He knows a little place
- Expensive Habits by Peter Mayle
Sinclair-Stevenson, 191 pp, £14.95, October 1991, ISBN 1 85619 055 2
The contents of this vulgar and irritating book – can the author have deliberately set out to be irritating? – are totally predictable. It is, however, unexpected that we have to wait until page 166 before encountering a familiar example of what some consider to be admirable behaviour. A man leaves a restaurant, naturally a grand and expensive establishment, after paying his bill. The mâitre d’hotel follows him and asks if he has not forgotten something. The diner, heroic in his conviction that the mâitre d’hotel has not done his duty by him, produces a ten-pound note. ‘This was for you,’ he says. But, instead of handing it over, he produces his cigarette lighter and burns the note in the face of the mâitre d’hotel, bids him good evening and goes on his way.
[*] Avebury, 144 pp., £30, 7 November 1991, 1 85628 100 0.
Vol. 14 No. 7 · 9 April 1992
How could Douglas Johnson be so beastly about that nice Peter Mayle (LRB, 13 February)? Could it be jealousy at only having written boring old tomes like France and the Dreyfus Affair rather than little jewels like Man’s Best Friend (the constant companion in his trousers, as the blurb puts it)? Mayle’s booklets read like storyboards for television commercials, his characters about as believable as those one sees advertising cheese or washing powder. Considering that one can hardly stir in the Lubéron (the part of Provence Mayle infests and miles from here, thank God) without tripping over painters, writers, musicians and politicians weekending from Paris, the Lubéron being to Paris rather what the New Forest is to London, it is odd that only the folksy paysans appear in his scribbling. Going by the endless apocryphal stories he tells, most of which I’d heard by the end of my first summer here, they must have seen him coming and dug out their smocks and designer straws and sat waiting for the pastis to flow.
The saddest consequence of Maylemania is the number of English in their blue-rinsed Volvos who trawl Provence looking for his Noddyland. Once they have got past parlay vous anglay they are bound to be as sadly disappointed as anyone going to the Lake District and hoping to find Arthur Ransome’s Wild Cat Island. Never mind. Writers are peddlers of dreams, are they not? Pity Mayle did not dress up his adman’s vision as a novel, or short stories. Except that if one is conditioned to a maximum concentration span of 30 seconds that would have been the most awful strain for him. And anyway, then he would have to compete with real writers like Jean Giono and Marcel Pagnol. That his patronising, vulgar and irritating books sell is a fairly dismal reflection on the reading habits of the British and on the Post-Modern desert. On his publishers, too, for that matter.
St Julien le Montagnier, France