Wednesday 31 August 2011

Circle of life: The professor, the painter, the musician and me

Yet another of life’s mysterious circles. My life always seems to abound in connections and coincidences, and here is the latest. My New York publishers (rather rashly) sent a review copy of The Lantern to the eminent author, art historian and literary critic Mary Ann Caws, who is currently Distinguished Professor of English, French and Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of City University in New York.

Well, not only did she like it, but I am honoured and delighted that she wrote the following review which generously highlights points of comparison between her work as a translator and summer life in Provence, and Eve’s story in the novel. She also asked me a few questions, and posted the interview on her blog, New York, Provence, Poetry (click here).

It turns out that she too knows the artist Julian Merrow-Smith, whose marvellous, luminous paintings have often adorned these pages, and his wife Ruth Phillips, the ‘cellist and writer. So, as I never need much excuse to include a Merrow-Smith picture and direct you to his Shifting Light daily painting blog (click here), the illustrations on this post are from his recent archive: High Lavender and Lavender Field in the Drôme.

Here is Mary Ann’s review:

"I have just finished an advance copy of Deborah Lawrenson's The Lantern, about the Luberon and Cassis, near me in my summers and both etched in my mind and writings -- and the too-good-to-be-trueness of a relationship -- and essentially about the haunting of a place and a self by a memory, or several. Living my summers, as I do, in a It Had To Be Fixed house, that is, my cabanon that has seen 300 years of life, and death, and horses and peasants and, now, us, every page spoke to me of much. The descriptions are, each one, themselves a haunting -- the smell of lavender and of almond biscuits, the taste of the various winds in their howling and their gentleness, the sight of the squirrel-like loirs or dormice scuttling about and dislodging the tiles on the roof.

The narrator, one of the heroines, if you see it like that, is a translator (me too), and so her sense of words is terribly acute-- perhaps that explains the haunting quality of not just the lavender scent so permeating throughout,but of the exactness of the language bringing it all into presence. It is particularly moving for me on two accounts: because I live there in  my summers, and know every inch of that sight and smell. The second is that my great friends, the cellist Ruth Phillips (daughter of another friend, Tom Phillips, painter, translator, knower of many things) and her husband, the painter Julian Merrow-Smith, have both produced recently two volumes equally baked in Provence, the Provence to which I am  so passionately committed, and they are present in my reading and seeing of anything about this countryside and mindscape. Julian's paintings, one done each day and many appearing in his Postcard from Provence, and Ruth's Cherries from Chauvet's Orchard (both published by the Red Ochre Press at the Hameau des Cougieux in Bedoin -- a village exactly 7 kilometers from my cabanon) are with me now in New York, preserving what I most love about the Vaucluse. Keeping its scent and its sight: although The Lantern turns about a blind woman, who becomes the "nose" of a perfume establishment which has the whiff of present-day L'Occitane...I can smell her creation, "Lavande de Nuit" now, even here. It will last the winter."

Mary Ann Caws (born 1933) is an American author, art historian and literary critic.
She is currently a Distinguished Professor of English, French and Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She is an expert on Surrealism and modern English and French literature, having written biographies of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James. She works on the interrelations of visual art and literary texts, has written biographies of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, edited the diaries, letters, and source material of Joseph Cornell. She has also written on André Breton, Robert Desnos, René Char, Yves Bonnefoy, Robert Motherwell, and Edmond Jabès. She served as the senior editor for the HarperCollins World Reader, and edited anthologies on Manifestos - Isms, Surrealism, Twentieth Century French Literature. Among others, she has translated Stéphane Mallarmé, Tristan Tzara, Pierre Reverdy, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, and René Char.
Among the positions she has held are President, Association for Study of Dada and Surrealism, 1971-75 and President, Modern Language Association of America, 1983, Academy of Literary Studies, 1984-5, and the American Comparative Literature Association, 1989-91.
In October 2004, she published her autobiography, To the Boathouse: a Memoir (University Alabama Press), and in November 2008, a cookbook memoir: "Provencal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France" (Pegasus Books).
If you would like to find out more about the Surrealist Movement, there is an excellent introduction here on

Saturday 27 August 2011

The author's view

It has been an amazing few weeks since The Lantern was published in the US and Canada. Reviews have flooded in, including some wonderful write-ups in the Washington Post (here), USA Today (here) and the Chicago Tribune (here). I can’t tell you how thrilling it has been to receive the links in my email inbox.

There have also been a plethora of opinions and lovely reviews online, the links to some of my personal favourites I will include at the end of this post. What is endlessly fascinating is how readers react so differently to the same book. For some it’s too slow, while others enjoy the dreamy pace. Some think it lacks true Gothic elements and has no twist to offer at the end; others are chilled by the quiet near-realism of the ending. Some think there’s too little plot; others see the weave as an intriguing story that drew them in. A few think I’ve simply stolen Daphne du Maurier’s most famous work.

The truth is that we all read according to our own interests, experience and preconceptions. In the months I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve tried to match pictures to words and to show the background of the book without really suggesting how to interpret the story. What lies beneath, in other words. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my view of The Lantern.

On a subtle level The Lantern is a novel about reading and stories and words. Is it too descriptive, using too many varied adjectives? Maybe, but the narrator Eve is a translator: words, and the precise choice of them, matter to her. The control of language, for her, means stability and rational understanding of her surroundings and situation when it seems she might otherwise be losing control.

Eve is a shy bookworm, whose comfort zone is reading. But her new life cut off from family and friends, coupled with mounting uncertainty about Dom, only sends her to books that exacerbate her dread, until she is not sure whether she is imagining the worst because she is influenced by the stories she is reading, or whether she is more accepting than she should be because she is seeing real life through the gauze of literature.

It is also a novel about spirits and ghosts and the histories held all around us, both in the obvious sense of the atmosphere of the run-down old house, and the ghosts of Eve and Dom’s own past that will not settle. Is Les Genévriers haunted, or are these psychological manifestations? And, just as there are always echoes of the past life of old houses, there are always echoes of earlier stories in literature.

In The Lantern, there is a clear line that stretches back through Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece Jane Eyre, the classic English gothic novel of the house, the man and the first wife…

Why set the novel in Provence? Remember Mr Rochester’s request of Jane (which she refuses) that they live together as man and wife in the South of France even though they cannot be legally married because his wife is still alive. Beyond Jane Eyre is the Bluebeard legend: the old French tale of a new young wife whose husband refuses to tell her what became of his previous wives, but she realises that the answer lies behind a locked door of his castle.

Bénédicte, as an elderly woman alone on the hill, becomes the subject of speculation and stories heard and embellished by trespassing village children. Behind the brightness of the Provençal countryside are dark tales told by farmers and shepherds, retold in books by the writer Jean Giono and read by both Bénédicte and Eve. Then there are the partial, apparently interrupted stories told by Rachel, and discovered by Eve.

The Lantern is also about isolation. Eve and Dom insulate themselves from the modern world in their own dream cocoon. Bénédicte lives on alone at Les Genévriers, the young girl who has become an isolated old woman whom others call crazy. Marthe is isolated by her blindness. In such circumstances, small details become large.

At times when the characters seem detached from the reality, their state of mind or interpretation of a situation is mirrored in their descriptions of the landscape. In a very obvious example, Eve and Dom travel to Davos for a skiing trip, but Dom will not admit what is troubling him - while all around is the cold, hard white dazzle of a frozen world.

Both the novel’s past and present voices are first-person narrators; both are courageous, loyal and self-contained in their different situations. (Perhaps on some psychic level, there is a mutual recognition of this.) Although they do admit to fear and anger, for the most part their emotions are buried, but surface in the way they see what is around them, in their descriptions of nature, the house and the landscape. To Eve, in the first flush of love, the property seems to expand around them, with the infinite possibilities of blue horizon beyond. Later, the walnuts fall from the tree “like fat brown tears”.

This detachment and displacement is echoed in loss of one sense and the subsequent need to compensate by using others more acutely. The idea of writing a “sensory novel” (which luxuriates in descriptions of all five senses) grew from this. How do you capture music, or fragrance, or texture, or taste in words? The challenge was to try to write visual descriptions might be vivid if heard by a blind person, or scent descriptions that might come alive through the sight of words on a page.

Here are just a very few of the blog reviews that have put a wide smile on my face. I’ve posted others on the book’s Facebook page (here). If you’ve enjoyed the book, do consider “Liking” and joining us – apart from anything else, interaction is much easier over there.

Nomadreader (click here)
The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog (click here)
Cornflower Books (click here)
The Lost Entwife (click here)
Rundpinne (click here)
Devourer of Books - Audio (click here)
Amusing Reviews (click here)

Monday 22 August 2011

Dog days of August

The days start by casting lemon-bright sunshine through the wooden shutters. The sky is cloudless. By ten o'clock, the heat is rising and all freshness has gone. This is the "canicule", the heavy heat of late summer when all you want to do is plunge into this:

Or find a shady spot where the warm pines release their scent... drift away with a good book - this is Seek My Face by John Updike (so far, so very good)...

All this gentle activity is interspersed with some lovely food, with the emphasis on fresh fruit picked from the trees and vegetables from a local market. Some ice-cold wine...then, after dusk, a wander off to one of the many village fetes - not fetes in the British sense, but three-day parties in the main square under plane trees strung up with lights, and dancing to a live band.

Last weekend, the party was at Viens. The same band, to our certain knowledge, returns year after year. The line-up has changed since those days in the 1980s when a high point was their rendition of George Michael's "Car'less Whis-perr" ("Gill-ti feet 'ave go' no rhyt-hem") and songs from the perennial French love affair with the Rolling Stones. There are dancing girls too, in extraordinary - and occasionally risque - costumes. The whole village turns out, young and old. The children jig around, while their grandparents swoop around to the tango and passo doble and show they've still got the moves.

Friday 19 August 2011

Wild flower meadows

                …wild flowers in meadows, the wind’s plainsong in the trees…

Most years, by the third week of August, the grass of a hillside garden in the Luberon would be an expanse of close-cropped straw, dried and baked in the sun. But this year, June and July were suprisingly stormy and a great deal wetter than normal, with the result that our garden has become a series of wildflower meadows. And as the idea is to relax and go with the flow in summer, we have left them to bloom.

Butterflies are flitting around from one flower to the next, and bees are busy on their rounds too. Sitting under a shady tree is to be surrounded by humming and buzzing and constant movement.

Just as Dom predicted: comfrey and meadow clary, autumn squill, watercolor blue chicory in scrubby clumps and scabious.

Here is the vibrant blue meadow clary. A sturdy form of pale blue chicory is everywhere, as is the wild geranium and cow parsley. I do love the old-fashioned names of wild flowers. Who named them, the jack-go-to bed-at-noon, the march pennywort, the ladies mantle and the enchanter's nightshade? They all seem to hold the history of country language and folk tales.

…the butterflies on meadow flowers and the scrubby spikiness of the land underfoot as we chased them…

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Vote for The Lantern!

The TV Book Club summer read series is coming to a close, and there has been a vote running for the favourite book of the season. Now, I don't really like to ask (though my UK publishers have strongly suggested that I do...) but if you've read and enjoyed The Lantern, and you felt it was appropriate, and you felt so inclined, then I'd be very grateful for your vote on the following link (here). It's very straightforward, no joining of a site or anything, and you will have the chance of winning book tokens worth £100 thanks to Specsavers. But you will need to be quick as the vote closes in the next few days.

Here again are the edited highlights from the TV Book Club discussion. We all thought that the panel's verdict was overwhelmingly positive, apart from Rory McGrath's objection to too many descriptive terms - fair comment, actually, which would have alerted those who like their prose plain that this might not be the novel for them - and a few so-so quips from Jo Brand. And the lovely book group in Winkwell seemed unanimously to enjoy it, even the men who thought they might not.

Alors, mes amis, over to you...

Sunday 14 August 2011

The courtyard door

The photograph of the courtyard door on my post ‘Rooms we didn’t know were there’, prompted visual artist Ruby Elizabeth Littlejohn to comment: “The weathered colours and textures are incredibly beautiful.” Indeed they are.

I can see exactly why these images would appeal to her. Her art blog Forest Dream Weaver is full of natural delights which she transforms into inspirational wall hangings and paintings. What is especially appealing is the way she shows us the way she takes scenes and shapes, textures and colours from nature and weaves them into her own unique vision.

If you haven’t discovered her yet, I suggest you clickety-click (here) for a sample of her work and how it evolves, and (here) for just the most exquisite representation of rowan blossom you are ever likely to see, from fine detail to its place in the landscape.

As for the art-in-nature on this old courtyard door, this is one of those times when you hold back from re-painting because the old is so delightful. The knobbly iron nails have their own quiet integrity. The weathered sea-green paint has grown moss stains. Dried remains of venerable ivy have the air of fossils and the grain of the wood is so split and sun-blasted that it seems almost as if the wood is gradually resuming its origins as a tree.

Thursday 11 August 2011

The Lantern - out now!

Very exciting times here, as The Lantern goes on sale in the USA and Canada. What you will see (I hope!) is its subtly mysterious cover and, with any luck, be reminded it was a book that might prove interesting. From my point of view, it is a thrilling moment tinged with some concern that it won’t repay my publishers’ faith in it, but mostly joyous amazement that I finally made it across the Atlantic with my sixth novel to be published.

And also a great deal of gratitude for what has gone on behind the scenes: first of all to my magnificent literary agent Stephanie Cabot, whom I first met in London when she was head of the august William Morris Agency. My great friend Felicia – who knew her – told me in no uncertain terms to stop flailing about and go for the top. I’m so pleased I dared, and have been for a long time now. What was even better was that Stephanie never even saw the letter I’d sent with my book, The Art of Falling, telling her that we had a connection – she called me in for a meeting because she liked the book.

Stephanie is now back in New York at The Gernert Company, where Rebecca Gardner, Will Roberts and Anna Worrell have also worked tirelessly in my behalf.

I was so, so lucky that The Lantern found its perfect editor at HarperCollins, in Jennifer Barth. Despite having been published before, I was not prepared for the infinite care and understanding that Jennifer gave my words, and the way we would work together with such productive empathy. I simply can’t praise her highly enough.

Also at HarperCollins, Jason Sack, Mark Ferguson and Olga Gardner Galvin have done a fantastic job. Many, many thanks too to Kathy Schneider, Tina Andreadis, Leah Wasielewski, Tiffany Woo, and the magnificent library team led by Virginia Stanley and Kayleigh George.

When I went to New York for BEA this May, I was introduced to the whirlwind that is Katherine Beitner, the publicist for the book, who not only kept me up to date with everything going on around us, and made sure everything went like clockwork, but kept me laughing and relaxed thoughout. I knew she was good – very good – but I had no idea she was going to get reviews of The Lantern in the Wall Street Journal and Oprah’s magazine, in Redbook magazine, and, astonishingly, in the past few days: USA Today (click here) and now as the lead book review in this week’s People magazine! (Not available online, sadly.) Katherine, I salute you - what a star!  

So there you are, so many more people that I haven’t mentioned by name, including the all-important Harper sales teams, who are behind one small book. Whoever would have thought all this would happen, when I sat down at my desk nearly three years ago to start writing a quiet but disturbing story about a shy, bookish young woman who finds herself living in France with a gorgeous but strangely secretive older man…? Certainly not me.

So it’s over to the readers now. I so hope you find things to enjoy in it, and that you’ll let me know if you do.

Monday 8 August 2011

Rooms we didn't know were there

A lopsided stone arch at the end of the main house, which would once have let carts into the courtyard…
                                                     From The Lantern

Come with me, I want to show you something. Here’s the entrance arch to “Les Genévriers”, slightly askew but remarkably solid, but we won’t go through there just now. We’re walking behind the main farmhouse, heading down the alleyway which was once a centuries-old path up the hill from the town far below.

          …the alleyway between the big house and the row of workers’ cottages.

In the building on the right is the place where a dream first came true, in the most literal sense. I’m a big dreamer, in every way – a daydreamer and a cineaste by night. One scene that recurs quite often for me, in various dream guises, is that of walking through a house where I live and finding rooms I never suspected were there.

Perhaps you have that one too. I don’t think it’s all that unusual. I read once it was supposed to signify personal development and the subconscious acknowledgement of more potential if certain areas of the mind could only be unlocked. In my dreams, it’s always a fascinating and welcome discovery, anyway.

When we bought our property in France, it was the rambling nature of the buildings that appealed immediately. As described fairly faithfully in The Lantern, it is more than a simple house: it is an old hamlet. We had seen it twice before we signed the purchase documents, once inside and out with the vendor’s agent and a second time inspecting the outside only, rather less officially.

There was certainly an element of reckless folie de grandeur about our purchase of the place, but we had fallen under its spell and there was no going back. We’d half-joked for years that top of our material wish-list would be a ruined hamlet in the Luberon, and suddenly – totally unexpectedly - here it was, and what’s more, in what we considered the ideal location. If we hadn’t gone for it, we would have regretted our lack of courage for evermore.

Arriving that first July, ready for adventure, we quickly realized that the main farmhouse was well-nigh uninhabitable. There were ominous cracks right across the floor of the top storey and the remaining bedrooms were cramped and full of dead lizards and insects. So the first summer – and for a few years afterwards - we slept in the building across the alleyway. This long edifice was once a line of farm workers’ cottages but already converted into two apartments. At the end was another small locked house (with no key) that we had never seen inside.

The woodworm-y entrance door to the downstairs apartment leads into a little sitting room. A large high-ceilinged bedroom is a few steps below, and there is a bathroom with wonderful views and its own outside terrace.

We’d been sleeping in the bedroom for several nights before I thought to investigate what I thought must be another cupboard, tucked away down another short flight of stairs, that I’d never even noticed when the estate agent showed us round.

The wooden door was truly small, but on the other side was a fair sized room. It was damp and full of cobwebs, but thrilling nevertheless. If you’ve ever lived in a city, you know that rooms just don’t get missed off property details. But here it was – the room we never knew was there.

            …the doors that opened into new rooms that hadn’t seemed to exist.

As it turned out, it was only the first such discovery, as we hacked down the overgrown garden and rampant ivy and the buildings seemed to expand organically around us. The garden door that led not to a tool store but a vaulted wine cave stretching under the courtyard, still with its old – empty! – barrels, was even more exciting. The locked house at the end of the alleyway eventually yielded to force and gave up its terrible stench of drains and ancient lintels and shallow stone wash basin.

When I look back now, that time does take on a dream quality, more so because it did feel as if we were doing something more than slightly crazy. But along the way we have gained far more than extra rooms. We’ve found that a dream really can come true – maybe more than one.       

Saturday 6 August 2011

Taste of the sun

Saturday is market day in Apt. It’s hot and the streets are thronged. The locals keep to the southern end of town where the fruit and vegetable stall on the edge of the big car park gives the best value. The further north towards the Hotel de Ville you go, battling all the tourists of August, the steeper the prices and the prettier the displays.

Provence is the land of tomatoes and olives and garlic and olive oil, and if it’s possible to combine these health-giving ingredients in any way, you will find the result here. You can buy them mashed into unappealing-looking but delicious pulps, or preserved pure, like these delicious sun-dried tomatoes with whole cloves of garlic that are lightly pickled, crunchy and slightly sweet.

Black olive paste - tapenade - is the staple to eat on tiny crispy toasts as an accompaniment to the first drink of the evening. Or there’s anchoïade, a purée of preserved anchovies, olive oil and garlic, to eat with crispy raw vegetables. There’s a stall about halfway down the Rue des Marchands that offers the best you will ever taste.

I’m trying to relax and eat well in the sun this weekend. What do you mean, “try!?” you’re asking. Well, I get very nervous before big events, and next Tuesday is one of the biggest of my writing life: The Lantern is published in the USA and Canada. It’s been going pretty well in Britain, and over the past few weeks the Italian and the Croatian rights have been sold to add to the other foreign territory sales. But this is the big one, the first time I’ve been published in America.

The thousands of free ARCs sent out by HarperCollins to introduce a new author into the book marketplace have produced some lovely reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and some not so good. Some readers don’t know what to make of it: too descriptive; too frustrating to have dual timeframes. Not the easy, genre Gothic read they were expecting. Fair enough. I’m very at ease with the idea that no book will work for everyone: that’s the magic of reading. I don’t enjoy every book I open and neither does anyone else.

But Oprah’s organisation likes it (yes, the legendary Oprah!) - here – and yesterday it reached the dizzy heights of a mention in the Short List in the Wall Street Journal - here. So cross your fingers for me, and hope there aren’t too many rotten tomatoes next week… 

Monday 1 August 2011

Reading under the fig tree

This is the life…a very comfortable seat in the shade of the fig tree in the courtyard, a pile of lovely books, some wild plums from the hillside and nectarines from the market for when you can’t be bothered to move.

The sun beats down, releasing a heavenly scent from the fig tree: sweet and rich and slightly musky. A cooling breeze ripples the leaves, and all is quiet. Above, the fruit is still green, late this year after the cold weather and rains of early summer.

When a change of scene is required, there’s another lovely place to sit and read under  the shade of a vine canopy over the dining table that looks out over the garden with the blue Luberon hills beyond.

For those who are curious about which books are in the piles of eclectic summer reading at hand, these include:

Mary Ann in Autumn by the incomparable Armistead Maupin - I loved this, as I’m a long-time fan of his Tales of the City novels. Once you get to known the lovable characters in this series, you always want to know more about how life is treating them, and this book hits the mark in every way.

A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan – really enjoyed this, especially the way the short stories joined to make a whole, while each chapter stands alone and answers some of the questions posed by earlier teasers. As someone who is endlessly interested in the tricks and possibilities of time in literature, I thought this was a rollicking good read and very well executed.

Shelley’s Boat by Julian Roach – I’ve long been fascinated by Shelley and Byron and the Italian adventure that ended in tragedy for so many of the entourage. This is a lovely lyrical mixture of romance and inexorable disaster in the weeks preceding Shelley’s death by drowning in the summer of 1822.

Rosé en Marché by Jamie Ivey – my favourite of Jamie Ivey’s fun books about France and wine. In this one he takes us behind the scenes of all the famous Luberon markets as he and his wife Tanya become wine merchants, selling their selection of bottles on stalls throughout the region, and trying to make a life and a living in Provence.

Une Maison dans le Luberon by Adrienne Borrelly with photographs by Eric d’Hérouville – full of interiors and exteriors of exquisite style, the latest in my collection of gorgeous picture books, for inspiration and lazy day-dreaming.

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