An extract from the first of the new chapters for the revised edition of The Secret Life of France, just out…
Everything in its Place
When this book was first published in 2009, the two most valid criticisms were offered by both English and French readers. The first was that Paris isn’t France and the second was that the bourgeoisie isn’t everybody. Both remarks reveal the limits of my own experience. In leaving Paris for the Cévennes where I have been for the past four years, I hope that I have broadened my horizons at least a little.
Few of my Parisian friends have ventured to the far-flung wilderness that is the Cévennes. Most prefer to see me when I come to Paris for work or to see Ella and Jack, but those who have paid me a visit bring back a simple verdict:
‘Elle est completement folle.’ (She has completely lost it).
We’re so secluded here that I’m always amazed – even if we’re expecting a visitor – when someone knocks on our front door. ‘Why?’ is the question which often greets me as they step over the threshold. Not sure, is the answer to that.
Seven years after the end of my marriage to Laurent, I found myself for the second time around with two children under five. I was now forty-three, however, and not twenty-three. Perhaps the aging process was luring me to the bosom of nature. Perhaps I did not feel I had the stamina to relive Paris’s dusty, joyless playgrounds or usher the poor blighters through the gates of yet another of her overcrowded, competitive schools. I was also aware that Joe, the English father of our two little boys, Joshua and Gabriel, had not really taken to the bourgeois dinner party circuit I had inherited from my marriage to Laurent.
On the surface, this new life of mine bears no resemblance whatsoever to my life in Paris. There is here a deep love for and identification with the land. The French word ‘terroir’ – a charmed word, used increasingly as a brand to appeal to Parisian tastes – can mean the local or the regional, but also ground, terrain, land, soil, earth. It has no equivalent in English. The word induces a dewy- eyed yearning in most Parisians, many of whom like to picture rural life as it appears on TV advertisements here, sanitised and idealised, with rugged but handsome peas- ants in red neckerchiefs sharpening their pocket knives, or olive-skinned beauties serving at long trestle tables piled high with ‘les bonnes choses’. I’m always amazed by the gulf between Paris and the countryside and by how little Paris knows, or cares to know, of peasant life.
A year after we had settled into our house, Laurent lent us a DVD of a documentary about rural life called La Vie Moderne (Modern Life, 2008). Some of this critically acclaimed trilogy is set in the Cévennes, not far from us. Laurent loved this film directed by Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon, a farm boy who, like many of his generation, ran away in the sixties to seek a better life in the bosom of Paris’s left-wing intelligentsia. The film was selected at Cannes and for a while le tout-Paris rhapsodised about this haunting portrayal of the harsh realities facing ‘La France Profonde’. At last they had a window on what peasant life was really like.
When I saw it, I was appalled. Contrary to what I had read in both the English and French reviews, I found Depardon’s narrative strategy and interview techniques to be brutal and condescending. I felt no ‘richness of fellow feeling’* as he leveled his alienating, wide-angle lens at the men and women whose lives he had decided to scrutinise. No Paris-born director would have got away with this disdainful study of rural life, in which the ‘paysan’ subjects all come across as mute, depressed or simple-minded. One interview in particular, which featured a farm labourer on a tractor, epitomised to me the cruelty of Depardon’s gaze. The young man had no wish to talk to the camera, yet it remained pitilessly trained on him for many long minutes. Too polite to move away, he squirmed like an insect pinioned by an entomologist.
How is it, I asked myself, that only a few kilometres down the road from the lives and locations in this film, my farming neighbours are expansive, funny and broad- minded? Perhaps Depardon has simply learned over the years to give his adopted class what it wants: proof of its own superiority.
I do not feel that the gulf is as wide as both sides believe. As a foreigner I can’t help seeing in this austere and little known corner of France, even among people who eke out a living from the land, many of the traits that I love about my Parisian friends: a passion for ideas, a belief in politics, a partiality to abstract discourse and a marked lack of interest in money as a goal in life. I found the same belief in the collectivist ideal put more readily into practice here in this isolated community, through the thriving collective lives of both the ‘commune’ and of the local school, where Joshua and Gabriel are learning, in their own some- what contrary fashion, to be soldiers of the Republic.
People here are attached to their history and to the outsider status that goes with it. The well-wishing grand-son of a previous owner of this house dropped by shortly after we had moved in with documents and tales relating to its past. He gave us a much faded and folded letter addressed to a Monsieur Andre who had once lived here. It was dated according to the revolutionary calendar, ‘le 13 Fructidor, An 2,’, which would have been the late summer of 1794, a month after the fall of Robespierre and his ‘Terreur’ (Reign of Terror) with its mass denunciations, its popular tribunals, its revolutionary committees, and all the attendant horrors of the totalitarian state. The local mayor, trusting in our predecessor’s ‘civisme’, was requesting his presence for jury duty.
The old man then went on to tell us about his beloved grandfather, Abel, who cherished our house, spent every day of his retirement walking its terraces, and planted many of its finest chestnut trees. He was, for his sins, mar- ried to a woman who preferred living in the valley to the high ground where this house is set. She managed to play for time and Abel died at the end of the Second World War still struggling to salvage the place from ruin. During the war Abel had employed a Jewish man from Poland whose family was being hidden by a friend in a nearby hamlet. The man had worked with him restoring some of the dry stone walls that sustain our terraces, which down here are called faïsses or bancels. I often picture the refugee walking this precipitous landscape with its carefully tended chestnut orchards and its rushing streams and wonder how he felt here among these reserved people with their quiet generosity, and what became of him and his family after the war. I’m told they left and never returned.
The Occupation feels close to many of my neighbours and it seems to have moved closer to us too. On the wall of our sitting room, written in red paint by the Italian migrant workers who stopped here in Abel’s house in their flight from Mussolini, are the words:
Ogni cosa a suo posto
(Everything in its place)
The words are written on a patch of flaking lime render but there’s no question, for either of us, of re-plastering that wall. The message reads as a kind of sampler from a vanished past, a warning against the modern world and its insatiable appetites
* Guardian, film review by Peter Bradshaw, Friday 3 April 2009.