"Because of their age - or rather their agelessness - and because of their common ochre color the houses look much alike to a foreigner walking through the streets for the first time. He cannot distinguish between the Laporatti house and the Charrin house, which stand side by side, but any child in the village could tell him that the houses are totally different."
Village in the Vaucluse by Laurence Wylie
Much more reading than writing this week, and one of the treasures of the bookshelf I’ve been delving into for research is Laurence Wylie’s portrait of Roussillon in the early 1950s. An American academic who subsequently became Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard University, Wylie paints an intimate portrait of the red ochre village he calls Peyrone in the years following the second world war.
It was – and still is – a collection of narrow streets perched on a whale-shaped cliff rising from the floor of the Luberon valley. Shades of red, orange and yellow sandstone glow against dark green fir trees in a living Fauvist painting.
Samuel Beckett found sanctuary here on Bonnelly's farm after the wartime Parisian Resistance network he belonged to was betrayed by a corrupt priest. With arrest by the Nazis imminent - some fifty members of their cell had alredy been captured - Beckett and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil fled south on forged identity papers in September 1942.
By 1944 when the South of France was no longer the Zone Libre, the Irish playwright was again in the thick of the Resistance, hiding explosives in the house and going on patrol with the local Maquisards. The whole of the Luberon valley was strongly partisan, fighting for the return of liberty from the Germans.
In the original French version of Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot, 1952) the character Vladimir speaks of living in the Vaucluse, remembering the ochre quarries and picking grapes for a man named Bonnelly. The English translation saw the clear references to Roussillon replaced by the Burgundian wine country around Macon.
Dr Wylie lived, along with his wife and their two small sons, in the village during 1950 and 1951, when times were very different. His study of Roussillon, Village in the Vaucluse (Harvard, 1957) is widely considered a classic: "sociology with rich human overtones". It's certainly full of wonderful details which give a real sense of life as it was lived, rather than romanticised, then (even if the widow of the famous chef Escoffier did run the local hotel).
There are two cars in Peyrane less than five years old, the big Citroen of the Notaire and the butcher's red truck with pink plastic pig heads. If we exclude these two, the cars of the commune of Peyrane average about twenty-five years in age.
...fear of a future war has destroyed confidence in the future. (...) To plant fruit trees one must have confidence in the future. Most of the farmers with whom this problem was discussed had the same reaction: "We know we should plant trees but what's the use? Who knows if we and our children would be here by the time they started to bear?"
Seventy years later, the Bonnelly family still harvests grapes and makes good wine on their Roussillon estate, the Domaine du Coulet Rouge. The village is hugely popular with tourists, packed in summer and with an air of quiet wealth out of season.