Of all the books set in
I’ve been reading, Pierre Magnan’s Innocence is one of the most atmospheric and mesmerizing. As dawn breaks over the hills of France in June 1945, a fifteen-year-old boy Pierrot stumbles across the body of a local Resistance hero. The man has been murdered. But Pierrot cannot resist looking through the dead man’s wallet – and finds a letter written on blue paper that will prove the key to illicit love and betrayal and revenge, and Pierrot’s own first experience of love with the passionate older woman Madame Henry. Provence
In Pierrot’s awakening and loss of innocence, there are echoes of the Alain-Fournier classic Le Grand Meaulnes. It is a story recalled in maturity that yet yearns for what is past, both in the sense of love lost, and the idealism of youth.
This Vintage edition is an excellent translation by Patricia Clancy. The French title is Un Grison d’Arcadie but I like the English title better.
So when I read in the newspaper La Provence last summer that Pierre Magnan was signing books at the festival of books at Grambois, a hilltop village over the Grand Luberon mountains from us, I had to go.
It was a swelteringly hot, still day. Grambois does look a little like the village on this cover, especially with the great plain below, indistinctly depicted at the top right of the picture. The Fete du Livre had attracted a good crowd and plenty of stalls full of old and new books. Pierre Magnan’s late mentor and friend was the great Jean Giono, and Giono’s daughter Sylvie was another respected guest in the village that afternoon.
Coshed by the heat, the crowd wilted under the trees and drank diabolo menthe at the bar. At around five o’clock the famous author appeared: a spry, merry gentleman in a large Panama hat and baggy white linen suit.
With more than thirty novels and memoirs under his belt, Pierre Magnan is now in his late eighties and the grand old man of Provençal letters. All his novels are set in the countryside around his home in Forcalquier and many of them are thrillers imbued with a fine black humour. He likes the dynamics of feuds and jealousy and pettiness, and clearly relishes a spot of vengeance.
His journey to success as a writer is thoroughly inspirational. He published his first novel L’Aube Insolite (Strange Dawn) in his twenties in 1946, to critical acclaim but modest sales. Three further novels went the same way. So he went to work for a refrigeration transport company for nearly thirty years, until a redundancy package gave him the time and security to write again. In 1978 he wrote the first in his acclaimed police procedural series featuring Commissaire Laviolette, won a literary prize, and never looked back.
It’s not often you get the chance to tell people face to face how much you’ve enjoyed and admire their work, so I got in line at the bookstall and took my chance as he signed the copy I’d bought earlier. What I wanted to say was how much I was struck by the way he had captured the mystery and yearning of Le Grand Meaulnes but that his novel was erotic in a way that Alain-Fournier, writing in 1913, could only have dreamed of publishing.
A distinct twinkle appeared in Monsieur Magnan’s eye as I pressed on regardless of the jostling cluster of elderly lady readers behind. He gave an eloquent shrug. ‘Ah, mais oui…’ He was curious enough to ask me where I came from, and wrote a sweet message in my book.
The queue grew restless. But, this being
, everyone knew there was a balance between their dislike of waiting and the importance of allowing the Artist to receive due praise. Even if it was coming from a slightly red-faced Englishwoman talking of matters that, not being French, she could surely know nothing about… France