Chocky by John Wyndham ~ 1968. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1968. Hardcover. 184 pages.

This was John Wyndham’s last novel published during his lifetime, though there have been several others pulled from the “not quite ready” pile, dusted off, tidied up and published posthumously.

I wish I could say that this book is brilliant; one of the best; a fitting end to Wyndham’s string of creative and very readable sci-fi almost-disasters.

But it isn’t.

I found it to be a bit of a dud, in fact.

Caveat: the following rantlet is stuffed with spoilers.

Young Matthew, 11, the adopted child of loving parents and the older brother of an exceedingly pert younger sister, Polly, starts exhibiting some unusual behaviour. He talks (apparently) to himself, pausing between comments as if listening to another side of the conversation. He starts asking precocious questions, such as why are there two separate sexes versus a much more efficient hermaphroditic, self-fertile single parent, and where is the earth exactly in relation to everything else in space. He starts to do his math homework in binary code, and makes telling comments regarding the inefficiencies of the internal combustion engine.

A psychiatrist is consulted, for his family is starting to fear that some sort of mental illness is developing – for who knows what his background is, after all? Maybe his biological parents were…you know…subnormal…

Turns out that Matthew isn’t exhibiting schizophrenia at all; the voice inside his head belongs to a being from another planet way out beyond the boundaries of known space, seeing as thoughts/mind communications aren’t bound by pesky restrictions such as speed of light or sound.

Chocky, as Matthew christens his alien mind-friend, turns out to be an advance scout of another civilization, a eco-missionary, in fact, questing mentally across the void of space to find other thinking creatures, and to share a vision of better living (nuclear energy! hydroplanes! solar power!) with them. Matthew has been chosen as a communicant because of his open young mind. Too bad he’s just a naïve child, as his unusual behaviour leads to all sorts of complicated situations.

The popular press gets turned on to something weird happening after Matthew, who can’t swim, miraculously rescues himself and Polly from drowning, Chocky having taken over Matthew’s movements at the critical time and turning him into a superhuman swimmer. A similar plot twist involving artistic skills is floated.

Eventually everyone gets tired of all the press attention; Chocky decides to end the relationship in order to de-complicate Matthew’s life – he/she (Chocky’s sex is vague) has been allowing himself/herself to get too emotionally involved with the subject, not at all scientific, you know.

And that is pretty well that.

Potentially creative premise, which went absolutely nowhere.

I kept waiting for things to get properly interesting; they never did. This might have made a better short story than a novel, and it turns out that that’s close to the actual background of Chocky. First published as a novella, it was padded out to novel size the following year, no doubt in order to take advantage of the well-selling Wyndham name.

Points off for lame plotline which drops the ball early on, and more points off for the sexism which is absolutely overt in this novel, with some very sketchy attempts by the author to explain the weaker-sex complications of the feminine psyche, with all of the female characters – wee sister Polly, Matthew’s adoptive mother, his aunts, his art teacher – being depicted as silly, meddlesome, frequently foolishly moody and/or hysterical, and definitely lower on the intelligence food chain than the Big Important Men who get all of the plum roles.

Oh, yeah, there’s also a pointless mysterious kidnapping, as some secret “officials” whisk the young lad away and subject him to a series of injections – truth serum? or? – before decanting him onto a street in a faraway city.

Yawn.

4/10. Generous, because despite its poorness (John Wyndham was capable of much better!) I did read it to the end. Luckily it is a shortish book.

Margaret Atwood has a slightly kinder take on Chocky, and Wyndham’s stuff in general, in this 2015 article from Slate.

 

A Peaceful Retirement by Miss Read (pseudonym of Dora Saint) ~ 1996. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7181-4123-7. 152 pages.

Poor Miss Read! She has been banished to a dark corner of our bookcases by fiat from my spouse/co-reader – he can’t abide her, which distresses me (mildly) because I quite like these subfusc village dramas. If we can call them dramas; that might indeed by overstating the magnitude of the action here.

I tried once again to stick up for Miss Read when he caught me deep(ish) in this one a few days ago. “I know they’re not exactly exciting,” I said, “but think of it this way: when nothing else seems to click they’re decent place-holders, requiring no effort whatsoever on the reader’s part. They’re not bad books. Maybe a bit priggish occasionally…”

“Aha!” he said. (Or an exclamation to that effect.) “Priggish. Exactly. I think that’s why they annoy me.”

So there you have it. One man’s opinion. But I will still read them, especially when nothing else appeals. So soothing, like vanilla pudding or something equally mild.

This is the last book in the long Fairacre series (20 books), which started back in 1955 with Village School, a fictional account of the observations of headmistress “Miss Read” in a two-room school in the invented village of Fairacre.

Rich with well-observed detail, ex-schoolteacher Dora Saint’s many low-key novels and novellas give a fascinating glimpse into ever-changing rural England over the four decades in which they are set. The narrator in these particular books (there is also another non-school-centered series set in another fictional village, Thrush Green), happily unmarried spinster-by-choice Miss Read, is a woman of stern morals and quiet wit; she observes, records, and only very occasionally makes an out-loud statement on things which pass under her eye. She has learned early on that the schoolmistress inhabits a specific niche in the village hierarchy – slightly above shopkeeper, just below vicar – and woe betide the unwary soul who steps out of place or makes unpopular pronouncements.

In A Peaceful Retirement, our Miss Read has recently suffered several mild strokes. Her doctor has advised leaving her work, which she does with good grace but some regret; she feels like she hasn’t quite finished with that job, but she sets her sights on taking care of herself, fully relinquishing her status and retiring to a small village a short distance away from Fairacre, Beech Green.

Here Miss Read discovers that an apparently free woman still in her capable years is seen to be the natural choice for a vast number of volunteer positions; she must become adept at saying “No!” rather forcefully in order to maintain even a modicum of inoccupation; the “peaceful” of the title is ever so slightly ironic.

So what happens in A Peaceful Retirement? A whole lot, but not much.

Our narrator copes with an old admirer, now unhappily married, who comes to lay out his woes for her advice. Another long-time suitor persists in proposing to her at every meeting; she mulls over the possibility of accepting his suit, but settles for the status quo – frequent drives and teas and dinners – with each returning to one’s own solitary abode each night.

A trip is made to Florence with a friend; nothing in particular happens; it was a pleasant change and gives much scope  for happy reminiscence in the subsequent months. A week’s substitute teaching in her old school brings home to Miss Read how pleasant retirement is; she is rather disturbed to find how tired she is after coping with children all day long; she knows she has made the right decision.

A window of new interest opens up in her life with the commissioning of an update to the local church’s historical write-up; this leads to the keeping of a journal, and, yes, the first chapter in a book about a village school…

This was Dora Saint’s last novel; she was 83 when it was published; time to lay down her own pen and move gently into what one hopes was a happily peaceful retirement, for real.

This book did what it was supposed to do: it satisfied the reading urge, it was amusing, it was restful. Judged for those reasons, and not in comparison with richer fare and stronger stuff, I must give it its due. 8.5/10. (Yes, Miss Read is indeed occasionally priggish; she lost her point-and-a-half for certain unnecessarily  judgemental attitudes here and there.)

 

 

 

 

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute ~ 1947. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 380 pages.

‘Tis all a Chequer board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald

Nevil Shute was a writer of a certain dedicated earnestness, and in none of his many books is he as earnest as he is here, tackling the thorny question of skin colour and mixed race relationships, from the everyday associations of people-at-large to the intimacy of marriage.

Nevil Shute was also a man of deep personal decency, so it won’t be any surprise to those who know his work to hear that this is a deeply decent novel, a nice novel. In it people are given the opportunity to redeem themselves, to take the high road, and for the most part they do.

In 1943, during World War II, four men find themselves sharing a ward in a British military hospital after the plane three of them are in crash lands after being damaged by enemy fire on the way home to England from Algiers. Two of the plane crash casualties are under military arrest: Captain John Turner, for black market activities, and paratrooper Duggie Brent, for killing a man during a bar brawl. The pilot of the crashed plane, Flying Officer Phillip Morgan, is in the guarded ward because he has a badly broken thigh bone, and there is no other place for him to be cared for.

This annoys Morgan, because in the bed next to him is an American soldier, David Lesurier, under arrest on a charge of attempted rape, and in hospital because he cut his own throat while hiding from pursuing police. The reason for Phillip Morgan’s annoyance is not so much that David is a possible rapist, but that he is black. A “dirty n*gger”, in fact, and he goes on about this at great length, which proves to be deeply ironic due to events which occur later in the tale.

Oh, yes. I should mention here that the book was written in the 1940s, so the various common words used to refer to people of colour back then – now deemed highly derogatory – are used freely and abundantly. Bear with Nevil Shute; he’s got a little moral to expound on; the archaic terminology is being bandied about partly because that was the norm, but also for future dramatic effect.

So Captain Turner has a serious head injury; he’s swathed in bandages and can’t see his wardmates. They are set to keep him from going absolutely stir crazy by reading to him and conversing with him; in the weeks they share the space they become deeply intimate, though when each departs there is no thought of ever seeing each other again; it is wartime, after all, and people go where they’re sent, plus there are those three trials looming.

Forward four years, and here we find John Turner out of jail, back in civilian life, and doing not too badly, except for these fainting spells and dizziness. Seems that there are a few metal fragments lodged in his brain, inoperably so, and the long-term prognosis is not good at all.

Yup, John is dying, and he comes to terms with that in a most admirable way, but before he goes, he sets himself to find his old wardmates and see how they’re doing, to help them out if need be. (Seems John still has some of that illicit black market money tucked away, and since he’s not going to be around to spend it…)

One by one John tracks down his old companions, and what he finds is most surprising.

Despite the main character being under sentence of death, this is an optimistic tale, all about people overcoming personal challenges and going on to make the world a better place for them having been in it.

There’s a rather well-worked-out theme in this tale involving Buddhism.

And that whole interracial relationship thing.

That’s all I’m going to divulge, for if you are a Shute fan already you’ll believe me when I assert that this is up to par, a steady good read, and if you’re new to him you’ll hopefully find something to please you in this even-tempered saga of the not-too-perfect common man.

Here’s another teaser of sorts  from the back dust jacket of the first American edition of The Chequer Board.

Oh, and my rating. 8/10.

One last note. Yes, Nevil Shute pounds home his points in this one, doggedly pursuing his plot to each tidy end of each diverging thread, and yes, it does get a bit preachy here and there. I forgave him, because his heart is so obviously in the right place. Bear with the man; he did his best, too!

 

 

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin ~ 1984. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1988. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-7158-2. 213 pages.

“It’s America. You start to read the history of America and there’s violence everywhere. It’s as if America was built on violence.”

I had mentally bookmarked that as a quote which reflected a lot of what is discussed in this novel even before seeing the news last night of the latest mass killing in the United States yesterday – 17 shot dead in a Florida high school.

Perhaps not quite the same sort of violence Poulin’s quoted character has in mind; he was referring in the main to general acts of warfare; but it felt a depressingly apt comment in light of current affairs.

Volkswagen Blues is a quirky, thoroughly charming, occasionally angry novel, and it’s a bit hard to slot into a neat category. It’s first and foremost a road trip novel, and there are shades of love story, and also, running through it like a blood-scarlet thread, an examination of the history of the Americas and the continual conflict between indigenous-indigenous, indigenous-colonizer, and colonizer-colonizer cultures.

The driving character (pun intended) is a forty-year-old Québécois writer, pseudonym Jack Waterman, who has embarked upon a journey in his old Volkswagen minibus to try to find his older brother Théo, last heard from fifteen – or maybe twenty? – years ago, sending Jack a mysterious postcard from Gaspé.

On the way to Gaspé, hoping to pick up Théo’s long-cold trail,  Jack picks up a hitchhiker – well, two, really – a young Metis woman, Pitsémine, nicknamed La Grande Sauterelle – The Grasshopper – because of her long legs – and her small black kitten. The two (three!) click, and soon they are seen driving along, following an elusive breadcrumb-trail of clues, which leads them all the way (eventually) to California, to San Francisco, where they find (maybe?) what they are seeking.

The novel consists of small episodes described in detail and strung out like beads on a chain. Great narrative gaps exist, filled (we assume) with miles and miles of driving. The Volkswagen early on takes on a personality of its own, it is the fourth member of the travelling band, and though in the main it is a reliable sort of creature, it does have a few episodes of road-fatigue itself, echoing the occasional emotional breakdowns of its human companions.

At some point in the journey the man and the girl (for that is how Poulin refers to them most of the time) become lovers, though we are never told that they are in love; sex is kept in its place as not the be-all-and-end-all of the relationship, but as merely something shared, a physical pleasure coming naturally between two people once affection and trust have been established.

The journey ends, or perhaps it doesn’t. The companions part, though possibly not for good. Each has found something that was searched for, but each still seems to be on an as yet unfulfilled quest, perhaps best tackled alone…

A most interesting small novel, deeply Canadian, and even more deeply American in the continental sense.

Volkswagen Blues is a very slightly awkward read, though how much of the gentle stiltedness is by author’s intention and how much from its French-to-English translation I cannot tell. It was no trouble at all to follow, though. It’s a quick read, too, and one which will no doubt reward a subsequent re-reading with a deeper appreciation of all its many nuances.

I enjoyed it, and had many moments of wishing I could follow the (physical) route the journeyers took. I would cheerfully read another book by Jacques Poulin if one were to come my way.

An appreciative 6.5/10.

Can-Lit note: Volkswagen Blues was nominated for a Governor-General’s literary fiction award in 1984, and was selected as a contendor in the 2005 “Canada Reads” event on CBC Radio.

 

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier ~ 1957. This edition: Doubleday, 1957. Hardcover. 348 pages.

Ah, nothing like a good old gothicky doppelgänger story, right along the lines of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, and Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree. Suspend your disbelief, embrace your acceptance of lucky coincidence, and come along, step inside…

Middle-aged Englishman John, introverted historian-lecturer in French history back home in Britain, and, incidentally, very accomplished French linguist (this is important!), is facing an existential crisis of sorts as he mopes through his summer holiday in his beloved France.

John is heading for a religious retreat in a Trappist monastery near Le Mans, which he hopes will help him chart his personal path forward. Utterly alone in the world, with no responsibilities and no one responsible for him, he feels that his life has no meaning, that he is an utter failure, and he debates stepping out of the world, though whether he intends to do so literally or figuratively is not specified; it is possible John himself does not know how far he is prepared to go to find peace.

A coincidental meeting with a man who is his exact physical double results in a night of sharing life stories (though one of the pair is, it will soon be discovered, less than fully forthcoming in his private confessions) and heavy drinking; when John awakes in his hotel room the next morning, he is dressed in his double’s clothing, and there in the room are the other’s personal effects. His own things have vanished.

Still drink-befuddled, when a chauffeur shows up to collect “Jean, Comte de Gué”, John stumbles along, bemused by his dilemma, his terse replies to “his” employee being taken in stride, as if a sullen silence is an accepted character trait of the vanished count.

John finds himself decanted at the front door of a large but desperately rundown French château, and giving in to an impulse, decides to carry on with the mistaken identity, to see what will happen next.

What happens is that everyone whom he comes in contact with – not just the family servants but a brother, sister, aged (and drug-addicted) mother, highly pregnant wife, an amorous sister-in-law, a precocious and religion-obsessed eleven-year-old daughter, and even a beautiful Hungarian mistress – accept him as the real Jean, much to his (and the reader’s) shocked surprise.

Over the period of one intense week, John-Jean discovers the many dark secrets of the Comte’s family, and of Jean de Gué himself. Not knowing where the real Jean is and what his intentions are, but assuming from much he has found out that his double has departed permanently from his complicated life to reinvent himself elsewhere, John allows himself to be drawn into his angst-beset new family; he soon develops a sense of responsibility and even of love for the troubled members of “his” household.

But can he really take Jean’s place? What secrets doesn’t he know, and how will they effect his attempts to heal old wounds and bring about better times for all of the people who are looking to him for leadership?

Tragedy strikes; a fortune becomes accessible; and the real Jean makes contact: he wants to return.

What happens next? I won’t tell, you must read it for yourself.

Could this sort of thing actually happen in the real world? Not likely, but it makes a grand fictional drama, dark as night and emotionally fraught on a multitude of levels.

One of Daphne du Maurier’s best, right up there with the also-improbable but mesmerizingly memorable Rebecca.

Let’s give it a 9/10. Definitely a keeper.

 

The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays by Mordecai Richler ~ 1978. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1978. New Canadian Library # 152. Selected and Introduced by Robert Fulford. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9268-7. 194 pages.

I haven’t been reading much this last while, as I’m rather deeply involved with our regional performing arts festival which had its first session this past week, and when the various disciplines are running there isn’t much down time for the organizing team.

It’s taken me that whole week to get through this slim volume of essays, and some of what I read is a tad bit blurred around the edges because of how tired I was whenever I managed to sneak a few pages in, but I must say that it was, overall, an engrossing read. All of these essays are very good; some are superlative.

The essays were written by Richler between 1961 and 1971, first appearing in various periodicals, and then being among others collected into two compilations: Hunting Tigers Under Glass ( 1968), and Shovelling Trouble (1972). This collection is therefore a gleaning of the best of two other collections, and the standard is expectedly high.

If there is any sort of a uniting thread running through these varied musings, it is that of Jewishness. Mordecai Richler in his fiction writing – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz et al – was a great examiner of what it meant to be Jewish, and more specifically, to be Jewish in Canada.

Richler’s essays in some ways reach farther than his novels did, in their range and subject matter, but they remain intimately connected to the writer’s cultural roots, and this accounts for a great degree of their humour and their poignancy.

Maple Leaf Culture Time (first appeared in the New Statesman, 1967): A brief introductory essay on the occasion of Canada’s Centennial in 1967.

Today we are well into the sweeter hour of Canadian romance, maple leaf culture time, an era at once embarrassingly grandiose, yet charged with promise. We are smitten with an unseemingly hasty tendency to count and codify, issuing definitive anthologies of 100 years of poetry and prose and fat literary anthologies, as if by cataloguing we can make it real…

“Êtes-vous canadien?” (first appeared in the New Statesman, 1969): On receiving the Governor-General’s award for literature in 1969, Richler muses on many things, ranging from the office of the Governor-General itself (the Queen’s representative in Canada, for those not in the loop), the perennial French-English divide, and how to best balance ethical trueness-to-one’s-art with the very human wish to bask in the spotlight of receiving a major (if possibly flawed) national literary award. Leonard Cohen and compatriots are referenced, with Richler’s eyebrow quirkily raised.

Bond (first appeared in Commentary, 1968): This essay alone is worth the price of the book. Mordecai Richler, father of young sons, is appalled (loudly) by the current popularity (in 1968) of the suave Mr. Bond, and a scathing examination of the fictional hero himself and, more to the point, Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, follows. The gist of the thing is that Richler asserts that Ian Fleming was fundamentally anti-Semitic, and that his fictional alter-ego exhibits extreme bigotry of various sorts. Did I say “scathing”? Yes, indeed. And also thought-provoking, and very funny. Agree or disagree, I suspect you will never look at Bond (or Fleming) the same again.

A Sense of the Ridiculous (first appeared in the New American Review, 1968): An aging Richler (forty looms!) muses on the hungry generation following his, and the reluctant transition between being a striving young writer, and one who is “expected to deliver”. A slightly melancholy, wryly humorous, and ultimately rather charming revisitation of the life-changing Parisian episode of Richler’s youthful days.

Why I Write (first appeared in Works in Progress, 1971): More looking back, and another wonderfully composed snippet of autobiography and writerly self-analysis.

As I write, October 1970, I have just finished a novel of intimidating length, a fiction begun five years ago, on the other side of the moon, so I am, understandably enough, concerned by the state of the novel in general. Is it dead? Dead again. Like God or MGM. Father McLuhan says so (writing, ‘The Age of Writing has passed’) and Dylan Thomas’s daughter recently pronounced stingingly from Rome, “Nobody reads novels any more.”

I’m soon going to be forty. Too old to learn how to teach. Or play the guitar. Stuck, like the blacksmith, with the only craft I know. But brooding about the novel, and its present unmodishness, it’s not the established practitioner I’m grieving for, it’s the novice, the otherwise effervescent young man stricken with the wasting disease whose earliest symptom is the first novel. These are far from halcyon days for the fledgling novelist…

O Canada: An essay on the arts, on the occasion of Canada’s Centennial.

At the time [1954], it seemed to many observers, myself included, that the country was starved for culture, and nothing could be worse. How foolish we were. For now [1967] that the country is culture-crazed and more preoccupied than ever before with its own absence of a navel, how one longs for Canada’s engaging buckeye suspicion of art and artists of not long ago. I was brought up in a folksy Canada. I remember the bad old days when it was necessary to come to the defense of artistic youngsters, and we suffered a weave of enlightened CBC radio and TV plays which educated the public to the fact that we were not all notoriously heavy drinkers, like William Faulkner, or queers, like Jean Genet. We strung words together sort of, but we were regular fellers: Canadians. In a typical play a sensitive little twerp named David or Christopher, usually son of a boorish insurance agent, roused his dad’s ire because he wouldn’t play hockey or hit back. Instead he was studying piano with an effeminate Frenchman or painting with a tricksy Hungarian Jew (“A piece of blank paper! Mit a brush und paints, vot an opportunity for beauty!”) and in the end made dad eat his words by winning the piano competition in Toronto or, if the writer was inclined to irony, by being commissioned to paint a mural for the new skyscraper being built by the insurance company dad worked for…

Expo 67: More of the same – the arts in Canada circa the Centennial – with a bonus on-the-ground visit to Expo itself.

The Great Comic Book Heroes: Mordecai Richler delves into the wonderfully strange world of the comic book heroes of his youth. Another 5-star essay in this collection.

The Batman and Robin, the unsparing Dr. Wertham [author of Seduction of the Innocent, a passionately negative critique of the comic book genre] wrote, were also kinky. “Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters with beautiful flowers in large vases …. It is like the wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Unfortunately I cannot personally vouch for the sexual proclivities of ‘socialites’, but I don’t see anything necessarily homosexual in “beautiful flowers in large vases.” This strikes me as witch-hunting. Sexual McCarthyism. Unless the aforesaid flowers were pansies, which would, I admit, just about clinch the good doctor’s case. As, however, he does not specify pansies, we may reasonably assume they were another variety of flora. If so, what? Satyric rambling roses? Jewy yellow daffodils? Droopy impotent peonies? Communist-front orchids? More evidence, please…

Writing for the Movies: On the soul-destroying occupation of writing for the silver screen.

Once, it was ruled that any serious novelist or playwright who tried his hand at film-writing was a sellout. Indeed, many a novelist-turned-screenwriter next proffered a self-justifying, lid-lifting novel about Hollywood, wherein the most masculine stars were surreptitiously (not to say gratifyingly) queer, the most glamorous girls were empty inside, deep inside, but lo and behold, the writer, on the last page, had left the dream palace, fresh winds rippling through his untamed hair, to write the book-of-the-month you had just finished reading. Later, the novelist returns to Hollywood, but on his own terms, to do the screenplay of his novel. It was filmed frankly, outspokenly, and everybody felt better inside, deep inside…

The Catskills (first appeared in Holiday, 1965): Recreation, upper class Jewish style, in the lavish mid-century resorts of New York’s Catskill Mountains.

This Year in Jerusalem (first appeared in Maclean’s, 1961): The most serious essay in this compilation, and much the most pertinent to present-day current affairs, as Richler visits Israel and reports on its aggressive optimism, its bitter origins, its deep cultural divides (Jewish/Palestinian, Old World/New World/African Jew, rural kibbutznick/urban dweller), and some of the more surreal aspects of “development” in the old-new Hebraic homeland.

****************************

My personal rating for the collection as a whole: a strong 8/10.

 

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle ~ 1989. This edition: Vintage, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-679-73114-8. 207 pages.

This, like the über-ubiquitous lifestyle-bestseller of twenty years later, 2009’s Eat, Pray, Love (which I have to admit I bailed out on without finishing just a few months ago), is one of those books, the ones that have become so much a part of our cultural literacy that we don’t have to actually have read them to know what they’re all about. Or what we think they’re all about, which isn’t always completely accurate.

Happily, unlike my experience with Eat, Pray, Love, A Year in Provence was something of a treat.

It didn’t change my life. I’m not saving my pennies for a plane ticket to France – England still tops my want-to-visit travel list. I didn’t even particularly relate to the narrator, a well-off British ex-advertising executive, who, along with wife number three, had decided to live the dream and relocate full-time to sunny Provence, with expected subsequent adventures in old house restoration-to-modern-living-standards.

What I did like was the foodiness of the thing. Oh, glory. The descriptions of the food! Yes, please, sit me down in a small French café and bring me the spécialité du jour, no decisions needed on my part as to what it will be, just the assurance that it will be very, very good.

There was one menu, at 110 francs. The young girl who serves on Sundays brought out a flat basketwork tray and put it in the middle of the table. We counted fourteen separate hors d’oeuvres – artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in a fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick-peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels. Balanced on the top of the loaded tray were thick slices of pâté and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers. The bread had a fine crisp crust. There was white wine in the ice bucket, and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape left to breathe in the shade.

The main course arrived – rosy slices of lamb cooked with whole cloves of garlic, young green beans, and a golden potato-and-onion galette. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape was poured, dark and heady…

The cheese was from Banon, moist in its wrapping of vine leaves, and then came the triple flavours and textures of the desserts – lemon sorbet, chocolate tart, and crème anglais all sharing a plate. Coffee. A glass of marc

And then Mr. Mayle wonders why his English friends angle madly for invitations-to-visit…

Well, no, I don’t really mean that. Mr. Mayle doesn’t wonder. He absolutely gets it, and is very up front in his own reasons for his resettlement to la Région Provençale: the food is identified early on as a major factor.

Peter Mayle is equal parts amused and bemused with his new neighbours; a high-nosed bit of snobbery peeks out here and there, but by and large the character portraits the author paints are quite kind to the originals, with perhaps some creative embellishments here and there. His French neighbours may have thought differently: after the book’s publication some character defamation accusations were lobbed about. (Peter Mayle had used real names throughout, against the cautioning advice of his wife.)

I hadn’t expected to enjoy this book so much, for the cynic in me always whispers that these sorts of astonishing-hit memoirs couldn’t really be as good as all that. I am pleased to admit that I called this one wrong. It is a pleasant sort of memoir, deliberately humorous with general success; the author lets his opinions show, and they are sometimes tart, which enhanced a somewhat pedestrian narrative of month-to-month accounts of scenery, weather, shopping, dining out, and dealing with various workmen.

He is particularly hard on the hypocrisy of his French neighbours in regard to their love-hate relationship with all of the tourists, and he is – slightly paradoxically – just as hard on those tourists, including many of his own visitors. To do him justice, he freely admits that he is part of that tourist wave, though he justifies things by boasting (occasionally) how much superior he is as a full-time resident, not one of the fly-by-night holiday folk whose deluxe renovated farmhouses stand empty much of he year.

A Year in Provence became a surprise bestseller, and the Mayles’ rural retreat was ultimately a victim of its success. The book attracted so many tourists to their very doorstep – picnicking uninvited in the garden, swimming in the private pool – that the couple sold out some five years after it was published, relocating to Long Island, New York. That was fine for a while, but the siren song of France was still calling: the Mayles returned to Provence after five years in America, this time very carefully not disclosing their place of residence to the public at large.

There is a melancholy postscript to this tale of an author, for he died just a few weeks ago, at the age of 78, in a hospital close to his home in Provence. Repose en paix, Peter Mayle.

Extra: An interesting article here, by Alice Steinbach, published June 25, 1996 in The Baltimore Sun.

And my rating: 6.75/10.