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Lost in the Mayle

Pick a place, imply that it is a paradise, write several best-selling books about it, maybe invest in real estate there for the inevitable onrush of rich twits—and you could be said to have wrecked the place for good. I am referring here to Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and its 10,000 sequels.

Some thirty years before Mayle started in on his demolition quest, M F K Fischer spent some time with her two daughters in Aix-en-Provence and wrote a far better (though not so well-known) a book with her Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (1964). Fisher obviously loved Provence, but she (M F K stands for Mary Frances Kennedy) was not afraid of presenting it warts and all.

When she first visited Aix, France was still suffering from the war. The town was full of misshapen beggars, many of whom were from Poland and other places that suffered the brunt of Nazi invasion. She tells one story of a French pianist whose house quartered several German officers. Her expensive piano was not to be touched by the pianist, but she was expected to appreciate the musical efforts of her tenants.

I have always loved books about travel, but I have always preferred books which were honest. There are thousands of puff pieces about the four corners of the earth, but they pall rather quickly. To give one example, Jonathan Raban’s excellent Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings was not only about travel, but about its author’s life coming apart in the process. The following quote from a review in The Guardian explains it all:

“Journeys,” says Raban, somewhere towards the end of Passage to Juneau, “hardly ever disclose their true meaning until after – and sometimes years after – they’re over.” This book was conceived of as a piece of work, but the professional project is, in the end, wholly subsumed by a floodtide of personal crises that leave the author gasping for air. Did he contemplate keeping them off stage and sticking to the route he’d blithely plotted, back in his Seattle study? Perhaps – but like any good captain, Raban elects in the end to go down with his ship. Passage to Juneau is not the book Raban set out to write. It’s richer, rawer and far, far more rewarding than that.

For this reason, I’ll take M F K Fischer over Peter Mayle any day of the week. I highly recommend her book.

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