopt the methods that bourgeois urban ecologists and hypochondriacs deplore.
Since I spend part of my time in rural France, I am able to confirm many of Mayle’s impressions. He does occasionally miss out on less agreeable aspects of what he describes. For example, there is a picture of a sounder of wild boar, taken by his wife and titled “our neighbors,” accompanied by a description of the habits of these beasts:
In the summer, he [the sanglier or wild boar] has to walk miles to get a drink; in winter, he has to be constantly on the lookout for hunters, with their dogs and their guns. Despite this, the sanglier doesn’t seem to harbor any ill will toward humans, preferring to avoid them rather than make a nuisance of himself, which is more than can be said about some neighbors.
This is a very filleted version of the activities of the wild boar. It is true that it is nocturnal and shy, and thus more often heard than seen, but, as anyone knows who has tried to establish a garden where there are wild boar, they are both destructive and immensely strong, and can push aside boulders with their snouts. They can turn up an immense amount of earth in their search for food, destroying in a night the labor of a month or more. Defense against them is expensive and unsightly, and enthusiastic hunters, wanting them to be more numerous, have deliberately crossed them with domestic pigs, producing the so-called cochonglier (pig-boar) that has the merit, from the hunters’ point of view, of producing more than one litter a year and also many more offspring per litter. The result has been an explosion in numbers, which perhaps only the return of the wolf to France, attracted by the depopulation of rural areas and the consequent abundance of boar and deer, will control.
But much of what Mayle says seems to me true. The French have retained a certain ceremoniousness in their social relations which is both refreshing and civilized, though I think it is in decline. Young people seem not to value it as much. Even the burglar who entered my mother-in-law’s bedroom while she was asleep, however, said “Excusez-moi, madame.” But this was a few years ago; in the meantime, burglars may well have become less polite.
On a few points, Mayle repeats clichéd judgments that, if they were ever true, are true no longer. I have driven thousands of miles in the recent past in France, and, contrary to his claim, there are few “furious dramas that unfold once the Frenchman gets behind the wheel of his car.” Whatever may have been the case in the past, the French drive quite “normally” now. They are the veriest lambs by comparison with the Germans. Not long ago, my host in Germany, who was both drunk and possessed of the most powerful and luxurious model of the bmw range, drove me at 140 miles an hour down anAutobahn (on which there is no speed limit), turning to me as he spoke. And this could not be the manifestation of a rush of testosterone to the head of a young man: he was older than I. It was the most terrifying journey of my life, not excluding several through civil wars. But to my surprise, he was far from the fastest driver on the road: other lunatics would come up to his rear end and sound their horns and flash their lights in their impatience to get past him, sometimes overtaking on the inside lane. I have never seen anything to match it in France.
Nor is it true that the French do not know how to queue. They are bad at bus stops, granted, but otherwise they are not the disorderly mob Mayle describes. I shop frequently in France, and no one has pushed past me in the ruthless fashion that Mayle seems to think characteristic.
But his description of buying his isolated country house brought back happy memories of my doing the same. My wife and I arrived at the agency just before the sacred hour of lunch (or rather, the sacred two hours), but an enthusiastic new employee, anxious to show his boss that he was a worker, asked what we were looking for—old or new, with or without land?—and then, almost unheard of, gave up his lunch to show us a property. I have always found house-hunting a bore and have never looked at more than two or three before buying, and we said that we would make an offer. We had a train to catch at four o’clock a hundred miles away.
Reconvening at the agency at two o’clock, I made an offer with the boss present. Another man of uncertain function, overweight and in lemon-yellow shorts, sidled up to me and whispered alcoholically in my ear, “An extra ten thousand would be better.”
The boss called the vendor’s notary and said, while doing so, that he would put the speakerphone on to demonstrate that he was completely honest and above board. “I have buyers,” he said to the notary. “They have a train to catch.”
“Don’t let them leave!,” said the notary.
What we didn’t know at the time was that the house had been for sale for two years. In addition to the main house there was a little maison de gardien, in which a young man, his wife, and baby lived rent-free in return for watching over the house. He didn’t want to leave, of course, and had put off prospective buyers with tales of the especially harsh microclimat in which the house was situated (the especially clement microclimat that the agent had extolled as one of its attractions).
“Who are they, these buyers?,” asked the notary. “French?”
The agent looked at me.
“Yes,” he said. “French.”
After we had signed the compromis de vente, but before the completion of the sale, the agent phoned and gave us a sob-story about the young man, his wife, and the baby. We couldn’t just throw them out, he said, they had nowhere to go. They needed ten thousand to move. Fortunately, my wife had a legally trained friend.
“You have bought the house free of occupation,” he said, “you don’t pay a penny. It’s not your problem.”
When we refused, the agent lowered the price of the gardien’s departure to five thousand, which we again refused.
On the morning fixed for the completion of the sale, the tension ran high: not between us and the vendor’s notary or the agent, our notary sitting back and enjoying the proceedings, not having to say a word, but between the vendor’s notary and the agent. The gardien still wanted five thousand to move, and no court in France would have enforced the property rights of the vendor at the expense of the poor little baby. If the sale fell through now, the vendor would have to return our deposit—10 percent of the value of the house—plus the same amount again. To boot, the agent would lose his commission, 10 percent of the sale value. A battle royal—or game of poker—ensued. The vendor’s notary had a face of granite and, if such a thing were possible, a voice to match. He won: the agent agreed to pay the five thousand.
Scenes like this are the ones Mayle captures in his book: the small change of life in rural France. He is quite right about the interest the local people take in interlopers such as we. As one local said to us, you may not know anybody, but everybody knows you. They know when you arrive, they know when you leave, they know what work you have had done in your house, they know how much you paid for it. When we bought our refrigerator, we bought it from the store in the small town near us rather than from a larger distributor in the much bigger town five times further away, where it would have been considerably cheaper. We did this for the sake of our local reputation. When the owner of the store delivered it, he seemed to hang around, as if waiting for something.
“You have to tell him about yourselves,” said a visiting friend. “He can’t go home to his wife and tell her that he has found nothing out about you.”
We gave him some information and he left, honor satisfied. I suppose it took roughly two hours for everyone in the town to be apprised, with suitable emendations, of that information. Perhaps it is small-minded and even constraining (though I am content with my present unexciting and colorless life), but at least one ceases to be nobody, as does everyone else. Peter Mayle, having lived in the anonymity of London and New York, relished the human warmth of Provence as much as its more sensual pleasures.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 72
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