Peter Mayle is to Provence, what James Herriot is to Yorkshire. Each is an author of best-selling books that appeal to urban and suburban audiences hungry for tales of ordinary people in quaint villages and remote rural landscapes. The success of each was, at least in part, due to the charm of the regions that served as their muses: Provence, France and Yorkshire, England. Each celebrates the uniqueness of local character and customs. Each treats his subjects with respect but not without humor and, sometimes, light-hearted mockery. Each weaves together collections of loosely-connected short stories and essays on broadly ranging subjects that somehow hold together as a larger narrative. Each is, I find, very relaxing to read.
While there are many similarities between the two, there are also some noteworthy differences. Herriot wrote in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Mayle found literary success in the late 1980s and has continue writing ever since. Herriot was a Briton writing about British, while Mayle writes as a British expatriate living in France. It is perhaps Mayle’s perspective as an outsider that gives him such unique insights into the region of Provence. It also gives him the ability to distill the essential qualities of the Provençal character. For many of us, the mention of Provence conjures up images of lavender fields, boule-playing villagers, scattered goats on rugged mountainsides and sun-bleached beach towns along the Côte d'Azur. These are the very pictures that Mayle has been painting in over four decades of books. Provence, for Mayle, is the subject that never wears out. It never gets old.
Place Massena, Nice, Alpes-Maritimes
Fields of lavender and rustic stone architecture are defining features of the Provençal landscape
Mayle started out his career in advertising, spending time in New York and London. In the nineteen seventies, he move into publishing and writing commercially. After many years in the fast-lane, Mayle and his family packed up their things and moved into an old stone cottage in Provence. He tells the story of this transition in A Year in Provence. This book was such a popular success that it launched Mayle’s 25+ year run writing books about Provence. Much of his subsequent writing, including his fiction, has autobiographical elements. Hotel Pastis, for instance, tells the story of a marketing executive in London who gives up his lucrative profession to pursue his dreams by creating a new luxury hotel in a remote corner of Provence.
Encore Provence is the third book in Mayle’s series that began with A Year in Provence. It remains one of my favorites. Encore Provence offers a feast of delights for foodies and (I write this in February) relief for winter-weary readers, craving sun-drenched landscapes and verdant summer gardens. Mayle’s prose descriptions are engaging and often poetic. Because this book was published in 1999, readers should be warned that some of the information included in the author’s recommendations for restaurants, vineyards, cheese-makers, truffle markets, etc may be out-of-date. The franc is also frequently mentioned.
Read France's collection of Peter Mayle books
The staying power of this book is found elsewhere—as in this excerpt, for instance:
"It is true that time in Provence is not worshipped in quite the same way as it is in more hectic parts of the world… there is an enormous relish of the moment. Eating, obviously. Conversation on a street corner. A game of boules. The choosing of a bunch of flowers. Sitting in a café.”
Mayle’s vivid picture of Provence are offered as a prescription for treating the ills of modernity. “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending…” (William Wordsworth). All our waking hours are spent laboring. We are so consumed with a desire for wealth that we never stop to appreciate the world around us. Stop, says Mayle, and appreciate the good things in life.
Mayle’s recommends a Provençal detox (or, as the French might call it, un cure de Provence). His remedy is decidedly epicurean and earthly but he makes a good point. "Perhaps the slower pace of life is partly responsible for another aspect of the local character, and that is cheerfulness.” In his post-script to the book, he reiterates this prescription with the combination of humor and charm that mark his style. Discussing the impact that his literary success has had on the region, he notes:
“It would be surprising if changes hadn't taken place during the time that has passed, and it has been said, particularly by the British press, that I have contributed to some of those changes. One of my crimes is to have encouraged people to visit the region. Too many people--far too many people--if the reports were to be believed. Worse still, they were people of the wrong sort… Now, eleven years later, not much has changed…. Provence is still beautiful. Vast areas of it are still wild and empty. Peace and silence, which have become endangered commodities in the modern world, are still available. The old men still play their endless games of boules. The markets are as colorful and abundant as ever. There is room to breathe, and the air is clean… More than anything else, people make a place, and the local inhabitants don't seem to have changed at all. I'm happy to have this chance to thank them for the warmth of their welcome and their many kindnesses. We were made to feel that we had come home."