Category: Provence

Provence again

Renoir's house

Renoir’s house

Last year we spent an enjoyable few days in Provence, so we headed back this year. This was more of an artistic trip than a literary one. Before going, we watched one of my favourite actors, Richard E Grant, giving an interesting introduction to the various artists who lived and worked on the Côte d’Azur. Our first stop was to the fairly ordinary town of Cagnes-sur-Mer. However, just outside the town is the Renoir Museum, which was Renoir’s last home. As you can see from the photo above left, it is not a very imposing house and it was not helped by being a cloudy day but we were able to see Renoir’s studio, several of his paintings, lots of photos of him and his family and ceramics made by him and his sons. All of his three sons went on to careers in the arts, Pierre as an actor, Claude as a ceramic artist (some of his ceramics were on display) and Jean as one of the great film directors. I have seen around twenty of his films and all are superb, still very much worth watching.

Matisse Chapel

Matisse Chapel

Vence was another town which did not impress us much but, just outside it, is Matisse’s chapel. Matisse built it on a plot of land he purchased and fully decorated it, as thanks to the Dominican nun who had looked after him while he was sick. He designed everything himself, even though he was in his late seventies at the time. He said it was his masterpiece and it would be difficult to argue with him on that point. The stain glass windows are stunning, as is the simplicity of the design of the chapel. Those who live in the UK may well be aware of an important exhibition of Matisse cut-outs at the Tate. Tate director Nicholas Serota, who curated the exhibition, was inspired by his visit to the chapel.

Van Gogh's bed

Van Gogh’s bed

Of course, another famous artist associated with Provence is Van Gogh. We did visit Arles where Van Gogh lived for a time but his famous yellow house was destroyed in World War II and there is not much else to see associated with him. However, we also visited Saint-Rémy, where Van Gogh spent a year in the Saint Paul Asylum which is still very much extant and located just next to the Roman site of Glanum. You can still see such much of the scenes that Van Gogh painted, including the lily beds (sadly it was past lily season), the olive trees, the garden and various parts of the hospital which, apparently, have changed little since Van Gogh’s day.

Actes Sud bookshop

Actes Sud bookshop

Though there was not much to see in Arles related to Van Gogh, as well as the various Roman remains, there was also my favorite publisher in the whole world, Actes Sud. I have some seventy Actes Sud books in my library (and acquired a few more, as they have an excellent bookshop in Arles, as you can see in the photo to the right). What makes Actes Sud special, apart from their unusual location, is that they publish not only innovative French works but also translations from many languages, including many fine works that it would be impossible to read, unless one spoke far more languages than most people could ever hope to master. I spent far too much time in the bookshop and, probably, far too much money but it was a good way to end a most enjoyable visit.

Provençal literature

Sign in Avignon showing where Mistral's Mirèio was first published

Sign in Avignon showing where Mistral’s Mirèio was first published

I have recently returned frrm a week in Provence so this is a good time to say a few words about their literature. Provençal literature, which should be called Occitan literature, had its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries and influenced many poets, including Petrarch and Dante. Indeed, Petrarch spent much time in Provence and there is a museum devoted to him in Fontaine de Vaucluse, site of the largest underground spring in France. Not a great deal more happened till the founding of the Félibrige in the mid-nineteenth century. The Félibrige was an association of like-minded poets, whose best-known member was Frédéric Mistral, author of Mirèio , a long poem in Provençal, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Provençal writer to do so.

Max Rouquette - not read in Provence

Max Rouquette – not read in Provence

Occitan literature does not have much of a reputation now. I have one author on my Occitan page though expect to read some authors, such as Joan Bodon (Jean Boudou), Bernat (Bernard) Manciet and Alem Surre-Garcia (link in French). However, I did expect to find other works while in Provence. A tour of the bookshops in Aix-en-Provence (i.e. in Provence) sadly revealed that, apart from the odd copy of Mirèio, the Provençal bookshops had as many books in Mongolian as in Provençal. Nor did they have any of the contemporary Provençal writers translated into French. When I asked for books in Provençal at the wittily named Librairie de Provence, they looked at me as though I was mad. We have books about Provence (i.e. travel, guidebooks, cooking) was the response. Sadly, the language and culture seem to be dying.

Camus' gravestone

Camus’ gravestone

But we did go to Lourmarin, famous perhaps as the home of Peter Mayle (no, we didn’t see him) but also the place where two famous French writers are buried. The first is Albert Camus, who needs no introduction. He bought a place in Lourmarin with the money from his Nobel Prize and died in a car crash less than two years later. Provence, however, is also home to several famous writers who wrote in French but about Provence. They have yet to appear on my site but I have read all of them many years ago and plan to reread them. Marcel Pagnol is probably the best-known, not least because of the films of his book and the films he himself made. Jean Giono is less well-known, at least in the English-speaking world. A few of his books are available in English but, sadly, not too many.

Bosco's gravestone in Loumartin

Bosco’s gravestone in Loumartin

Even less well-known is Henri Bosco, born in Avignon and buried in Lourmarin, not far from Camus. None of his works is in print in English, though some have been translated and, even in France, his reputation is fading, perhaps because he wrote about what he knew – Provence. I will mention, in passing, René Char from Isle sur la Sorgue, a pretty little town, now known for its antiques, and Samuel Beckett who is not from Provence but spent some time in Rousillon, a town famous for its ochre, during the war, hiding from the Germans.

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