There are places I like to revisit. There are books I like to revisit also, rich with the memory of past places. I first read the wholly delightful Letters from my Windmill by Alphonse Daudet when I was on holiday with my parents in
Provence, in Avignon, to be exact. It was from there, the city of the popes, that we explored the surrounding countryside; from there we discovered the charm and magic of this special part of La France profonde – deep France.
I’ve also managed to recapture the time and the place in the novels of Marcel Pagnol, particularly the wonderful film adaptations of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, but Daudet and his windmill, for the whimsy and for the beauty, for the love of a place and a people, is in a special class.
It’s the lightness of touch I admire so, the beauty and crispness of his prose. Not a word is wasted or out of place. For me it’s verbal sunlight, soft lines and clear colours, like an impressionist painting; like something by Claude Monet, perhaps, celebrating nothing more than itself, its meaning immediate, its profundity a total lack of profundity.
Daudet’s timeless little fables first appeared in the
Paris press in the 1860s, an immediate sensation. Although he was a major novelist of the day it is only through his Letters that he achieved a lasting reputation, particularly outside of France. So far as I am aware it’s the only work of his ever published in English. Most of the stories are set in Provence, though he also ranges further, to Corsica and further still, to French Algeria, itself a vanished world.
Don’t look for the old
Provence, Daudet’s Provence; it’s long gone, gone with the Mistral. But it lives again in these sparkling pages. Old Cornille, an anachronism even in his time, lives again, as does Monsieur Seguin and his audacious goat; as does the Vicar of Cucugan; as does Father Balaguere, dreaming of turkeys bursting with truffles; as does Father Guacher, singing away in the haze of his elixir – Hey! ding-a-ding, Hey! ding-a-ding.
Some of the stories are touching, sad in sweet melancholy. Others are funny, a burlesque sort of comedy. I found myself laughing out loud, once again, at Father Gaucher’s Elixir, and smiling broadly at The Three Low Masses. Sad or funny, the various tales reflect Daudet’s own love for the music, the lore, the traditions and romance of his southern home, a way of life that I suspect he knew was slipping deeper into the mist of time. Oh, to lie at night under a southern sky, looking up at the stars.
What! The stars get married, shepherd?
Oh, yes mistress.
And while I was trying to explain to her about these marriages, I felt something entirely beautiful resting lightly on my shoulder. With the sweet crumpling of her ribbons and laces of the curls of her hair, she laid her sleeping head on my arm. We stayed thus, without moving, until the stars paled, dimmed by the dawning day. And I looked and looked at her as she slept, vaguely disturbed deep down within me, yet miraculously protected by the night’s clear holy light which has never given me any thoughts but beautiful ones. Around us, the stars continued their silent march, as orderly as a great flock of sheep; and at times, it seemed to me that one of these stars, the brightest, having lost her way, had come to life on my shoulder in order to sleep…
I read this prose poetry and felt something beautiful resting lightly on my mind, a sweet sadness of memory. That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain; the happy highways where I went and cannot come again.