A Review of French Spirits by Jeffrey Greene

French Spirits begins with the earth’s axis tilting away from the sun and sliding “down into the narrow pit of gray winter months” and ends in the Burgundian winter mists, the warmth of life and human celebration contrasting with the eternal cold of winter. In many ways the book is a light, fun book, a well written travelogue like the many others it follows, celebrating Europe from an American perspective as history, culture and hedonism take precedence over the daily grind.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

French Spirits
by Jeffrey Greene
April 2002, Softcover
Flamingo (HarperCollins)
ISBN 073227477X, RRP $A27.95

There is something of a trend at the moment for books about “doing up” an old place in Europe. In addition to the many Peter Mayle books, there is also France Mayes’Under the Tuscan Son and its sequels and ‘products’, Ferec Mate’s The Hills of Tuscany, Susan Loomis’ On Rue Tatin or Ruth Silvestre’s A House in the Sunflowers to name just a few. Like Mayes’ books, Jeffrey Green’s country soujourn in Burgundy is not on a permanent residential basis. He can afford to indulge in a second home while living primarily in Paris, while also holding down a teaching job at the University of New Haven. As a Francophile who came fairly close to purchasing an old French wreck myself (in the Massif Centrale), I don’t tire of these travelogues, and like the many people who purchase them, enjoy imagining myself joining in the rural life, eating Baguettes and Croissant and Cafe Au Lait for Petit Dejuner, restoring a centuries old stone cottage and living in a village virtually unchanged since medieval days. I’m sure that this is the appeal of these books which combine the best of travel writing, local food (usually exquisite), serious characterisation, and some minor plot type adversary. It certainly fits with the plethora of lifestyle, reality type entertainment which is bombarding our television screens. One imagines that there must be a limit though. There are only so many surprise eccentric neighbours, renovation travails, fabulous meals in an unknown restaurant and gardening overhauls that readers can absorb.

Although French Spirits follows much the same path as the other books, and there is indeed good food, charming and eccentric locals, suspiciious and unplanned renovations and a good dose of culture shock, Greene differs from many of the other writers in that he is a published poet. His descriptions and prose take their cue from his intense absorption with language, and his work is therefore a cut above the very simplistic and lighthearted accounts of Mayle’s of Mayes. French Spirits is still light, and perhaps more relaxing than intense, but Greene’s writing style is clearly the more evocative and powerful, full of poetic phrases and specific detail which sets it apart, saying much in well crafted sentences:

For me they [the house’s ghosts] materialize in the house’s afternoon light or speak as the mind’s eye speaks; the walls, the rooms, and the grounds are so infused with centuries of Frenchmen, partly coloring, now, the moments of our own lives.”

The house or “presbytery” itself takes on an almost character-like role: “Houses tend to inhabit us as much as we inhabit them”, from the large white walls, to the wood panelled library, 6ft high fireplaces, oak framework and wild gardens. The previous inhabitants also become a part of the setting, despite their absence. There is the small, chaotic but kind hearted Pere Jo, and the enterprising Pollache, both of whom add depth to the house, inhabiting it as metaphorical ghosts and bringing in a strong element of history, religion and something else a little more subtle, hinting at the permanence of life and the way in which the spirit leaves something behind. There are brief tidbits of history scattered into the personal: the agricultural revolution merging with Greene’s late romance and marriage, the primacy and decline of French Catholic power contrasting with the entry of new secular Americans into an old French world. Amidst the European weather systems, traditions and culture is Greene’s own search for his lost childhood Eden, and his relationship with his mother. There is the wild drunkard neighbour Coco, to whom the book is dedicated, who simultaneously helps and bullies the Greenes with his paralysed drooling face and poaching sense of ownership. Coco is colourful enough to carry a large part of the “plot”, and his characterisation is both humorous and compelling, as he interacts with the Greene family and the neighbours, becomes sick and recovers: “He is the self-appointed provincial of an order”.

Of course there is plenty of peeling wallpaper, roofing, painting, architectural modifications, builders, plumbers and handymen, found treasures, bad weather, antiques and garden work: all lending eccentricity and interest in their own way. These elements are de rigour in any book of this nature, but there is also serious poetry, from the cited, including Eliot and Larkin, to the original, such as: “Then, as in the moment when the first stars appear or when you pass from your last thought into sleep, the swallows metamorphosed into bats” or “There in starched sheets above the polished floors, amid chrome bars and translucent tubes, there in the night shift, Coco was becoming no one.” There are other writers cited too, from Flaubert, Wilde and Collette, as is appropriate for an English professor. Other characters like the antique dealer Lelievre, Sophie, the musical father and son Barlis, Madame Savin, Lasky the visiting musical carpenter or Coco’s own lover Madam Briancon. The relationships between these characters and their interaction with the Greenes provides interest and moves the story along in a way that evokes fiction.

French Spirits begins with the earth’s axis tilting away from the sun and sliding “down into the narrow pit of gray winter months” and ends in the Burgundian winter mists, the warmth of life and human celebration contrasting with the eternal cold of winter. In many ways the book is a light, fun book, a well written travelogue like the many others it follows, celebrating Europe from an American perspective as history, culture and hedonism take precedence over the daily grind. Because of Greene’s linguistic skills however, the story becomes something more – a celebration of life with its mixture of transience and permanence – of things beautiful which are already gone.

For more information on French Spirits visit: French Spirits: A House, a Village, and…

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