To anyone who has not spent much time in a small village in Provence, Laurence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse may seem strange, or anachronistic, or both. If you have been only to the towns and cities in the South of France, the little village in the hills of Provence where Wylie spent a year in 1950 will probably seem something out of the last century to you, a place more likely to exist in the hills of Sicily than in the sun-drenched land of Marseille, Aix, and Nice where tourists from all over the world congregate. In Village in the Vaucluse, Laurence Wylie is writing about the Roussillon of just a few years after World War II, a place with little indoor plumbing, only two phones, a once-weekly bus service to Avignon and, to be sure, no tourists to speak of. The place even had a blacksmith. It’s not the Roussillon of today, which does indeed have tourists—and gourmet restaurants, indoor plumbing, boutiques, and many more cafés than the solitary establishment Wylie used to frequent daily.
So, is this simply history, a description of a year spent in a tiny French community fifty years ago that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists?
If you know village life in Provence at all, you know Village in the Vaucluse is truth. Save for those few insignificant details, like indoor plumbing, Laurence Wylie’s account of living for a year in the ochre-hued Roussillon in 1950—which he dubbed Peyrane to protect the villagers’ privacy—reflects the people of Provence and their character as much as when it was first published forty-five years ago. When you get beyond the burnished modernity of guidebook Provence, you can still find many small villages where you will encounter the direct descendents of Wylie’s Peyrane. One of the startling things about Provence is that an hour away from wherever you are, you can be someplace out of time. You can drive into a village of three or four hundred people that is steadfastly concerned with its own self and with little else, and that maintains a rhythm nearly identical to that Wylie encountered. Yes, the houses have television now, most everyone has a car, and the kids have CDs, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear clear echoes of Wylie’s villagers. And if you stop and live in this village or one like it for any length of time, you might swear you’ve actually stepped into Wylie’s book and that your village is his twin.
I know. It happened to me.
It certainly must be more than historical interest that has kept Village in the Vaucluse continuously in print since it was first published in 1957. That’s more than 45 years, and few books of any genre have that lifespan, much less sociology books, as Wylie’s is absurdly dubbed by the catalogues. No, something else is going on here that draws people to this book year after year and must keep its publisher, Harvard University Press, both happy and a little baffled.
What’s going on here is that Laurence Wylie was a curious, patient, indefatigable chronicler who brought to his work a uniquely caring and embracing heart. Morris Gilbert, writing in The New York Times, said the book is “sociology with rich human overtones.” Wylie sets the tone himself, in his “Introduction to the First Edition,” when he says, “This is an account of life in a French village told in terms of the people living today in the commune of Peyrane. So it is human, actual, and specific….Most accounts of rural France have made the people seem quaint and often like ridiculous puppets because their behavior is not seen in relation to a pattern. In this book an attempt has been made to depict living personalities in the framework of a systematic description of their culture.”
Too many accounts of life in Provence still depict the people as “quaint and often like ridiculous puppets.” M.F.K. Fisher complained of this bitterly in a letter to this writer thirty-five years later, when she said, “I really cannot stand the lip-licking enjoyment of local peasantry by these visitors from America and England.” Wylie himself echoed the same sentiments to me a few years before he died.
Wylie’s book is, true to promise, human, actual, and specific.
I was very satisfied to see that Village in the Vaucluse is one of the three books in English featured in the new 2003 Michelin Green Guide to Provence. This is the first time that I know of that Michelin has written more than a line about its choices in its “Further Reading” section, and they have nothing but praise for Wylie’s efforts. They pointedly cite Wylie’s sympathy for his villagers and the fact that he is never supercilious. (Another writer whom they laud is M.F.K. Fisher.) This all goes to say that I’m obviously not alone in my appreciation for Wylie’s book 45 years after the fact. Tourists and book lovers and critics alike are still drawn to its curious, sensitive spirit.
Wylie was a professor of sociology at Haverford College when he went to Peyrane (which he places on a map a few miles northeast of Roussillon, the actual Peyrane) in 1950. He brought his wife and two young sons with him. The question a reader asks, as Wylie himself asks, is “Why Peyrane?” Why did he end up in this particular village in this particular part of France? He didn’t set out to live in the South of France, he tells us. His reasons were more anthropological and sociological. (He even asked Claude Lévi-Strauss for some help.) He wanted, he says, a village that wasn’t near Paris and its influence; he wanted a village that wasn’t dominated by a large institution, such as an army camp and one that hadn’t “suffered great damage in the war.” He wanted a village that wasn’t atypical, in other words, where a single factor stood out. Language was important, too. “The dialect should not be too difficult for me to learn in a short time—that is, not Basque or Breton.
These requirements, and others, led him to the départament of the Vaucluse, which is in the heart of Provence. (France is portioned into départaments, like the U.S. is made up of states.) On the west, the Vaucluse is bordered by the Rhone, on the South by the Durance River. In it are Avignon—Peyrane is directly east of Avignon—Orange, Apt, Gordes, and the Luberon Mountains. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all France. It wasn’t then.
Once Wylie had decided on the Vaucluse, he and his family drove 2,500 miles all over the place in search of a village in which to live. They seemed to have talked with every living person in the Vaucluse. They finally settled on Roussillon. This village Wylie steadfastly calls Peyrane, even after he reveals its true name in the second edition of his book. That should tell you something about the man that he was so intent on protecting the privacy and dignity of his villagers. This is where he went in 1950 with his family to live. It was only later, by the way, after he had left the village for good, that he found out that Samuel Beckett had spent the war years in Roussillon and even mentions the village in Waiting For Godot. That’s a telling detail. While he was there, he had talked for hours with the farmer who had employed Becket as a worker, and never once did the farmer mention the playwright. This wasn’t out of modesty, I suspect, but rather out of not caring. I found the same sort of indifference to so-called important events in my own village.
So, Wylie and his family arrived in Roussillon and took up residence. From the very beginning, he was open with the people about why he was there. “I am a teacher of French civilization,” he told them. “I have never lived in the South of France or in a village. We should like to live here a year and see what life is like.” He tells us the villagers accepted this. From the start, the villagers knew Wylie was observing them and that he would be reporting what he saw. There was no subterfuge, no hidden agenda. It was all there for the eye to see, and anyone who didn’t want to participate, or talk with the professor, didn’t have to.
Wylie was able to insert himself into the local life so successfully for two reasons. He sent his children to the local school. And he had a camera. The latter was by far the most consequential. He took some pictures of volunteer firemen one Sunday and gave a set of prints to each fireman. After that, he had a role as the village photographer. This got him entrée to all sorts of circles he might not have been able to penetrate. It’s ironic that we are often cautioned by “purists” not to barge into local lives snapping our fat Nikons like we were photographing animals in a zoo. Wylie’s experience was the opposite, and that’s partly due to the strained economic conditions he encountered just five years after the end of World War II. Nobody could afford to buy a camera. The third, and most recent, edition of his book—the one I am using as a reference—has about two dozen of his black and white photographs. They are simple, direct, and charming. A few are so patently staged—patrons in a café discussing weighty matters—you can’t help but smile. Some of the shots have the look of a post-World War II French film, with the black-and-white more a muted shadowy gray. This may be due to the common film stock or technology of the time, but in any case it adds a nice exotic touch to the book.
So, what in fact did Laurence Wylie find? And why does what he found still have relevance today? Well, he spends nearly four hundred pages describing what he found, and he covers the waterfront. The book is divided into four major sections: Growing up in Peyrane, Adult Problems and Worries, Adult Recreations and Pleasures and Growing Old in Peyrane. Just a sampling of his chapter titles alone will tell you how systematically he made his examination of life in Roussillon: “Infancy,” “School,” “The House,” “The Family,” “Making a Living,” “Health,” “Getting Along With Others,” “At the Café,” “Community Celebrations,” “Midnight Mass,” “Old Age.” And more. He began at the beginning, and he went from there. He was, like Henry Mayhew, that large-hearted 19th century chronicler of London’s poor, a “very curious fellow,” and he is not unlike Mayhew in his desire to know just about everything he can find out about his people. Like Mayhew, he lets the facts speak for themselves.
And, like Mayhew, he provides detail after detail, down to the smallest facts, gestures, and traditions. He was astonished by much of what he saw in an almost child-like way. For Wylie, there was never a good or bad fact or event. Anything and everything he encountered in his village. He was capable of wonder, a highly underrated virtue in a writer. Equally as important, he was not capable of derision. This has not always been the case with people who write about Provence. His writing has great sympathy. He strikes that most difficult balance of trying to delve into every aspect of village life he can without ever, even temporarily, relinquishing his own persona.
When Wylie examines something—whether it be the villagers’ hygiene, their attitude toward illness, their distrust of outsiders, their raising of children, or their amusements—he goes into deep detail, providing the reader with the most particular picture of the subject at hand. Of toilets, he writes,
“About ten percent of the houses have a toilet with a flushing mechanism but without a water closet, so that a bucket of water must be used to flush the toilet. Some of the flushing toilets are connected with a sewer that empties almost at the edge of town.”
The detail I like here is the “about ten percent of the houses have a toilet with a flushing mechanism.” You get the impression that Wylie stuck his nose into every bathroom in every house in the village, and he well may have.
These are tough people, used to difficulties, but one of the most attractive things about them is their perspective on life. They understand that life is difficult, as it is for most everybody, and so they don’t look to be coddled and don’t see themselves as unjustly singled out for their travails. It makes for refreshing reading. Who wouldn’t want someone in his or her life like Dr. Magny? He was the local doctor. He didn’t live in Peyrane, though, but included the village in his roving rounds. Here’s what Wylie has to say about a time when the doctor had to look at Wylie’s son:
“When David had an earache, Doctor Magny examined him and prescribed aspirin and ear drops. I asked about the possibility of using penicillin. Doctor Magny was amazed. ‘The child may be suffering but it’s nothing serious. You don’t use les grands moyens (that is, antibiotics) for little things; you save them for serious things.’”
Wylie is very sly and gimlet-eyed about many of the feuds and prejudices that occupy the villagers’ time. He sees through those that are patently transparent, but he has little use for criticism or preaching. One of his most brilliant passages is a description of a match of boules, that game of tossed steel balls so popular in all of France, played on grassless terrain in front of schools and in parks. This match in Peyrane, the climax of which is an argument between two teammates about strategy, is played out, only to be followed by a complete indifference from the crowd the second it’s over. “The indifference with which the spectators and all the players…appeared to witness the end of this crucial match is difficult for an American to accept. There are no handshakes, no applause, no congratulations, no condolences. The only emotion expressed is amusement at the discomfiture of someone who may have become the butt of a joke during the game.”
Indeed, it was difficult for me to accept this kind of reaction of my villagers in certain situations. That is, until I read Village in the Vaucluse. Wylie also gives a thorough description of the village school, where he taught English. In the South of France at that time, the village schoolteacher was held in high esteem. Partly as a sign of respect for his or her position, he or she was paid a better salary than most everyone else in the village. We may remember that Marcel Pagnol’s father was a schoolteacher and that Pagnol devotes a great deal of his literary concern to the position a schoolteacher occupies in a village and, most particularly, to his distrust of and disdain for priests. Simone Weil was a schoolteacher, too, in Le Puy, and was so uncomfortable with her high wages, she donated much of it to a workman’s fund.
Wylie’s schoolteacher, Madame Girard, strict and rigid in her observance of rules, absolutely intolerant of misbehavior and very competent, could have been the exact double of Madame Vaucluse, who taught school in my village 40 years later, and 150 miles apart. The basic teacher hadn’t changed. Laurence Wylie enrolled his children in the local school. So he had a privileged perspective from which to observe how the children were educated. He took advantage of that and reported things closely. That is something else about Wylie’s sojourn: whenever he has an opportunity, he seizes it and takes full advantage of it. If he’s given entrée somewhere, he jumps right in, feet first, and takes you along with him.
Wylie’s prose is more than serviceable. No four hundred-page book, even with a big heart at its core, could sustain readers if it weren’t written well. Village in the Vaucluse is. The sentences are simple, clear, and structured with care. Wylie knows what he wants to say, and he often says it gracefully. What could be simpler, yet more inviting, than the first sentences of the book:
“Thirty-five miles east of Avignon on National Highway 100 is the turnoff to Peyrane. From there up to the village’s nine-hundred-foot perch it is three miles on a gently rising blacktop road. By car it takes only forty minutes to go from Avignon to Peyrane. It is even an easy bicycle ride if the wind is not blowing.
“Without a car or bicycle the trip is complicated. Passenger service on the railroad that cuts across the tip of the commune has been discontinued. The only bus that goes directly leaves the bus station under the old Avignon ramparts every Thursday morning at eight o’clock. It does not follow the main road but meanders from village to village and reaches Peyrane only in midafternoon. Seven hours to go thirty-five miles!”
In just two short paragraphs we are introduced to one of Laurence Wylie’s trademarks. We are fed quite a few facts, but they go down very easily. We now know: the main highway hear Peyrane is National Highway 100; Peyrane is 35 miles east of Avignon; the village is 900 feet above sea level; the village is three miles from the main highway; the road from the highway is blacktop; it takes forty minutes to drive a car from Peyrane to Avignon; the trip can be made on bicycle; there is no more train service from Peyrane to Avignon; a bus leaves Avignon every Thursday morning at 8 AM for Peyrane; it leaves under the old walls of the city; it takes seven hours to make the trip; the bus stops frequently.
Without drawing any real attention to himself, we are made aware that Laurence Wylie has experienced everything he describes: he’s taken the seven-hour bus ride; he’s driven from Peyrane to Avignon in a car; he’s ridden the same route on a bicycle; he’s ridden the bicycle in the wind.
That’s the way the entire book works, too. Much knowledge is imparted, huge amounts of it, in fact. By the time we’re finished with Village in the Vaucluse, there is very little we don’t know about the people and their village. Yet it never feels as if simple facts are being shoved down our throat. Above all, the book is a story of people’s lives. No one is a caricature in this book. Everyone is real. Everyone is memorable, too, because Wylie has done his best to get inside their skin and walk in their shoes. What a listener he must have been!
On that very subject, Wylie did one or two odd things during his year in Roussillon, and one of them was to give villagers Rorschach tests. He doesn’t discuss the results. That the villagers complied with his request says something about Wylie. Remember, his training was in sociology, and the year was 1950.
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that Village in the Vaucluse saved me. When I was living in the South of France, I didn’t understand why, after several months of residing there, the villagers were so aloof and unforthcoming. Why did they shun my overtures? Why did they reply to my greetings and questions with the skimpiest of answers? I was perplexed and unhappy. One day I found Village in the Vaucluse in the paperback library of the house. My American landlord had a copy in the house, and she had told me to read it. I had never heard of it.
After three or four chapters, I was flung out of my doldrums. I now knew that my situation was not unique. I saw my own villagers in Wylie’s Peyrane of forty years earlier. This was the Provencal character I was dealing with, and it obviously extended far beyond my own village and beyond my own point in time. So many of the things he describes in his book mirrored my own experience. Telling little things—such as when I borrowed a cardboard box from a villager, and he was very explicit about wanting it back. What was this? It was just a cardboard box! Laurence Wylie experienced the same thing: “The wine merchant in Apt occasionally let me use a heavy cardboard box in which to carry home my purchase if I would be sure to return it on my next trip.” Nothing real had changed. The longer I stayed in my little village—which is on the other side of the Rhone, by the way, some 100 miles west of Peyrane—the more reaffirmations I got from Village in the Vaucluse. What Wylie was able to capture was not just a way of living, but a character of a people.
When I came home from my year living in the South of France, I wanted to thank Laurence Wylie. I returned in 1990, though, forty years after Wylie’s stay in Roussillon. I didn’t know if he was still alive. I wrote him in care of his publisher, Harvard University Press. I told him how much his book had meant to me, and how good I thought it was. I told him the book would live, because it was true. It turned out he was alive; he was 83 years old and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had finished his teaching career at Harvard. He wrote me back a lovely, two-page handwritten letter. He thanked me for my words about his book. Then he said something utterly surprising: He said he’d been feeling a bit depressed, worried “that at 83 my life is sort of dwindling without my having made a difference by living.” This from a man who gave us so much! He said my letter had made him feel that perhaps indeed he had made a difference.
A year or so later, he died.
But not his book. Not Village in the Vaucluse. It continues to have a healthy life, still in print, in its third edition, still selling. By the likes of the new Michelin Guide, that will be the case for the foreseeable future. That’s great news. No book about Provence deserves it more. No author, either.
About Richard Goodman:
Richard Goodman is the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France. He has written on a variety of subjects for many publications, including Saveur, The New York Times, Garden Design, Creative Nonfiction, Commonweal, Vanity Fair, Grand Tour, Salon.com, and The Michigan Quarterly Review. He has twice been the recipient of a MacDowell Colony residency. His work also appears in Travelers’ Tales France, Food: A Taste of the Road, and The Road Within.