Between ourselves and things strange affinities exist: Alphonse Daudet’s Letters From My Windmill

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.

Letters From My WindmillAbout 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?

19 Comments Add yours

  1. AJ says:

    I find that there are artists whose work I love whose behavior was appalling, and I can admire — but probably never love — the work without excusing the individual. Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot are good examples of that for me. What I find truly insufferable are the individuals who make excuses for their own bad behavior because they are artists or because writing/art/poetry/acting/whatever is just so hard. I think Dali falls in that category and I know Anne Sexton does. On the other hand, there’s Allan Gurganus, who is included in a book of interviews with Southern writers, and who talked about making the effort every day to handle the normal household and other responsibilities that other working people have to manage, and not excuse himself on the grounds that he’s a writer. Best of all are the writers whose works and lives are of a piece — e.g. Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty.

    There’s a Daudet on my bedside table still to be read in conjunction with a research project I’m working on — your post just made me move it to the top of the list. Some interesting ideas about gender roles floating about in the 1890s.

    1. Colleen says:

      Which Daudet is it?

      I’d never read any Anne Sexton so didn’t know anything about her. I looked her up after reading your comment…my god. I think it would be very difficult to try to read her stuff now, knowing what I do.

  2. andrew says:

    I honestly think if we didn’t actively try and separate a work of art from the artist we could enjoy almost nothing. Would you really want to sit down to tea with Nabakov, Picasso, Polanski?…the range of personality defects and even outright criminality represented in that small sample is staggering. But should we deny ourselves Lolita, Guernica or Chinatown? Absolutely not. Art never justifies but it does transcend.

    On a more positive note: you must now locate a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence for obvious reasons.

    1. Colleen says:

      I like this: “Art never justifies but it does transcend.” That said, if Nabokov had himself had real pedophilic tendencies, would Lolita still transcend?

  3. I have great doubts that many people outside of France – or inside – have the slightest clue what kind of person Daudet was. Wagner is popular (as opera goes), Maupassant’s sexual behavior was not so different, etc. Another explanation is required.

    Tastes for sentimental goo have changed enormously perhaps making this book a period piece. Or is it not so gooey? You now have me worried that it is a pack of warm-hearted regionalist cliches – noble peasants living uncomplaining lives of suffering amidst the cicadas and lavender and Mistral and so on, drinking harsh red wine and eating their simple but nutritious peasant fare.

    I do like that dog, though, and “useless as a poet.” I will have to see for myself.

    1. Colleen says:

      It might very well be a bunch of regionalist cliches–but I don’t think I’ve read anything else about Provence so really don’t know! There were noble peasants…there was suffering though too. Mistral, however, (whatever that is! The translator failed to footnote this) is mentioned a few times.

      Of course you like the dog.

      1. Colleen says:

        I mean, who wouldn’t like that dog?? I wasn’t implying something strange about you.

  4. Tea with Nabokov? Yes, of course. What a thrill.

    Criminality? Personality defects? What on earth?

    1. andrew says:

      Well, could you stand any of them for the length of a cup of tea? For sure. I exaggerate for effect and they’re random examples. But let’s look at the list…

      Nabokov: on record many times (once to Edmund Burke) with his strident sexism.

      Picasso: violently-tempered, serial adulterer.

      Polanski: convicted (in absentia, after having fled) rapist of an underage girl…

      …certainly if I was a woman I would definitely have second thoughts about spending time in any of their company. But to your point, Nabakov probably comes off the best.

    2. Edmund Wilson? “On record”? You mean in Strong Opinions or the Nabokov-Wilson Letters or something?

      You are misinterpreting something, although I am not sure what.

      Those who actually had social encounters with Nabokov describe him as personable, witty, gentlemanly. I urge you to look at Stacey Schiff’s biography of his wife, Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov).

      1. Colleen says:

        Okay, guys, be nice.

      2. andrew says:

        Sorry, mistype, you’re absolutely right, I did mean Wilson. I was thinking of Nabakov’s dismissal of Jane Austen, and all women writers, as inferior in the letters to Wilson.

        Was Nabakov charming and erudite company? I’m ready to concede the point. And I will certainly take your recommendation to read Schiff’s biography seriously, but at what point does Vera’s “self-effacement”:

        …start to look like servility?

  5. Stefanie says:

    I try to keep the personal defects of the author separate from the art. It doesn’t always work but most of the time it does.

    As for Daudet, this book sounds lovely. Have you read his book In the Land of Pain? It is a thoughtful meditation on physical pain and illness written mostly while he was dying from syphilis. Highly recommend it.

    1. Colleen says:

      I haven’t read In the Land of Pain–this was my first Daudet, but I will obviously keep my eyes open for anything else he’s written!

      It can be hard, especially with living authors, to keep things distinct. I met one of my (now formerly) fav authors about 5 years ago and he was just a jerk. I tried to not let it get to me…and failed.

  6. heidenkind says:

    From my perspective of studying art history, most artists are total wankers. If we only included artists who were decent people in art history 101, it would consist of Van Gogh, Rafael, and… um…. It’s not that I don’t get judgy with artists’ personalities/actions (don’t even get me started on what a bastard Monet was), but art is more than its creator. What brings it to life are the people who experience it. So in my opinion you kind of have to separate the art from the artist.

    1. The third is Camille Pissarro, the nice Impressionist.

    2. Colleen says:

      Agreed….That said, I’m disappointed to learn that Monet was a dink too.

  7. Andrew, you didn’t finish the story. VN to EW, May 5, 1950:

    “Thanks for the suggestions concerning my fiction course. I dislike Jane and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class. Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice.”

    That’s the start. Let’s set aside the possibility that VN is employing any kind of irony. What happens next? EW argues for Mansfield Park, VN reads it and adds it to his class. He soon becomes an enthusiast. References to Austen eventually begin to appear in his own novels.

    So now we need to strike “strident” from your accusation. Nabokov did not have a personality defect but rather an ordinary prejudice of his time. This is not Ezra Pound aiding the fascists but rather Virginia Woolf’s snobbery or Vera Nabokov’s “self-effacement.” The answer to your last question, by the way, is “At no point.”

    If it is a legitimate ethical issue to wonder about how the bad deeds of an author affect his work, it is then similarly ethical to defend an author from a false accusation. This is particularly important in Nabokov’s case, since he is so badly understood by people who only know him as the author of Lolita, who have the sense that he was creepy somehow – that women should have second thoughts of having tea with someone like him! Putting him in a list with Polanski and vaguely invoking “criminality” without saying exactly who and what you are talking about is not a harmless move. Nabokov is a terrible example for this argument.

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