Peter Mayle lets us tag along on his good life

November 08, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- "The secret of happiness is to find a congenial monotony," writer V. S. Pritchett once observed. Maybe that explains why, in pictures and in person, Peter Mayle always seems to be smiling.

Having two runaway best sellers doesn't hurt, nor do the buckets of money that came from publication of "A Year in Provence" and "Toujours Provence." Those two affectionate memoirs of living in the south of France not only made this former advertising executive rich, they also introduced a generation of readers to the joys of eating six-course meals at lunch, tippling the exquisite Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine as if it were Pepsi, and generally reveling in a nonstop sensory extravaganza.

No, it's more that, at age 54, this is how Peter Mayle lives these days: He writes, he eats rich food and he drinks fine wine.

He has gotten away from it all -- and, better, gotten away with it. "At this point," Mr. Mayle says, almost unnecessarily, "I couldn't ask for a better life."

His neighbors in the village of Menerbes, where he has lived since 1986 with his wife, Jennie, are truffle-hunters, farmers and gourmet-minded plumbers who know every three-star restaurant from Provence to Lyon. He writes about singing toads, goat races and farmers' markets where the varieties of olives are counted in multiples of five.

"We no longer watch television," he wrote in "Toujours Provence." "It wasn't a self-righteous decision to give us more time for more intellectual pursuits; it just happened. In the summer, watching television can't compete with watching the evening sky. In the winter, it can't compete with dinner. The television set now has been relegated to a cupboard to make space for more books."

If he were home now, he would be watching the Provencal people finish up their harvest, which is occasion for more raising of the glass and sumptuous dining -- "it's one of my favorite times of the year there," he says appreciatively. But he was spending part of his fall on a promotion tour for "Hotel Pastis," his first novel, about a high-powered English advertising executive who chucks it all to run a hotel in Provence (pastis is the potent regional drink). Mr. Mayle had spent 15 years in advertising, in this country and in his native England, before deciding to leave it in 1975.

He liked the business well enough. As he observes in "Up the Agency: The Funny Business of Advertising," published a few years ago in England but just released this month in America: "There cannot be many other occupations outside of organized crime or entertainment in which money can be made so quickly and at such a young age." But after a decade and a half, and another 10 as a free-lance writer, he was ready to go watch the summer skies in Provence.

But he found out something about the great escape. Although "Hotel Pastis" contains the familiar light-hearted prose and good-natured portraits of the Provencal people found in Mr. Mayle's earlier books, it's more reflective. Simon Shaw, the protagonist, discovers that peace and quiet isn't all it was cracked up to be. "A lot of people in Shaw's position -- who are highly motivated, highly stressed -- have had these fantasies about just leaving," Mr. Mayle says as he sips a glass of white wine (American, alas) in the dining room of a Washington hotel. They buy these remote places in the country and get back to nature, but they really get bored stiff. What they really miss is being important -- and where they've moved, they're less than important. To the French, they're just another stumbling tourist."

Like his books, he seems congenitally cheerful, full of self-deprecating humor. But not everyone is happy that Peter Mayle is happy. Some critics, especially in England, have groused that his boosterish books about Provence will entice tourists by the bus load to the area.

"It's largely criticism by journalists who feel that I have somehow taken Provence and ravished it and ruined it forever for anybody like them who comes down for three weeks a year," Mr. Mayle says in measured tones. "I do get a bit irritated, because if they lived there, they'd know that what they wrote was garbage."

He examines his wine glass for a moment. "But it's one of those wonderful British things that probably is a throwback to colonial times," he continues. "The British went out and discovered nice parts of the world and then they appropriated them."

So far, though, Peter Mayle hasn't appropriated Provence. Though he says, "I do consider it home now," he adds quickly, "I'm a permanent tourist. My French is quite OK, but with my accent I'm clearly a foreigner. But I quite like being a foreigner because it gives you a detached point of view, and you can ask people things as a foreigner. I've found the Provencal people to be very generous. They've always had time to answer my questions, whereas if I had been another Frenchman -- or worse, a Parisian -- they'd just tell me to bug off."

That means, then, that he'll eat more good food, drink more of Provence's wine -- "probably more than I should" -- and write more books, both fiction and nonfiction, about his favorite place on Earth. "I love the fact that the research is so close at hand and so pleasant," Mr. Mayle says. "And I'm still captivated by Provence, so I don't see any reason to stop. Writers tend to maximize their backgrounds, like Dick Francis and horse racing, or John le Carre and his espionage novels. I think I should be allowed to do Provence."

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