Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Books about Provence and the French Riviera

I don't wish to appear foolishly pretentious, but I still believe that the most readable English-language book about Provence and the French Riviera is the one by Jean Hureau that I translated for his French publishing house back in 1977. Over the thirty years since then, in my (biased) opinion, this tourist guide has hardly—as they say in French—developed a face wrinkle.

That book was a funny writing affair. When I first browsed through the original, after having signed a well-paid translation contract, I was horrified. Jean Hureau's French was excessively syrupy and mushy. I had the impression that he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the places about which he was writing that he had abandoned all sobriety and constraint. As we used to say in vulgar and misogynous Aussie parlance, his written expression was all over the road like a mad woman's shit. I quickly concluded that there was no way in the world that I could simply translate literally Huleau's descriptions dozens of cities, towns and villages. I could generally understand what he was trying to say, but he wasn't using the kind of words and phrases that would go down well in English. So, I decided to do the only thing possible. Instead of attempting to carry out an almost impossible task of translation, I would carefully read the multiple elements of Hureau's text—which had the merit of being well documented—and then I would simply rewrite each description from scratch, in my own words.

When I finally submitted my "translation" to the publisher, they gave it immediately to somebody whose job consisted of evaluating my work. He/she apparently read through my typescript, found it not only readable but well-written, and told the publisher that I was indeed a good "translator". That's why they then gave me a contract to write a tourist guide on Great Britain.

Since 1989, most English-speaking visitors arrive in Provence with a copy of Peter Mayle's book in their luggage. Over half a million copies sold! The observations are informative and thorough, but it's superficial writing, like articles in a weekly magazine. He describes a gay and quaint Provence inhabited by stereotypic French individuals who belong to a sun-drenched lavender-scented adult fairy tale. I guess it's great if you're a tourist or a newcomer, and you like and believe that kind of story.

By far the most profound treatment of Provence I've encountered (thanks to Natacha) is Caesar's Vast Ghost by Lawrence Durrell. It's a mixture of poetry and history, with a little madness thrown in for good measure. At times, I had the impression that Durrell might have been half-drunk when he was writing, particularly in the final chapter, whose heroine is a full-sized latex doll named Cunégonde with the features of a sexy Provençale. I recall that, when I dropped in at Sommières long ago in the hope of finding Durrell at home (which was not the case), the village people all warned me that he was more often drunk than sober. The best-written sections of his monograph take up the theme, introduced by Denis de Rougement, of the invention of courtly love in Provence. Durrell talks of Avignon, Arles and Aix as if these magic places transmitted aphrodisiac waves, or exuded a vaporous love potion. Ever since running into the great novelist/poet in Nîmes in 1963, and hearing him talk about Provence, I've never doubted his words on this subject.

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