Provence by Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence Durrell belongs to a group of travel writers who go back to the British expatriates of the early and mid-20th century. He lived most of his life in the Mediterranean region and has left a legacy of travel classics that will not soon be eclipsed, including Bitter Lemons (about Cyprus), Reflections on a Marine Venus (Rhodes), Prospero’s Cell ("A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corfu"), and Sicilian Carousel (Sicily).
His last regional "profile" was his collection of essays on Provence, first published in 1990, the year he died. It is an ode and an exploration into the history of a region that fascinated him and in which he lived almost thirty years. Indeed, Durrell would object to being called a "travel" writer since he preferred to describe himself as a "residence" writer. "My books are about living in places, not just rushing through them," he wrote in a 1960 New York Times Magazine article.
Because it is mostly a series of essays on the history of Provence from the perspective of one who has seen and experienced as much Mediterranean history as any other English writer, this is a nostalgic collection, a collection in which Durrell ties together a lifetime of travel, Greek and Roman history, and observations of place. Durrell’s fascination with this mixture of place, landscape and history is evident throughout the book but is perhaps nowhere better stated than in his description of the Roman ruins in Orange and Nimes, where he states, "The heartbeat of a place is recorded in these stone experiences."
Provence, literally "The Province" in Latin, was so named by the Romans because of its significance to the Empire. Indeed, the region was Rome’s first overseas’ stronghold and was settled in the second century B.C. With such historical import, it is not surprising that Durrell’s Provence is mostly Roman. His essay, "Caesar’s Vast Ghost," contrasts the Greeks with the Romans in Provence. Further into the book, he goes on to write about Gaius Marius, the Roman general who defeated the barbarian tribes in Provence in the late second century BC.
Modern travel writing calls for an abundance of local characters and local color, skills that have been well utilized by writers like Peter Mayle in A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes in Under the Tuscan Sun. Durrell proves himself more than capable in both of these with his introduction of local characters like Aldo, his landlord, and Jerome, the "saintly tramp" as he calls him. More importantly, however, Durrell does a wonderful job capturing local color through the millennia old roots of Provence as he describes bull worship in ancient times and love through the institution of the troubadours and Petrarch’s sonnets.
Read this book before you travel to the south of France, while relaxing in the Provençal sun, and again after you return home. Then pick up Durrell’s Sicily, Corfu, Crete, and Rhodes. You are certain to enjoy them all.