Make it a classical summer and order one of these timeless novels/memoirs for some poolside relaxing.
Filled with black humour and acutely observed detail the novels are part morality tale, part tragedy, part love story. They are also a meditation on a great literary theme, explored most famously in Robinson Crusoe – whether living in a state of nature, stripped of all the trappings of civilization is beneficial to the soul.
The narrative centres around the attempt of Provencal peasant, Ugolin, to make his fortune from growing carnations. To do so he needs water, which is in abundant supply on his neighbour’s land. After a couple of murders the land in question is eventually inherited by Jean de Florette, a tax clerk. Jean decides to quit work and move to the countryside to make his fortune raising rabbits. Before his arrival Ugolin blocks the spring, rendering Jean’s land worthless and unsuitable for the rabbits. Ugolin sits back and waits for, what he assumes is, Jean’s inevitable departure, when he will have an opportunity to buy the land.
Jean refuses to leave and a generational saga ensues.
In the Fly Truffler uninterrupted blasts of the winter mistral ‘glaze the air with a lacquer so blue its virtually black’. Every page reveals the author’s addiction to the power of language, a sonorous love of every syllable, epitomised by the lead characters veneration of the Provencal dialect. In style The Fly Truffler is reminiscent of other great short novels such as If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor and Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco with the beauty of the text sweeping the reader into the story with the compulsive rhythm of poetry. The imagery swirls between the bleak, the erotic and the uplifting, revealing as it does so the rich folklore of Provence.
The title refers to the practice of looking for truffles by searching for the flies which lay their eggs in the soil next to where the tuber grows. The lead character, a university lecturer called Cabassac, discovers that when he eats a truffle he enters a state of receptivity where he is able to dream clearly about his dead wife – Julieta. This realisation drives him to an obsession with the black diamond, and we follow him through the countryside, stick twitching ahead of him, shadow always behind so as to avoid disturbing the flies until the last possible moment.
Increasingly desperate to dream about his wife Cabassac risks everything to find the final truffle of the year, racing against the arrival of the first almond blossom which signals the end of the season. Each truffle-induced dream brings him closer to his dead wife and further from the real world, where slowly his life is falling apart at the hands of a predatory real estate agent. The end of the book has a climax worthy of a thriller as the dream and the real world fight for supremacy.
According to the popular consciousness it was Peter Mayle who invented the good life in Provence book. In fact his seminal A Year in Provence was preceded by over half a century by Lady Fortescue’s account of buying a run down farmhouse in the hills above Nice. Just as in Mayle’s account there are the foibles of the local workmen to deal with, leaving Lady Fortescue to remark:
‘A stranger without humour might perhaps be maddened by the ways of the Provencaux, but he whom God has endowed with much patience and a little humour will enjoy them.’
It’s a quote well worth bearing in mind.
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