Literary Provence

Sunday, April 1, 2012

This week life finds me in the South of France, not the Côte d'Azur made popular by its film festivals, movie stars, beaches, Grimaldi Princes, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, but in Provence. The wine, food, and art of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso tend to overshadow the literary aspects of this part of France, but like its painters, the literary guns are just as mighty.

Marseille is the second largest city in France, a Mediterranean metropolis with enough history and intrigue to make it the setting of works from Charles Dicken’s Little Dorrit to Peter Child’s Marseille Taxi. Here too, you will find a strange monument memorializing Arthur Rimbaud who died here upon his return from Africa. If swashbuckling is more your thing, take a boat from Marseille’s Vieux Port to the setting of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the Chateau d’If.

Thirty minutes to the north of Marseille is Aix-en-Provence, the city that gave birth not only to Paul Cezanne, but to his best friend Emile Zola. Zola wrote not only the infamous “J’Accuse” article of the Dreyfus Affair, but over thirty novels, twenty of which comprised the epic story of the Rougon-Macquart family, and here you thought the A Song of Ice and Fire saga was long. Aix is also home to the Cite du Livre, the city of books, an innovative library and research center whose archives contain the papers of Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, amongst others.

Further afield, in Arles, where Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works, another Nobel Prize winner in literature, Frédéric Mistral, used his prize money to set up a museum dedicated to the preservation of the local culture, just as his work had preserved the local language, L’Occitan, in poems like Mirèio.

The last stop on my itinerary is Avignon, the home of the Papacy from 1309 to 1376. Here Petrarch wrote his Canzoniere and the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill lived the last years of his life in a house overlooking the cemetery where his wife was buried.

It isn’t hard to see how this part of France is so inspirational to painters, poets, and writers. The landscape is inspiring, the history rife with events and characters, and the food and wine delicious. The lesson learned, as Peter Mayle says in Toujours Provence, is “Why not make a daily pleasure out a daily necessity?”