By Peter Mayle
A Year in Provence is a 1989 best-selling memoir by Peter Mayle about his first year in Provence, and the local events and customs.
Peter Mayle and his wife move to Provence, and are soon met with unexpectedly fierce weather, underground truffle dealers and unruly workers, who work around their normalement schedule. Meals in Provençal restaurants and work on the Mayles’ house, garden and vineyard are features of the book, whose chapters follow the months of the year.
It was adapted into a television series starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan. Reviewers praised the book’s honest style, wit and its refreshing humour.
Review – The Guardian (2010)
A Year in Provence, 20 years on
When Peter Mayle moved to rural France, he intended to write a novel – not a bestselling memoir.
Its only mention on publication in 1989 was a brief aside in Campaign. And that was more a nod to Peter Mayle’s former career as creative director of advertising agency BBDO. The trade magazine even managed to get the basics wrong, calling his new book a novel. Even a year later, when A Year in Provence was published in paperback, the Times was the only newspaper that bothered to grace it with a review. A shortish one at that.
As far as the books pages were concerned, travel writing was the high-brow preserve of Bruce Chatwin, Freya Stark, Wilfred Thesiger and Prince Charles’s favourite guru, Laurens van der Post. All else was froth, and Mayle the frothiest of the lot – an adman who’d made a few bucks with the mildly racy Wicked Willie cartoon books and upped sticks for France.
To them, A Year in Provence was just aspirational lifestyle pulp for the middle-classes dreaming of a second home – the undemanding story of a fiftysomething couple and their two dogs moving to the South of France and their mildly amusing run-ins with lazy builders, a clarinet-playing plumber, tax-dodging lawyers, outlaw truffle hunters and the Mistral as they do up a derelict farmhouse.
The reading public saw it rather differently. After a slowish start, A Year in Provence has gone on to sell more than 1m copies in the UK and 6m around the world in the last 20 years, making it one of the most successful travel books of all time and inspiring thousands of Brits to leave Blighty in search of a warmer, gentler life.
Unintentionally, Mayle had created a new travel genre and spawned a generation of imitators, a couple of whom – Chris Stewart and Frances Mayes – sold almost as well. And still they keep on coming; only this year Selina Scott wrote a memoir of her life in Mallorca and John Humphrys hijacked his son’s housebuilding project in Greece.
If Mayle had had his way, the description of A Year in Provence as fiction would have been spot on. “When we first moved to France [in 1987] I had the intention of writing a novel and had shared this great ambition with my agent, Abner Stein,” says Mayle. “But there was a problem: I found myself completely distracted – much more taken up with the curiosities of life in Provence than with getting down to work on the novel. The daily dose of education I was receiving at the hands of the plumber, the farmer next door, the mushroom hunter and the lady with the frustrated donkey was infinitely more fascinating than anything I could invent.
“And so time went by – three months, six months – without a word being committed to paper. Eventually I sent Abner a long letter, largely inspired by guilt, trying to explain why I hadn’t even started the novel, listing some of the distractions. To my enormous surprise and relief, he wrote back saying that if I could do another 250 pages like the letter, he might be able to find a publisher.”
Stein struck the deal in the old-school publishing way: over a long, alcoholic lunch with Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, the then managing director of Hamish Hamilton, who offered an advance of £5,000. The regrets kicked in almost immediately. On his way back to the office….