A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 224 pages.
A Year in Provence begins with New Year's lunch and ends with Christmas lunch. Between the two meals is a memorable year full of characters (from eccentric neighbors and affable builders to aged chefs), forays into the countryside, unwelcome visitors, the Mistral, and, of course, gastronomic delights.
Without explanation, such as how they can afford it, Peter Mayle describes how he and his nameless wife buy an old farmhouse in the Lubéron, insulated from the greater world and from change by the public lands that surround them. With dry English detachment, Mayle settles into a life ruled not by the minutes of commerce ("time is money") but by the seasons and the opportunities each brings, whether it's goat races, boules, or fresh olive oil. Although puzzled at first by what the people do when the bitter winter Mistral blows, Mayle soon figures out that even this depressing and confining season has its productsbabies.
To their credit, the Mayles seem willing to accept and adapt to the Provence pace of life rather than expecting to find the urban English experience to which they are accustomed. They accept that the builders will return tomorrow "normalement" and don't fuss when "tomorrow" is weeks later. Rather than becoming demanding and ugly, which would achieve nothing, they come up with a plan that motivates the builders to complete the house by Christmas. They choose to live in Provence on its terms, not theirs.
Mayle expertly portrays the foibles of each person he meets. As a farmer, his neighbor Faustin is ever the pessimist, seeing future clouds on sunny days. "As if his life were not already filled with grief, Nature had put a further difficulty in his way" (that is, the table and wine grapes have to be picked at separate times, giving both crops the opportunity to go bad).
Another neighbor, Massot, could be the stereotype of the American mountain man, mistrustful and fiercely independent. Of his fierce Alsatians he says, "They wouldn't be happy in a town. I'd have to shoot them." Mayle adds, "He turned off the path to go into the forest and terrorize some birds, a brutal, greedy, and mendacious old scoundrel. I was becoming quite fond of him." Mayle doesn't pass up an opportunity for irony. Massot says, "Every summer they [Germans] come here and put up tents and make merde all over the forest" as he tosses an empty cigarette packet into the bushes. Later Mayle talks about, "The Belgians . . . to blame for the majority of accidents . . . forcing the famously prudent French driver into ditches."
The author does not spare himself. Hearing shots and hoping that the local grocer had missed killing a sanglier, Mayle says of the French countryman, "Let him worship his stomach; I would maintain a civilized detachment from the blood lust that surrounded me . . . This noble smugness lasted until dinner [a wild rabbit] . . . The gravy, thickened with blood, was wonderful."
When Mayle isn't chatting with the neighbors, being advised by the local plumber-musician, despairing over how to move his heavy stone table, entertaining friends of friends and obnoxious advertising executives, or watching goat races, he is, of course, eating. He and his wife find culinary wonders in the "good, simple food" served inexpensively in the restaurants they visit. ". . . artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels"and those are just the hors d'oeuvres, served with "thick slices of pâté and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers."
When it comes to food, Mayle's favorite adjective is "fresh," which captures difference between life as most of us know it and the charm of Mayle's life in the Lubéron. Pressed for the time by the pressures of suburban living, commuting, work in the city, and our consumerist culture, and detached from the land, we eat food that is packaged, preserved, and transported, and then sold to us at a time and distance from when and where it was produced. Most of us live and eat well, we believe, but at the price of stress and at the cost of the pure enjoyment Mayle finds every time he dines in Provence, where bread is launched "into a sea of fish soup" and "it was as if the sliced, wrapped, machine-made loaf had never been invented."
I began A Year in Provence out of curiosity about its popularity and soon found myself living vicariously through Mayle, savoring not only the food and the beauty and rhythms of the countryside that produces it, but the companionship and consideration of each person they meet. As Maurice, the chef who finds a way to provide the powerless, desperate, and grateful Mayles with their Christmas meal "at a tiny table between the kitchen door and the open fire, next to a large and festive family," says, "It's not the day to be without an oven." A Year in Provence shows how richly rewarding even a simple life can be when accepted on its own terms, without ego, assumptions, or demands.
Sunday, 23 March 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.