Peter Mayle: Still passionate about Provence
Peter Mayle is probably the most famous British expat in France - and certainly one of the most successful. We look at his new book, an A-Z of Provence recently published in English.
A" is for accent and "Z" is for Zola, and in between lies a world of delight in a witty, alphabetical guide to Provence by British author Peter Mayle, who put that corner of southern France on the map.
"But this book is a novel departure for Mayle, whose autobiographical "A Year in Provence" caught global imaginations and stood on both the Sunday Times and the New York Times bestseller lists for three years, for it has appeared first in French.
'Dictionnaire Amoureux de la Provence' was commissioned by the Plon publishing house as part of a series of 'lovers' dictionaries' and appeared in France in late April.
The English version, 'Provence A to Z', was recently published.
A journey of discovery
"It's been a fascinating journey of discovery for me. The more you find out, the more there is to find out," Mayle told AFP in an interview during one of his rare trips to Paris.
"I think there is all sorts of stuff in there that you wouldn't have found out from a normal guide book. And it's been great fun. There are a wonderful lot of characters in Provence."
The book took two years of research, but Mayle says he took a methodical approach, starting with A and working his way through the alphabet.
While he wrote it in English, the words used in the A to Z are in French, thus garlic or "ail" in French is in A, along with "Anglais" or English and "aioli" a wonderful Provençal garlic mayonnaise which is not for the faint-hearted.
Mayle casts a humorous and affectionate eye on the place which he has called home for most of the past 15 years, and along the way dishes up an eclectic selection of anecdotes, little-known facts, recipes, and even jokes.
His most surprising discovery, he says laughing, was learning that the first resident on the isle of If, off Marseilles, was a rhinoceros, which rested there in 1516 during an arduous voyage from India to a new home in Europe.
But the book is packed with memorable moments as Mayle records his musings of Provence which he says he fell in love with at first sight several decades ago, after first visiting France when he was just 19.
"Coming out of England in the 1950s, it all seemed terribly exotic and glamorous, and chic. So I've always had a soft spot for France," said the 67-year-old writer.
It was a love affair that was eventually to transform Mayle into a household name after the publication of 'A Year in Provence' in 1991.
Initially Mayle had moved to France with his wife Jennie to work on a novel.
"But I was so distracted by all the novelties of the new life... it was all far too interesting to ignore so I didn't do anything on the novel for a year," he said.
In a bid to explain the delay to his editor, Mayle wrote a long letter detailing all the fascinating distractions of Provençal life, which was to provide the germ for the book. Even then his publishers cautioned that it would only be of minority interest and he'd better crack on with the other novel.
A bit of escapism
More than 15 years on, Mayle is still at a loss to explain the book's runaway success.
"I think at the time there was a sort of low feeling in England. There might have been a bit of a recession. It was more grey that usual and it was a bit of escapism," he said.
But it wasn't just the Brits who were captivated by Mayle's adventures in Provence, and after a while the intense interest became oppressive. Busloads of Japanese tourists would come walking up the drive.
"They were very sweet and very, very polite, and I just thought it was a lark really. But I wouldn't want to do it every day," Mayle said.
"At first it was extremely flattering, but once the British press found out that it was a good laugh to come up and bang on the door, there was never a day went by without somebody."
The couple stuck it out two years, and then fled abroad to live in Long Island close to their children, returning to Provence six years ago after the dust had settled.
Having learnt from bitter experience, Mayle now never divulges his current address. "We found a house you can't see from the road, and when people ask where do I live I say 'between Aix and Avignon', which covers quite a bit of ground."
But he remains as passionate about Provence as ever, saying he feels very foreign whenever he goes back to England. "I am very much at ease with the way of life in Provence," he said.
"It's nice to live according to the seasons, it's nice to eat decent food all the time. It's nice to know the man who makes the wine you drink. It's a combination of all these little pleasures of daily life which add up to an extremely pleasant existence."
So much so that when he shakes off his mortal coil he says he would like to be cremated and "have the ashes thrown somewhere useful like a vineyard or a vegetable garden."
AFP / Expatica
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