Everything from A to Z

Provence A-Z
Peter Mayle

Travel books–by which I mean books wherein the writer shares with you, placid reader, the fruits of the labors of his or her travels, and not those travel guide books published by Fodor’s and DK that you see anxious tourists tightly gripping while they gum up the streets of the burg in which you’re trying to make a living–have never been my thing.

I have a litany of complaints against the genre, the most persistent of which is the tendency to turn encounters with les autres into a visit to the human zoo. I’m too much a social science guy to not have that gnaw at me throughout, even when the writer is a heavyweight, like Chatwin.

And yet there are easily a half dozen Peter Mayle books in this house.

Perhaps even more alarming is that the inventory doesn’t include the novels, the book written from the dog’s perspective, the bread baking book or the guide to talking with children about the wonders of human reproduction. Nor does it include the one I left behind when I fled my former life in Gotham, the memoir of agency life, Up the Agency.

Peter Mayle , at home in Provence, with a fan.
Photo by Patrick Gaudin, use under CC 2.0

Nope. Every single one falls into the category labeled ‘My life in France,’ although that’s actually the title of Julia Child‘s autobiography. This despite the fact that I’ve never seriously considered moving to anywhere in  France but Paris. I’m unsure whether to chalk this state of affairs up to a soft spot for anecdote, professional courtesy or author-related inertia.

Before he emerged as a one-man, one client PR firm focused on France’s Mediterranean flank, Mayle was a copywriter. And not just a run-of-the-mill-body-copy-for-the-JC-Penney-catalog copywriter either. He played at the highest levels during the red hot 60s, working at Ogilvy, then PKL, and then his own shop, which he sold to BBDO, allowing him to retire from the game by age 40. Like the song says, that’s the way you do it.

In practical terms, though, that means he’s a professional raconteur. That’s not a label exclusively reserved for advertising folk, but the probability of finding an entertaining writer and tale-teller among the business’s veterans is demonstrably higher.

Besides, Mayle is an Englishman. They practically invented the idea that advertising is entertainment that lends itself to persuasion. As I recall, Mayle’s recounting of his first, horror-stricken encounter with the hard(er)-sell American school of advertising was one of the more amusing parts of the agency book.

Mont Ventoux and a field of lavender. At least a couple of things très provençal.
Photo by Robert Brink, use CC-SA 2.5

But that’s another tale for another day. What we have here is, by my count, the fourth Mayle-penned volume focused on what makes Provence Provence

I’ve often stated in these posts that given the right circumstances you can easily imagine the meeting in which an editor talks an author into the next iteration of the same thing. Sometimes I get the sense that the author’s consent has been granted reluctantly. I think Mayle, on the other hand, is all in. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to discover that his periodic revisits to the well are in large part his idea. After all, line extensions and repackagings are part of the marketing arsenal.

Here the conceit is to follow the structure of a dictionary, providing the reader with a panoply of things provençal. There’s no claim to comprehensiveness. In fact, there’s an introductory chapter that clearly states our guide’s intention to avoid the well-known and commonplace in favor of, to use his own words, “…personal interests, personal discoveries and personal foibles.” (p. vii)

Trees in Provence have to grow in the face of some pretty serious winds.

I’d think such a warning would wave off the reader looking for a guide book. Yet the volume I have–a first edition purchased used at a library book sale–was clearly put to such use . The first third of the book is full of under-linings in black ballpoint ink suggesting a former owner intended to use it in situ.

(Someday I plan to address my thoughts. on books as objects. For now, despite what legions of scholars and students have done for centuries, just be aware that, for me, that’s a desecration and I start to twitch.)

What you get here are short entries–the longest may spill across three of four pages with generous margins and leading–on matters large and small. You get the Marquis de Sade. You also get la cigale. You get chèvre, garlic and rosé, but not capers. There’s more than one recipe, but they’re rendered in the style of an accomplished cook talking it through over a pre-prandial glass of wine and a nibble. Most of them seem to involve a fair number of ingredients, semi-involved prep and an overnight wait before cooking for three or four hours.

There’s a lot of waiting in Peter Mayle books, which may be part of the charm. The wait is when questions arise and plans for answering them are hatched. Often that involves wine. Or food. Or wine and food. I think I’m talking myself into why I keep reading what is essentially the same book over and over.

La cigale.
Translate it into French, stick it between hardcovers and even a common cicada becomes exotic.
Photo by Jodelet / Lépinay – CC BY-SA 2.0

That’s not entirely fair. None of Mayle’s books is a slog. You never have to plow ahead until it all starts clicking. Even more than the others, this book lends itself to dipping in at random intervals. It’s a perfect bedtime read, offering choice tidbits with plenty of opportunities to finish a thought and put the book down, secure in the knowledge that you won’t forget a critical part of the tale.

One final note is the art direction. The inside, with photos and illustrations appearing as duotones or muted halftones reminds me of the cookbooks I learned from, before 4-color food porn and fifty-dollar price tags became the norm. The dust jacket, screams Provence, even as covers and spine seem terribly, seriously French.

There are worse ways to spend your reading time than in the south of France with Peter Mayle. But that could just be me. After all these words I’m beginning to think I’ve identified what lies beneath this recidivist reading.

I can’t help it. I’m a francophile.


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