Reading books set in France – and particularly in Provence – can add lots of interest to time spent in the area. Here’s a round-up of some I have included in the past – there’s even a mystery-murder story set in Aix itself!
Le Cabanon: Jean-Max Tixier
Hiking in the Calanques gives you wonderful views of the lovely Mediterranean coast but also gives glimpses of life in the cabanons. These are the little cottages which cluster round the ports and straggle up the rocky hillsides. In Le Cabanon, author Jean-Max Tixier describes how, in the last century, workers in Marseille with enough money would buy or build somewhere so they could get out of town at the weekend. These workers would typically have been artisans, dockers, shop-keepers, and they and their families would join the existing fishermen to form tightly-knit communities who met up summer after summer.
The cabanoniers were not keen on outsiders – Tixier explains that ‘Parisian’ was one of their most disparaging put-downs – but he describes how, sociologically, these communities were very valuable. He feels that they were very stabilising for families – they were not at work and had time to develop activities together, especially with the network of friends around them. He also describes the experience as a ‘civic apprenticeship’ where children would be socialised to understand the needs of others.
Life in the Calanques changed in the 70s with the arrival of pleasure yachts – and I expect Marseille families would have been holidaying further afield too.
But the photography in this book, by Aix-based Camille Moirenc, is lovely – it is a fascinating snapshot of an unusual way of life which still persists in our region.
Aix is the setting for a new, fast-paced whodunit, ‘Death at the Château Bremont’. We follow the main character Antoine Verlaque, the local juge d’instruction, as he drives to the murder scene at St Antonin, meets legal friends in cafés in the cours Mirabeau and visits his law professor on-off girlfriend at her flat in the Mazarin.
The murder victim is local nobleman Etienne de Bremont who falls from the attic window of his family château. Verlaque turns to his ex Marine for help when he discovers that she had been a childhood friend of the Bremonts.
I loved all the accurate local detail – descriptions of the shops in the rue d’Italie, the different bells tolling at the St Jean de Malte church, the cafés, the fountains and the warm stone of Provence. And, as the lawyers chase down the guilty parties, we are taken on car-rides through Le Tholonet, to a restaurant in Puyloubier and over to Cannes.
The author is M L Longworth, an American who has lived in Aix since 1997. She has contributed articles on Provence to the Washington Post, the Times, the Independent and Bon Appetit magazine. She is based in Aix but also spends time in Paris where she teaches writing at New York University.
The book is billed as the first in a series – I look forward to reading more of her novels set in the town.
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Murder in the Rue Dumas
It’s pretty wet and cold here in England so what better than to curl up in front of the fire with a book about Aix? ‘Murder in the Rue Dumas’ is the second book from M L Longworth in her Verlaque and Bonnet mystery series. Last year I reviewed ‘Death at the Chateau Bremont’ which I enjoyed, mainly for its local colour. https://aixcentric.com/2011/09/07/a-new-novel-set-in-aix/
The new novel opens in the place des Quatre Dauphins with a party in the apartment of the director of the theology department in the university. When he is found dead hours later, local Judge Verlaque is brought in to investigate. The director was about to announce the recipient of a fellowship and also his successor as director which includes quite a perk: the beautiful apartment in the 17th century mansion. So, in true Agatha Christie style, there is a long list of suspects to puzzle Judge Verlaque. His girlfriend, law professor Marine, brings her formidable intelligence to the case and both tap into their extensive networks of Aix friends and colleagues . The action rattles up and down the cours Mirabeau, along rue d’Italie and around the peripherique. Later, the story takes us along the coast and into Italy in search of the killer.
The author is M L Longworth, an American who has lived in Aix since 1997. She writes on Provence for the Washington Post, the Times, the Independent and Bon Appetit magazine and also teaches writing at New York University in Paris.
Verdict? It’s a pretty good ‘who dunnit?’ which gets better as it goes along. I did find the first scene-setting section a bit clunky with two rather cardboard students having odd conversations in order to communicate their back stories – but things get better when we re-meet Judge Verlaque and Marine Bonnet who are more credible characters and in an evolving relationship from the first novel.
Plus, if you are reading Aixcentric because you like Aix, you will love all the spot-on descriptions of the town. The couple often have a drink in a café in the cours Mirabeau which is called Café Mazarin…which you know doesn’t exist. But which is it based on? Here are some pix to help you find it from the author’s blog: http://mllongworth.com/blog/
M L Longworth sounds great fun – here’s some background on her if you want to know more: http://mllongworth.com/faq.htm
Murder in the Rue Dumas is published by Penguin and can be ordered through Amazon…I can’t check as I’m not in Aix but am sure that Book In Bar will stock it too.
French Children Don’t Throw Food: Pamela Druckerman
Here’s a review of a new book, ‘ French Children Don’t Throw Food’ , from The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/11/french-children-food-pamela-druckerman-review
As a mother of 3 very different children who either ate everything or really did throw food, I’m not sure how this approach works in reality but the author, Pamela Druckerman, has persuasive arguments for French parenting and praises its results.
An interesting article – with some interesting comments from Guardian readers which range from broad agreement to ‘bollocks’.
Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: Ruth Butler
In a previous post ‘In Praise of Madame Cézanne’, I said that I wondered what happened to her after the artist’s death – I’d heard that she took to gambling. Well, thanks to an excellent book, ‘Hidden in the Shadow of the Master’ by Ruth Butler, I found out more: she quickly got out of Aix and didn’t return, spent time in Swizerland which she had always loved, saw her son Paul marry and produce 4 grandchildren, sold her husband’s paintings and yes, went to Monaco gambling on the proceeds. I think she’d earned them! Hortense Fiquet came from a poor background and certainly had a difficult marriage with such a temperamental man; but she emerges as a fairly strong character who withstood his behaviour and the pressures of the Cézanne family.
She was a very patient person apparently – she sat for 28 paintings and over 50 drawings, a process with tried the patience of all his sitters. And at the beginning at least, there is evidence of the closeness of the relationship. I’m grateful to the book for showing me this lovely drawing of Hortense just after the birth of baby Paul. The artist has added a hortensia in her honour.
Madame Cézanne is one of the three women profiled in this book – the other two are Camille Doncieux who became Madame Monet and Rose Beuret who eventually – 2 weeks before her death – married August Rodin.
What lives they had.
All three were their husbands’ models and all had very difficult lives. In the early years, the Monets were so much in debt that they had to flee bailiffs over-night and often had no food. But Camille was a spirited lady – she loved clothes and found beautiful dresses to include in her husband’s portraits. Contemporary accounts tell us that she was a welcoming hostess and excellent mother, despite their poverty. Sadly she died very young before her husband became so successful – and wealthy.
Rose Beuret supported Rodin loyally – cleaning, cooking, modelling, working in the studio on the sculptures, and earning money by sewing. Like the Cézannes they had happy years but as his fame grew, he increasingly left her at home, ashamed of her working-class background and lack of sophistication. Finally rich, he installed her in a château with a lovely park, while he took off with Camille Claudel, Gwen John and a host of other women.
Ruth Butler’s research shows that Rose was hidden away from important guests and that visitors would assume she was a housekeeper. But she was jealous and did have blazing rows with Rodin – he apparently told Vita Sackville-West that she used to hit him. But as she sickened, he did make his will leaving everything to her – and finally married her, to her great joy, in the nick of time.
This is a fascinating book which tells us so much about these long-suffering women and also gives insights into the artists, the art-world and 19th century French society.
Ruth Butler is professor emerita from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her book is published by Yale University Press.
A portrait of Madame Cézanne is on view at the Musée Granet.
The House in France: Gully Wells
I have been immersed all weekend in this new book which has the most deceptive cover.
It isn’t one of those ”bought-an-old-wreck-in-Provence, planted-lavender-and-olive-trees, met-the-locals-aren’t-they-entertaining” kind of books that have saturated the market.
This is a memoir by Gully Wells, daughter of Americans – an abrasive journalist mother Dee Wells and a genial diplomat father, with a big contribution from stepfather Oxford Professor Sir A J Ayer – Freddie. She was brought up in Primrose Hill, London, in a charmed circle of left-wing politicians, academics and writers – Hugh Gaitskell, Roy Jenkins, Iris Murdoch, Bobby Kennedy, Bertrand Russell, Levi-Strauss, and assorted dukes wander in and out of her story.
The house in France where the family and assorted guests spent their summers is at Le Beausett, near Bandol, and she has splendid descriptions of life in Provence, including visiting the cours Mirabeau – ‘the most beautiful street in France’. Their nearest beach was Les Lecques and there they all went to swim: the tanned and topless locals beside the eminent philosopher Freddie in his droopy British shorts with underpants protruding and her lover Martin Amis in chiffon flowery shirt, trunks and snakeskin boots.
This is a sharp and witty autobiography from someone brought up in an intellectually-charged milieu, surrounded by people who were fascinating but totally self-absorbed and lacking any empathy with those around them. Despite this, and despite arms-length parenting, Gully Wells survived it all, and emerges as a skilled raconteur, balanced wife and mother, and successful journalist for Condé Nast Traveler magazine. A good gossipy read.
The Lantern: Deborah Lawrenson
The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson tells the story of a young couple who come to the Luberon and set up home in an old house, full of secrets, strange perfumes and flickering lights. The author is clearly in love with the countryside as it changes through the seasons and this provides the backdrop to the narrative which takes place alternately in the pre-war years and in modern times.
This novel delights in its French background and provides a page-turning plot, perfect for the darkening evenings.
The Paris Wife: Paula Maclain
Now to early 20th century Paris for our next novel. ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLaine tells the story of Hadley Richardson, a shy 28-year old, who met Ernest Hemingway in Chicago. Married, she found herself moving to jazz-age Paris where the young couple lived cheaply in tiny neighbourhood apartments but were soon moving in the right artistic and literary circles.
This novel is typical of a new genre which resurrects people who have played a supporting role in history or in famous lives – books by Sarah Dunant and Tracy Chevalier have shone focus on women who had otherwise been forgotten. Paula McLaine though has not had to invent her character – she has used Hemingway’s own writings, contemporary biographies and Hadley’s letters as a solid base for her reconstruction of the short but passionate marriage. It left me wanting to know more about both characters – and read some Hemingway.
A good account of a charismatic couple and of Paris in its artistic heyday.
The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted: Bridget Asher
Reading novels set in France is very satisfying for us locals. We recognise familiar characters, landscapes and situations. But ‘The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted’ is in a category of its own as it is set in the village of Puyloubier and has characters going in and out of Aix and even Trets!
It tells the story of a young American widow who comes to stay in her childhood holiday home in Puyloubier, with her autistic son and rebellious teenage niece. And it’s the story of the beautiful old Provencal house which is ‘responsible for mending hearts’.
The author who lives in Florida came over to live in the village for 6 weeks to research the book – and has faithfully recreated the narrow streets, ancient houses, the vineyards and the shops right down to the Cocci market! She has even added in an authentically described M. le Maire.
I did find the first part – 100 pages of plot-setting in the US a bit long – in fact the whole book could be edited more to make it tighter, but it’s enjoyable despite some longeurs.
And I really admire her industry – coming to Provence and getting such a successful book out of it. 12.90€ from Book In Bar.
Pure: Andrew Miller
Skip this one if you are not strong of stomach, but if you are, prepare for a dazzling immersion into 18th century Paris. A young engineer from Normandy has been given the unenviable task of clearing the ancient cemetery of Les Invalides where the bodies have stacked up to such an extent that they are oozing into the cellars of the nearby houses. It’s an unlikely topic for a novel but you quickly get drawn into the characters, the narrative and the history of Les Halles. It won the 2011 Costa Book of the Year – and I couldn’t put it down.
‘His recreation of pre-Revolutionary Paris is extraordinarily vivid and imaginative, and his story is so gripping that you’ll put your life on hold to finish it. Expect this on the Booker longlist, at the very least’ (The Times )
‘Miller writes like a poet, with a deceptive simplicity – his sentences and images are intense distillations, conjuring the fleeting details of existence with clarity. He is also a very humane writer, whose philosophy is tempered always with an understanding of the flaws and failings of ordinary people…Pure defies the ordinary conventions of storytelling, slipping dream-like between lucidity and a kind of abstracted elusiveness… As Miller proves with this dazzling novel, it is not certainty we need but courage’ (Clare Clark, Guardian )
The Queen from Provence: Jean Plaidy
The Count and Countess of Provence who lived in Les Baux had 4 beautiful and educated daughters, each of whom married into a European royal family. Eleanor, only 13, travelled to London to marry King Henry III, a union which proved fruitful (5 children), turbulent (pesky barons denying them money) but long-lasting.
The Queen From Provence by Jean Plaidy is an undemanding blend of drama, history and romance, with frocks and horses and castles…..but, like Philippa Gregory, the author sticks very carefully to historical facts and you do end up with a good overview of the political issues of the period. This book is an easy read on a wet day in Provence – now I must tackle her Medici Trilogy and let her lead me through that historical labrynth.
Riviera: Jim Ring
Watching the various film-stars sweeping up the red carpet at Cannes and posing for the cameras of the global media, it’s incredible to think that when the British Lord Chancellor, Baron Brougham, arrived in Cannes in 1834, it was a fishing village with 2 streets of humble Provencal houses. According to Murray’s Handbook of 1847, Fréjus was ‘a small dirty town’, St Raphael was a fishing village, Juan-les-Pins was scarcely on the map and Antibes was ramshackle, full of dubious characters and a garrison of disorderly soldiers. In fact the area had hardly developed since the Romans had retreated centuries before.
Jim Ring’s book ‘Riviera’ tells the story of the area with lots of colourful anecdotes – he takes us from the arrival of the Brits seeking health-cures, visits from Queen Victoria and her fun-loving heirs to the arrival of the Americans. We learn about the Blue Train, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Wallis Simpson. ‘The Dark Years’ describes the German and Italian occupation, and the arrival of the liberating armies. Life brightened with Brigitte Bardot arriving in St Tropez, Grace Kelly in Monaco and the Rolling Stones in exile in Villefranche.
Throughout the author talks about the dichotomy between the dream of the Riviera, the alluring earthly paradise with blue seas and palm trees, and the reality of the ‘sunny place for shady people’.
A very informative read – and at 1p + post and packing from Amazon, quite a bargain!
The Secret Life of France: Lucy Wadham
It’s been a great pleasure to have a small apartment in Provence and live in a very French neighbourhood. We’ve learned to appreciate an apéro dinatoire, leisurely Sundays and choosing food with care rather than random supermarket shopping. We’ve witnessed two French presidential campaigns, watched lots of French TV, and discussed issues of the day with French friends. The differences between their views and our British experiences are stimulating and we’ve learned so much.
I still enjoy books which explore these differences – I recently picked up a copy of The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham at Gatwick and have been reading it all week. The writer married a Parisian, raised 2 children in the capital and worked as a freelancer for BBC France which gave her access to politicians including M Sarkozy. So her observations range from maternity here through the education system, the French view of history, politicians, French foreign policy, their racial mix. She’s an Oxford graduate so gives some well-researched depth to her subject.
13 rue Therese: Elena Mauli Shapiro
The narrative hook for this novel is a small box of belongings found in an apartment at this Paris address and the modern recipient who attempts to reconstruct and fill out the history of the people who lived there. The box of items is apparently real and they are reproduced throughout the novel. The author uses them as a window on the life of Louise Brunet, from relationships during WW1 through to adult turmoil and passions. An easy read.
Tomorrow to be Brave: Susan Travers
Just re-reading Tomorrow To Be Brave, an excellent book on the incredible life of Susan Travers, an English socialite raised in Cannes, who found herself swept up in the Free French movement in WW2. At first a nurse, she became a driver and, together with her trusty but rusty Humber, was responsible for transporting generals to the front and casualties to base hospitals. She saw action throughout Africa, then Syria and was the only woman amongst 3500 troops resisting Rommel at the battle of Bir Hakeim.
The book tells of her love affair with the Commander of the Free French and Foreign Legion in N Africa, General Koenig and the actions which won her the Legion d’Honneur.
Here’s an interview with her biographer Wendy Holden who describes Susan in Paris in her nineties: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8271773.stm
I remember that when it came out, Susan Travers said that she couldn’t tell her story until now because she had to wait until all her lovers were dead!
This book isn’t readily available at bookshops but can be ordered online from Amazon. Highly recommended.