Saturday 30 June 2012

Roussillon: red ochre and resistance

"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.


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Evelyn said...

I agree that Dr.Wylie's book is fascinating, although a bit depressing. You can clearly see how village life was crumbling after the war. While I complain about the hordes of tourists, the high prices, the lack of parking in those beautiful perched villages, tourism helped save the Luberon. Sometimes, though, Provence feels like it's 'loved to death!'

Pet said...

What a place for inspiration. I'll keep it in my favorite's list of places to visit!

Lynne with an e said...

What rich colours! "A living Fauvist painting" is right. Wonderful.

Libby said...

I have treasured that book for years! Love it. Another time, that is for certain. Not many people have heard/read it.
Do you know "Clementine in the Kitchen"? Wonderful story of an American family, transplanted, and their French cook, in 1939.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

I can see why it is so popular with tourists--it's lovely.

Sounds like an interesting book.

Lisa Erin said...

Such history there. Interesting. Lovely photos. The earth colors remind me of the landscape I viewed during a train trip to New Mexico. Beautiful reds.

Sara Louise said...

I'm only an hour from Roussillon, yet I've never been. A girlfriend is over from London in two weeks so I'm using that as my excuse to brave the summer tourist crowds :)

Marcheline said...

Hello, hello! I just finished reading "The Lantern" and I wanted to thank you for two things:

1. Giving me a reason to like France. I have only a very bad 45-minute experience in Paris (on my way to Scotland) and my nasty stepmother's love of the place, both of which left an awful taste in my mouth. You have shown me the softer side of France, the history, the smells, the feel of it. Something I can relate to. Thank you for that.

2. A summer book so delicious that it gave me chills, made me long for a glass of wine in Provence, and made me cry reading the Epilogue. Which I did five minutes ago... still a bit teary.

Thank you, thank you so much.

Marcheline said...

P.S. Of course you have seen the movie "Perfume". If you have not, you must.

Pétales de fée said...

Chère Deborah,
it is a village absolutely fabulous that I have been fortunate to discover a few years ago! These warm colors of ocher on the walls enchant the sight. Beautiful pictures that make me really fly!
Good day!

Iris said...

This is place is now on my bucket list. The pictures are amazing. It is so inspirational.

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