“My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now” by Peter Mayle (2018).
Peter Mayle died in January 2018 and left behind this charming collection of essays, guaranteed to enchant readers all over again. The book is a tour of a life well observed and wittily recounted and illustrates why Mayle is the favorite window through which the English-speaking world views Provence.
Mayle, a private person, reveals a few nuggets from his background that hint at what led him and his wife Jennie to Provence. He recounts how one of his novels made its way to movie producer Ridley Scott and was transformed into the film A Good Year. He begins, “In those days, Jennie and I and Ridley all worked in London … for the advertising business.”
He then describes working with Ridley on an unpromising project for a deodorant commercial, but one suspects the experience sums up Mayle’s view of the world of advertising: “all traces of originality were weeded out by the client until all we were left with was a tired jingle that had been created by a previous agency …”
The creative Ridley Scott turned the commercial into a hit and later went on to Hollywood while Peter and Jennie eventually packed up and headed across France to Provence. Riding in their car down Route Nationale 7, they listened to Charles Trenet singing on the car radio with “the lyrics dripping with le soleil, le ciel bleu, les vacances and the promise of wonderful times.” No one drained the creativity out of Mayle’s work ever again.
And the lure of Provence? “There was a café on the edge of the square … we sat on the terrace with its long-distance views of the surrounding countryside. It would, we agreed, be a wonderful place to live. And we were ready for a simpler, sunnier life.”
Mayle succeeded in his quest and found comfortable surroundings in a rustic country life. Later he observes that “time was elastic; there was always tomorrow.”
His many books testify to Mayle’s fondness for writing about Provence and its people just as Cezanne liked painting its outdoors. Like Cezanne, Mayle writes from a simple palette, but his images and stories are richly portrayed.
Mayle captured the essence of how people in Provence lived by meeting them on the terrace of the café, at the market, or the local festival; the villagers became a rich set of characters memorably drawn. There is never a hint of exasperation with the country people from the former London sophisticate.
To the contrary, the exasperation is saved for English friends coming down from London who petulantly whine about why rural France is, well, rural. One can tell Mayle had by then crossed over to the other side. He is never nostalgic for lost worlds but lives in the present, which fully occupies his interest.
Mayle is a great word painter and of course superb at writing quintessential Mayle-like scenes: “weather-beaten stone, faded roof tiles, usually shaded by a couple of venerable plane trees or an alley of cypresses. This was, we later discovered, typical Provençal countryside. We loved it then, and we love it now.”
No matter how many times you’ve read Mayle’s descriptions of perched villages and sunny village squares, each new anecdote is a rearrangement of the familiar flowers in a new vase. His prose is always fresh.
He lists Marseilles as one of his favorite cities—the great food meeting the dark blue sea—and observing that “a day in Marseilles is like a stroll through history.” Earlier he wrote that “as one often does after a plunge into history, we emerged in need of refreshment.” History is something you do before lunch. Then, history is justly rewarded.
Mayle’s novels often feature elaborate descriptions of sumptuous plates served in restaurants of high authenticity. There are expert references to great vintages—all from the vantage point of the connoisseur. But in this book, Mayle more often-than-not mentions village restaurants with short menus and paper tablecloths where “the wine list was a model of brevity: red, white, or rosé, served in generous carafes. We felt very much at home.” He wears his unpretentiousness lightly.
So Peter and Jennie liked country life “where as winter approaches the local restaurants light up their log fires and put thick soups and stews and wild game back on their menus.” The plats du jour and chefs’ recommendations were this couple’s métier.
Early in the book Mayle said of a pleasant passing village interlude that “it was a surprisingly good-humored experience.” To which one can only add— yes, it was, Peter. Thank you.
by Paul A. Myers