Roman and Romanesque

By LoGerfo, James | Contemporary Review, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Roman and Romanesque


LoGerfo, James, Contemporary Review


The French region of Provence has been for the last half of this century a magnet for artists, glitterati, and tourists - not an unusual sequence. Various artists first settled in some of the semi-derelict towns where affordable art colonies could be established. As they prospered, they helped improve the towns; then came the tourists. Made popular in our own time first by Laurence Wylie's Village in the Vaucluse, then the film versions of Marcel Pagnol's affecting stories Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring and his autobiographical tales in My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle. One of Lawrence Durrell's last books offered his unique interpretation of the rustic ambience in terms of its Roman roots. And most recently Mr. Peter Mayle, in his enormously successful and entertaining accounts of establishing an expatriate household in Provence, while he and his wife enjoyed the habits of life among the rural Provencaux, their food, mannerisms, and recreations, almost made Provence a household word in Britain and North America.

Mayle adds that its fame may also have spread as a result of articles that appeared in fashion magazines in the early 1990s about famous and wealthy people who had early discovered the attractions of the Luberon Valley, which gave the coup de grace to the concept of Provence as a region dominated by its natives. The response to the Mayle oeuvre alone was so dramatic that it led to caravans of motor coaches filled with enthusiastic readers of his books or viewers of the film versions traversing the Luberon valley in search of his home.

One ought not object to the peregrinations of these well-intentioned tourists. They want to spend time in a sun-filled terrain, in picturesque villages among quaint locals, enjoying what is called the 'simple life': an olive oil, garlic, and herb-based cuisine, wine, and cafes, wandering among the quaint hill-top villages and market towns. Not an insubstantial rationale. And, more importantly, tourist money doubtless helps the local economy and permits the continuing renovation of towns that were largely abandoned by the end of the nineteenth century, or as late as the 1920s, by their inhabitants, having suffered the vicissitudes of economic changes - trade and markets disappeared, styles changed, costs increased, and factories closed, causing many residents to flee to the cities in search of work. The region, generally defined as north of the Cote d'Azur and east of the Rhone, is again happily populated - with farmers and traders serving the tourists and each other. Tourism and the general prosperity of the 1980s permitted the towns to merge modern technology with worthy remnants from the past, to clean old stones, and install modern utilities. However simple the life may be today, and however old the dwelling or shop, there is still inventory to be ordered, computers to be understood, VAT to be paid, and bureaucrats of all sorts with whom to contend. The region is no longer a comfortable preserve associated with reclusive industrialists, successful writers and artists, or the late Congo President Mobutu.

This alluring view of Provence, interestingly, has not always been the norm in the modern age. Alan Sillitoe, in his very amusing and informative review of nineteenth century travel guides, Leading the Blind, cites an 1848 guide that found

the atmosphere loaded with dust, the earth scorched rather than parched by the unmitigated rays of the sun, which overspread everything with a lurid glare . . . The aching eye in vain seeks to repose on a patch of green, and the inhabitant of the North would not readily purchase the clear cloudless sky of Provence with the verdure of a misty England . . . They are rude in manner, coarse in aspect, and harsh in speech, their patois being unintelligible, even to the French themselves. . .

This would not be the observation of travellers today. Except for the patois, much has changed in this century. …

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