Saturday 30 April 2011

Jazz at sunset

   The Luberon hills are like a great wide curtain, falling in folds created by steep gorges like a stage backdrop behind our land; all paths south through the property seem to end in ridged blue hills that deepen with the passing of the day. By early evening the folds are sharply delineated by black pleats, the crevasses that trap the dark.
   As the great range of hills slumbered in evening shades of rust and indigo, we listened to jazz on the CD player.

                                                            From The Lantern

On summer evenings, as the sun sends slants of red light up the slopes from the west, it carves blood red clefts in the hills. In this soft light, the distinctive ripples across the valley have the visual texture of velvet.

This is the time to sit, perhaps with friends, and drink a glass of ice-cold rosé, and nibble black olives, feeling the warm evening settle, watching the folds in the hills turn into dark rivulets.

Music plays a large part in the life of this place. If Rob isn’t playing his piano in the courtyard music room, trying out new pieces – like Dom, in the novel - then an eclectic selection wafts through the air from iPods and CDs. Early evening is often the time for laid-back jazz. There’s something about the style that captures the essence of the South of France, and this recording with a beguiling slow beat, by Stacey Kent is just perfect.

It comes from the album Raconte-moi… (Tell me…). The songs, some new, some old, are all in French though Kent is American, married to the British musician Jim Tomlinson who is also her arranger and producer. They have been hugely successful in France over the past few years – the French have such good taste! Here, then, is one of my favourites, Désuets, which translates loosely as “old-fashioned things” with a hint of vintage and obsolescence.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Ghosts in olive oil

During autumn and winter, when the worst winds howled, the summer lived on in the red and orange and green of the fruit and vegetables pressed into glass jars and sealed.
 As the temperature dropped, olive oil went cloudy in the bottle.
   Once, when I was still too young to dispute the facts, Pierre warned me that the eerie white shapes held in the oil were imprisoned spirits.
   ‘Like ghosts?’ I asked.
   ‘Bad ghosts.’
   ‘Will they escape?’
   ‘If they do, what will we do? Will they catch us if we run?’
   ‘We will be pinned to the ground, unable to move, while they do terrible things.’

                                                                      From The Lantern

There are floating spirits in the olive oil on this stall at Apt market, on a cold morning in early March. Dead-white globular forms have gathered in the golden amber, clusters of crystals that have clumped in low temperatures from the natural waxes in the olive fruit. When the oil warms, they disappear and the product will be none the worse for it - indeed they show this is good quality, natural food.

But how much more fun it is, as a writer, to revert to childhood and imagine ghosts through the characters in a book. Imaginary fears run like threads all through The Lantern, but magnified rather than lessened by the knowledge that what we catch ourselves imagining – and then dismissing as we come to our senses – is always much less of a threat than the truth. On a deeper level, this is a novel about reading and writing and the inner life these activities promote, of the stimulus to the imagination and the way that changes how we see the world. 

            The novel keys into timeless fears of the unknown, and the uncertainty when the first stages of an idyllic romance are over and real life begins. It’s also a novel of the senses: as well as vivid visual descriptions of the landscape, I’ve tried to evoke smell and taste and sound and feel until there is an inescapable feeling that there is also a sixth sense in play, an instinctive sense of foreboding that cannot be explained rationally.

If paintings, especially impressionist art, show us not what is there but what the artist wants us to see, then a similar claim can be made for painting in words. The writer shines a light into the ordinariness of daily life and suggests there is more, under the skin, if we would only look.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Lavender potions

This enchanting photographic composition by Sherry Hicks precisely illustrates the traditional uses of lavender. No, it’s not French. The scales are clearly emblazoned Old Kentucky Home, but the picture has a universal quality. It’s about correct quantities in the countryside where the inhabitants would use whatever natural produce was at hand for both cooking and home-made remedies.

Beyond the use of lavender in perfumery, there’s hardly an ailment that lavender can’t cure, it seems. There are potions and infusions for nervous emergencies, and for ailments ranging from asthma to fever, nasal congestion, fainting to stomach disorders, headaches to rheumatisms.

In old Provence, an influenza cure was made by boiling a litre of water to which was added a whole fifty grams of flowers, left to infuse for several hours. It would then be reheated, and the patient (as if they hadn’t suffered enough) made to drink it all straight down. They would sweat profusely, and have to run for the outside privy, but the potion was deemed to have a potent effect on the body.

To maintain his health, Napoleon is supposed to have swilled two bottles of lavender essence a day month. It's claimed he even drank it before rising from his campaign bed and appearing on the battlefield! I suspect this heroic consumption may have been encouraged by the level of preserving alcohol in his favourite brew… 

There is a more traditional recipe for lavender aperitif that is based on lavender flowers marinated in white wine. After a week it is filtered, and sweetened with sugar and honey before it is bottled. It’s an acquired taste, rather like the lavender ice-creams and crème brulées served in summer. (A few teaspoons are enough for me: one of the few times when I feel the interest lies in tasting what is essentially an interesting idea rather than actually wanting to eat it. The same goes for the lavender biscuits sold in Apt market.)

My choice would be to mix it into a homemade pot-pourri to perfume the house: allow lavender flowers, thyme flowers and mint leaves to dry, then add several cloves and place in open bowls.

And to dream a while, here is photographer Hans Silvester’s picture book Lavender, Fragrance of Provence, a fine sourcebook should you be searching for that perfect field in which to sit and embrace a perfumed world.

Sherry Hicks writes The Shanty Girl blog here  – as she puts it, searching for the balance between rust and glamour, with a dash of Provence in Texas.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Cross-Channel reading

Travelling and reading: two great passions that often give pleasure together. Yesterday I travelled through France on the high-speed train from Avignon to Paris, and then on north through the Eurotunnel with a good book: almost flying in both dimensions, as the TGV train seems to float above the ground at up to 300 miles an hour, and the narrative drive is so true and exhilarating in Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog.

This is the fourth of her semi-detective Jackson Brodie books, and each one has become more daring, more convoluted and gloriously coincidental, yet always with a strong internal logic. The writing is sly and allusive, offering glinting shards of insight into characters in few words.

Tilly the ageing actress, still wounded by her old friend’s success, has just one of the novel’s interweaving perspectives. Her faltering work in a northern TV drama is poignantly drawn, as is her failing memory, and denial of a creeping kleptomaniac tendency: 

"Recently she’d noticed all these objects suddenly appearing in her bag – key rings, pencil sharpeners, knives and forks, coasters. She had no idea how they got there. Yesterday she had found a cup and a saucer! The emphasis on cutlery and cups suggested she was trying to put together a complete place-setting."
Haven’t finished it yet, but I know it will be this good all the way through. Like Jackson Brodie, you can rely on Kate Atkinson. Neither will let you down.

My arrival back in Kent offered a fine symmetry to the day. All the way through France I’d been, in literary terms, immersed in a very British landscape of Yorkshire tea rooms, ruined abbeys and maddening shopping centres. But waiting for me at home here was another book, this time set in Provence.

Cherries from Chauvet’s Orchard is a memoir by Ruth Phillips. Ruth is a professional ‘cellist, and the wife of the painter Julian Merrow-Smith, whose work I’ve featured before here. The book was a pre-publication review copy with a plain cover, but something about it was so right – the feel, the design and typeface - that I just dumped my bags by the front door and started reading immediately. (I think quite a few of you will understand…)

I sat down on the stairs, and was instantly pulled right back to the south of France. Because Ruth Phillips can write. I mean, she can really write; there’s a quality about her words you can recognise instantly. Here’s the Introduction:

"On February 16, 2005, Julian Merrow-Smith painted an oyster. It was 12 by 14 centimetres, about the size of a postcard. A year and 362 small paintings later, an article about the painter and his project appeared in the New York Times."

See what I mean? And a few pages in, she describes the village near Mont Ventoux where they settled in Provence and he established a studio.

"Crillon was a dreamy place perched high above vineyards, olive groves and cherry orchards, with a honey-coloured stone arch, cobbled streets, a well and a church spire. (…) Out of season, vineyards turned to rows of gnarled fists. Woodsmoke and the smell of stewing boar filled the air."

It may be the combination of her musicality and visual sense further developed by living with a painter and acting as his de facto studio assistant, that has distilled this lovely prose. Either way, the effect is quite magical, and I will return to it with a full review at a later date.

So how’s that for a good reading day? Two books: one not finished, one barely started, yet satisfaction all round. And both authors, one renowned, one still to be published, providing the very definition of travelling hopefully. 

The main picture is Monsieur Chauvet’s Orchard by Julian Merrow-Smith.

Monday 18 April 2011

Goat's cheese in chestnut leaves

Mariette was the daughter of a cheese maker at Banon. She would always share sharp white patties made of goats’ milk wrapped in dry of a brown leaves that she brought from her family’s farm.

The perched village of Banon in the high north-east of Provence has produced its famous goat’s cheese since the Gallo-Roman era. Local legend even claims that the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (86-161 AD) ate so much fine cheese from Banon that he died of this excess.

Traditionally, the cheese is wrapped in chestnut leaves and tied with raffia or straw to keep it fresh through the long winters. After maturing for a couple of weeks, the little rounds of white cheese are washed with a local eau-de-vie (firewater) before being wrapped in the leaves. It’s a lovely creamy cheese with a pronounced woody flavour.

Tome de Provence is the simple country goat’s cheese of this region, which would once have been made by the shepherd’s wife at home. She would add enough rennet to curdle in around an hour, a process adapted for quick cheese making in hot summer temperatures. This too is creamy and delicious with fresh fruit.

In The Lantern, Bénédicte, younger of the two sisters whose family lived at the hillside hamlet for generations, travels up into the higher mountains of Provence to work in the lavender fields, where she meets the cheese maker’s daughter.

And here is the hill-top village of Banon, in all its unassuming splendour, above the purple cords of lavender. In the mountains to the east and south are the great mauve hillsides and plateaux of cultivated lavandin, a hardier hybrid introduced here in the 1920s for use in the scent and cosmetic industries.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Wisteria and shutters

            The house slumbered behind mauve shutters…

Although I’ve always thought the colour of the shutters on our property was grey-lavender, one of the traditional Provençal shades, it’s only now in heady springtime that I see it’s also a match for the rampant wisteria. The delicate mauve makes such a pretty counterpoint to the faded grey stones of the house and surrounding walls it seems as though it’s all part of the natural landscape.

When all the building work is finished, we’ll have to repaint the shutters and the campaign has already started to find the paint to recreate the exact hue. Our first experiments have been in “Figue Matte” (Matt Fig), which is yet another variation on a theme, and although it looks a little dark now, we're sure it will weather to the original.

There comes a moment in spring when plants and trees surge and become blowsy in the renewed heat and light, and so it is here. In our courtyard, the wisteria tangles with the branches of the olive tree and the two dance together against welcome blue skies. There’s a persistent hum as bees busy themselves in the blossoms. It isn’t always like this:
               This part of Provence is a country of contrasts: the bone-biting cold; the golden days of heat and the violent storms; sweetness of the soft perfumes that pulse in the sun and the treacherous changes of mood. The wind is the pacemaker of the day’s rhythms, from the summer zephyrs that sustain the spirit to the savage howling of the mistral.
                                                          From The Lantern

But spring is here now, and with it the sudden bursts of heat that presage summer. Wild flowers are jumping up from the grass, and we might even find marsh orchids again, alongside the columbine and Jacob’s ladder.
Time to put a table outside and have a lovely lunch of white asparagus and vinaigrette, and the freshest goat's cheese.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Long Shadows - Provence

This gorgeous oil painting by Maryanne Jacobsen is called Long Shadows - Provence. The scene with its subtle and skilled use of blue and orange arrested me as soon as I glimpsed it unexpectedly – for it depicts the side of our property and the track that leads up towards the road into the village.

There, on the right is the fountain and what was once a drinking trough for horses and other animals; to the left is the side of the main farmhouse. It is astonishingly true to life, but what Maryanne has captured better than any photograph is the depth of colour and the way the flames of sunset in the west are thrown against the rising land. The contrast deepens the indigo and purple as evening sinks into darkness.

An ex-dancer and artistic director of a ballet company, Maryanne Jacobsen lives in Florida and is rapidly building a reputation as an artist. Her work has been juried into the annual exhibition of The American Impressionist Society, and she received the People’s Choice Award in the Venice Art Center’s fall exhibition, among many other accomplishments.

One of the wonders of the world now is the way we can all connect, across continents and seas, at the click of a mouse or keyboard. I discovered Maryanne’s enchanting art blog Paint Dance a while ago when I was searching for paintings of Provence.

We corresponded with a view to featuring one of her pictures on this blog. She asked me to wait a while. Meanwhile, she watched the three-minute film I made with family and friends last summer - and here, wonderfully achieved, is one of the scenes in that film. For somehow, she has read the true atmosphere from the patterns of light in a few frames of video.

With a true artist’s eye she brings a mysterious and romantic quality to the perspective through superb mastery of colour. The bumpy track seems to lead the eye up the path. Flecks of bright light suggest that even now there are still patches of heat on the dust.

Is writing or art more effective if you already know the place that the painter or writer describes? Possibly, that issue is double-edged both for reader and writer. How disappointing if the creative work failed to capture the very essence of a place! Alternately, when a portrait in paint or words succeeds – or exceeds expectation - the place in life will always glow with an extra dimension of understanding.

To find out more about Maryanne Jacobsen’s art, click here for her Paint Dance blog and here to see Long Shadows - Provence in the context of her site.

Saturday 9 April 2011

The Lantern is lit

So where does all that determination to write get you? With a finished manuscript and months of waiting and hoping, followed by the gradual fading of optimism into resignation? Believe me, I’ve been there. Perhaps I’ll tell you, another time. But just sometimes – unexpectedly, incredibly – events move faster and more positively than you ever dared hope.

I didn’t intend to write anything that sat nearly as appositely with the previous post, but a parcel arrived from HarperCollins in New York this week. Inside was a gift-wrapped book: the US Advance Reader’s Editon of The Lantern. Suddenly, it was the moment you sometimes think will never come, even as an experienced author, thoughout all the long months and years of writing and rewriting and editing, then waiting for a verdict from agent and publisher.

But come it has, and with it a special sea-green package encasing a book with a shimmering cover. The front image shows a gate such as Hitchcock might have filmed and its peacock sheen makes an unearthly light against the dark background, which my photography doesn't do justice.

This is an early edition. The cover may or may not be changed before publication at the end of August, and the UK edition will be quite different. But the excitement starts here, and it is very exciting, not least because this is the first time one of my novels is being published in the USA.

And there’s icing on the cake – not just a scraping, but a huge drift of lovely topping, far more than I ever dreamed. I’m completely amazed and delighted beyond words that these very fine and very generous writers, New York Times bestselling authors all, have read The Lantern and sent these endorsements:

“I absolutely adored this beautifully written, modern Gothic novel, set in Provence, full of scents, colors and mystery. It will hook you in from the start and weave its dark, lush magic around you.
—Tatiana de Rosnay, author of Sarah's Key and A Secret Kept

“With The Lantern, Deborah Lawrenson delivers a feast of sights, sounds and smells that grow and change and linger, like a wonderfully complex perfume.  I was captivated by this marvelous, haunting book—at times vivid and lush, at times provocative and chilling.
—Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Lantern is a seductive mixture of a Gothic ghost story and a modern romance that unfolds in a marvelous, crumbling Provencal farmhouse. If the story doesn't keep you up all night reading, the sharp and beautiful descriptions of the South of France will.  Deborah Lawrenson has written an alluring, dark novel that will haunt you and leave you wanting more.”
 —Danielle Trussoni, author of Angelology

Wednesday 6 April 2011

On writing...

I don’t subscribe to the idea that the act of writing is some mysterious creative process that must involve Inspiration and a certain amount of neurosis at all times. Clearly, a pinch must be present but in general I sit down, I have a think, then get some words down. It really is that simple – or rather I choose to believe it’s that simple because I’m a sensible, pragmatic sort of person. Not for me the chaos, draped chiffons and public anguish of the eccentric lady author; the teetering piles of books in my study are about as raw as it gets round here.

Now, I confess I have never been to a creative writing class. I’m sure I would have found it helpful and interesting if I had. But then again, I always wondered whether most creative writing classes were taken by those who needed the kick-start, or the validation, or the blueprint to get started. I have always read greedily, and been interested in how and why books worked, so it seemed that much of what I needed was already embedded in those books. This is, of course, a very personal view of what was right for me - other people will have very different views and experiences. 

As far as I can see, the main requirement for starting and finishing a novel is determination. It was quite a while before I found the courage to begin writing fiction, purely because I wanted to write a novel so much, but that’s another issue. When I did finally start, after I’d worked as a journalist for long enough to prove myself, I learned most of the technicalities of writing a book by daring to try.

The symbol of that determination, for me, is this cherished fountain pen. My parents bought it for me when I was fourteen, and I wrote with it for the rest of my time at school, gripped tight through all the important exams, my Cambridge entrance papers and, finally my degree. These days it’s only used to write letters to special people, but I never pick it up, and feel it rest in the bump of my middle finger that it made all those years ago, without remembering those make-or-break times, when pushing on towards an end was all I could envisage.

This doesn’t give much insight into the writing process, does it? But I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else how to write. If you have a love of words and language, and you want it enough, you’ll find your own way. But I will share one piece of knowledge that has always kept me writing, and working fast:

It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Deceptively simple, but like so many of the simplest methods, extremely effective. That shouldn't imply slapdash and rushed. What it means is that you give yourself permission to put words on the page that aren’t necessarily the finished product, lines you will go back and polish. It’s so much easier to play around with words that are already on the page than to stare at a blank screen or sheet. You can warm up by writing what comes into your head first – it’s amazing how fast you can hit your stride with the better stuff – and you will rarely be troubled by writer’s block.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Harem cushion tomatoes

Where we are in the Luberon is a sensuous landscape, with its hilltop villages, lavender fields, clear bright light and rippled blue hills, abundant fruit and vegetables. Scents and colours abound, and even the simplest of meals seems infused with its spirit. Simplicity seems extraordinarily close to hedonism when you find “harem cushion” tomatoes like these in Apt market.

The tomato salad they will make is one of the most delicious and simple dishes known to man: just sliced with onion and a handful of ripped basil, then dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. It takes five minutes to assemble and then all you need is a baguette, newly baked with a light crust from your favourite boulangerie in the Rue des Marchands, to mop up all the juices. Here is a spring version, using spring onions for a touch of green instead of basil. The perfect lunch, and a taste of summer and outdoor dining to come.

That summer the house and its surroundings became ours, a time reduced in my memory to separate images and impressions: mirabelles, the tart orange plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest green leaves, a zinc-topped table under a vine canopy; the budding grapes; the basket on the table, a large bowl; tomatoes ribbed and plump as harem cushions; thick sheets and lace secondhand from the market, and expensive new bedcovers that look as old as the rest; lemon sun in the morning pouring through open windows; our scent in the linen sheets.
                                                                                    From The Lantern

PS. I wouldn't normally post two days in a row, but this sits so well with Apt Market yesterday - yes, they are the very same tomatoes we bought at that stall - that I couldn't resist. This was originally part of a guest post I wrote for Lynne Rees, The Hungry Writer here.

Saturday 2 April 2011

The 800-year-old market

The narrow medieval streets were crammed with stalls and people, shouting, discussing where to buy the best vegetables, the most succulent game; smells rose of roasting chickens and chestnuts and freshly-made pizza; three squares, north, south and west offered meat, fish, fruit, carved wood, spices, kitchenware, linens, racks of Indian-made clothes and leather goods from North Africa, bead jewelry, the scented olive oil soaps from Marseille and all varieties of produce made from lavender.

                                                          From The Lantern

Saturday is market day in Apt, and it’s one of the most famous markets in the region. They say there has been a market held here every Saturday morning for eight hundred years, in an unbroken link with the past.

The Rue des Marchands is a narrow paved street that cuts through the heart of this alluring little town, down the side of the cathedral where the remains of a Roman theatre have been found deep in its foundations. In summer there are stalls on both sides, and crowds of such density that you can hardly move at times.

The Cathedral of St-Anne was established in 1056, though the present structure was completed in the 17th century. At this time of year, there’s room to breathe, and to marvel at the stalls where vegetables are set out with artistry, from the tiny endeavour that holds only a vast bouquet of ravishing radishes, or the big stall in the main square that offers this checkerboard of tomatoes and artichokes.

Then there are are stalls of linen, in all the colours of Provence, like these tablecloths:

And these great cakes of nougat, the hazelnut and sugar confection famously made in Montelimar...

Finally, back in January I wrote about the candied fruit for which Apt is renowned (here), and promised to bring back some more. This glorious display is from La Bonbonnière, the specialist sweet shop in the Rue de la Sous-Préfecture – feast your eyes!

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