Over at Albino Books, my friend Andrew recently wrote about the beautiful chaos that is browsing in physical bookstores. I would never deny the convenience of online book-buying, especially around Festivus, but it simply can’t replicate or replace the possibility of stumbling upon hard-to-find things you didn’t know you needed to read. As for e-readers: for me, the answer is just no. But that’s another story.
About 3.5 years ago, my husband and I took a road trip to Ottawa and Montreal. In Montreal (Canada’s most beautiful, well-bookstored city), I picked up Alphonse Daudet’s Letters From My Windmill (1869)–simply because it was French, I was in a French-speaking city, I hadn’t heard of it, and it was a Penguin Classic! I would never take such an awful risk online; I simply wouldn’t, although that digital fearfulness is moot, for I seriously doubt it would ever present itself to me online in the first place.
I finally read Letters From My Windmill over the last week. I’d been looking at it for months but it was finally ripe, if you know what I mean; and it was worth the wait, for it’s surely one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Not a short story collection, a memoir, or a novel–although it contains elements of all these things–Letters From My Windmill is really an extended love letter to Provence. Alphonse Daudet was an extremely successful novelist living in Paris, but his heart seems to have remained in his homeland. For him, home and all its associations–mental, emotional, spiritual, and bodily–became concentrated in this one abandoned windmill. He would visit and spend long periods of time there, often simply lolling about and reliving what it means to simply be where you came from. (That said, it wasn’t clear to me at points if he was actually there or just writing about having been there, or even perhaps only writing about imagining being there. I’m not sure it matters; some places have a hold over us that have nothing to do with their everyday realities. I’m sure Kingston, ON isn’t the Elysium I persist in imagining it as.)
Daudet’s love letter to Provence is also a love letter to its people (again, real or imagined, I don’t know; some are clearly imagined, like the shepherd in “The Stars.”) Christ, I’m just full of cliched language and bland maudlinisms aren’t I? (No, maudlinisms isn’t a word, but it so clearly should be that I’m going to let it stand and hope the world catches on. OED people, take note!) This is the thing: I don’t know how to write about Daudet without being sentimental. Damn it, he made me more sentimental than I already am; I cried a great deal while reading this lovely book, but he never comes off that way. Or, if he does, his writing is so good and fresh and inspired and perfect that it doesn’t matter. He had me, forever and always, when he introduced me to the proprietors of his favourite inn:
An old Provencal family lived there twenty years ago, not less unusual and charming than their dwelling. The mother, from a middle-class farming family, very old but still erect under the widow’s bonnets she always wore, managed alone this considerable domain of olive groves, wheat-fields, vine-yards, mulberry plantations; with her, her four sons, old bachelors known by the professions they had followed or were still following; the Mayor, the Consul, the Notary and the Advocate. After the death of their father and the marriage of their sister, all four had rallied round the old woman, sacrificing for her all their hopes and ambitions, united in their exclusive love of her whom they called, always respectfully and yet always tenderly, their chere maman.
A house blessed by good people!…So many times, in winter, have I come there to seek the healing touch of Nature, to cure myself of Paris and its fevers in the health-giving air of the little hills of our Provence. I would arrive without warning, sure of the welcome proclaimed by the trumpet-calls of the peacocks and the barking of the three dogs, Miracle, Miraclet and Tabour who would keep leaping around my carriage, whilst the arlesienne head-dress of the startled maid wobbled as she ran to tell her masters, and whilst chere maman held me close to her little grey-checked shawl, as if I were one of her ‘boys’. Five minutes of tumultuous excitement, then, the embracings over, my trunk in my room, all the house became once more silent and calm. I would whistle old Miracle–a spaniel found adrift at sea on a piece of wreckage by some Faraman fisherman–and I would climb up to my windmill.
A ruined windmill: a crumbling pile of stones and old wooden beams which had not turned in the wind for many years and which stood there helpless, as useless as a poet, while on the hillside all around, the milling trade was prospering and all the sails were turning.
A long quotation, yes. Still, had I not restrained myself, I would have come near to simply reproducing the whole book for you. This scene, part of Daudet’s Preface, is where I fell in love with Daudet and Provence. To speak simply and convincingly of profoundly emotional things; to be able to stand back and observe them without being coldly distanced; to write one remove from maudlinism (there it is again!) without being cynical–all these things I would like to be able to do with my own writing.
I don’t think that’s the sort of writer I am, if I can call myself that without putting the word in scare quotes and sending out a clear blast of irony. I do know this: I am blubbery and hyperbolic! But maybe Daudet can teach me a little something about restraint.
I did not, of course, read Letters From My Windmill to learn anything in particular; I read it in the hopes of extracting the pure joy of reading good writing, and I did. I would like to read everything Daudet has written, which is quite a lot, apparently; but not much has been translated into English since the late 19th century.
I wonder how much his current unpopularity outside France reflects what kind of person he was; it certainly can’t reflect his talent, which was simply astonishing. He was a total whore and was rewarded with syphilis for all the screwing around he did, both before and after he married; he was horribly anti-Semitic, and exchanged nasty letters with Wagner, who was also a stupid bigot; he may even have either faked or exaggerated his ties to Provence!
I likely would have regretted meeting him, for a number of reasons, but I still want to read all his books and Letters From My Windmill is still one of my favourites this year.
All this has got my think-box just a-grindin’. Do you remember that Orwell essay, “Benefit of Clergy,” in which he argues that being an artist excuses nothing? (The thesis: “It will be seen that what the defenders of Dali are claiming is a kind of benefit of clergy. The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people.”) I always found this essay irritating but worried I was dismissing it simply because I thought/think Orwell was a bad writer. (And he was hardly a paragon of virtue himself–think of all the jingoism in “Politics and the English Language!”)
I think I object to the absoluteness inherent in Orwell’s argument; surely there’s a useful response somewhere between fawning forgiveness of all sins, and righteous and complete rejection. Being an artist clearly should not exculpate bad behaviour; but the art is, as it were, an innocent victim: surely, as adults, we can all say, “If I were in 19th-century France, I would run away the minute Alphonse Daudet walked in the room. Nonetheless, I will not deprive my hungry brain of excellent food by refusing to read his books only because he was a dink.”
Or not. Thoughts?