I read Toujours during a grey few weeks in the summer while daydreaming about emigrating to a country where a simple life could be had instead of worrying about job prospects in recessionary Britain. Similar motives may have made this book a success in the recession of the early 1990s. A book about setting oneself up for retirement in a sunny country isn’t the kind of thing that I’d normally read. It sounds like being trapped in a timeshare sales pitch.
In a sense, the book is exactly that. It’s a series of vignettes that portray life in the region as an endless buffet. The book is a light and mildly humourous travelogue from emigres keen to think of themselves as adoptees, or at minimum, émigrés. Yet it’s hard not to read the endless gastronomic and other cultural discoveries without thinking ‘well done’. It’s also hard to be sympathetic about the author’s house turning into a literary pilgrimage that becomes increasingly invasive. Not only was the author fortunate in where he lived, but also fortunate to have made himself wealthier and more loved for telling everyone about it. Well done. Yet this simple life is, as ever, a fantasy. No mention is made of the influences on / nationalist tensions in Provençal culture from immigration or fast food, for example. Furthermore, Provence’s simple life is for the few who can afford it. The chapters that talk about how cheap the meals and ingredients are sit at odds with the chapter that details which celebrities and industrialists are forcing the property prices ever further out of the reach of mortals.
So long as you approach it as escapism, Toujours Provence is enjoyable in a casual, light-hearted, Alan Coren sort of way. Copies of the book regularly knock around the secondhand market, so there’s no need to jump if you see one. I’ve sold two copies since reading mine. I tell buyers that they’ll learn a lot about truffles. I’m not entirely sure that’s a recommendation. But does it need one? It’s still in circulation after two decades. And its first (and but no means last) topic of discussion is the success of its predecessor, A Year in Provence, in skyrocketing local tourism. I can’t help but wonder if Mayle was right in taking the credit / blame for turning Provence into a British ex-pat community? Or was he just a myth-maker who got taken too seriously?
Extract from pages 134/5:
The driver came down to see us one evening, asking for a glass of water, easily persuaded into a glass of pastis. He apologized for parking at the top of the garden. Parking was a daily problem, he said; with a top speed of ten kilometres an hour he could hardly take what he described as his little toy back home to Apt each night.
He took off his cap for the second glass of pastis. It was good to have someone to talk to, he said, after a day on his own with nothing to listen to but the racket of his machine. But it was necessary work. The forest had been left untended too long. It was choked with dead wood, and if there was another drought next year … pof!
We asked him if the pyromaniac had ever been caught, and he shook his head. The madman with the briquet, he called him. Let’s hope he spends his holidays in the Cévennes next year.
The driver of the yellow monster came again the following evening and brought us a Camembert, which he told us how to cook – the way he did when he was in the forest during the winter and needed something to keep out the cold.
‘You make a fire’ he said, arranging imaginary branches on the table in front of him, ‘and you take the cheese from the box and remove the paper wrapping. And then you put it back, d’accord?’ To make sure we had understood, he held up the Camembert and tapped its thin wooden box.
‘Bon. Now you put the box in the embers of the fire. The box burns. The rind of the cheese turns black. The cheese melts, but . . .’ an instructive finger was raised for emphasis ‘… he is sealed inside the rind. He cannot escape into the fire.’
A swig of pastis, the moustache wiped with the back of the hand.
‘Alors, you take your baguette and split it all the way down. Now – attention aux doigts – you take the cheese from the fire, you make a hole in the rind, and you pour the melted cheese into the bread. Et voilà!’
He grinned, his red cheeks bunching under his eyes, and patted his stomach. Sooner or later, as we now expected, every conversation in Provence seems to turn to food or drink.