I am given to understand that Alphonse Daudet’s novels established him as the most successful writer in France by the end of the 19th century, and yet I must confess that I hadn’t heard of him until a few weeks ago, when I spotted this book.
I loved the title, and the premise intrigued me.
The book began with an extract from a bill of sale:
“To Mr Alphonse Daudet, poet, living in Paris, here present and accepting it.
A windmill and flourmill, located in the Rhône valley, in the heart of Provence, on a wooded hillside of pines and green oaks; being the said windmill, abandoned for over twenty years, and not viable for grinding, as it appears that wild vines, moss, rosemary, and other parasitic greenery are climbing up to the sails;
Notwithstanding the condition it is in and performs, with its grinding wheel broken, its platform brickwork grown through with grass, this affirms that the Mr Daudet finds the said windmill to his liking and able to serve as a workplace for his poetry, and accepts it whatever the risk and danger, and without any recourse to the vendor for any repairs needing to be made thereto.”
The pieces that followed weren’t letters; they were sketches and stories, most set in the countryside around the windmill, but a few set in places the author knew in the wider world.
It was clear that some of them were tales of people the author met and things that happened to him – some embroidered a little and some a great deal. Some were tales that had been told to him; simple stories with a ring of truth and some stories that were undoubtedly exaggerated or enhanced, for or by the author.
This is a book with the power to transport you to 19th century southern France; because Daudet had the ability to make the world around him come alive in his pages. His descriptions of the environment and his surroundings were beautifully rendered; his observations of the people he met and the people he was told about were clear and astute; and I always felt that he was pleased to be in his windmill, writing his sketches to send back to Paris.
I can understand why they made his name, why they were so very popular.
Van Gogh painted ‘Moulin D’Alphonse’:
Marcel Pagnol made a film inspired by the stories, Edward Ardizzone illustrated a later edition ….
I have to be just a little bit critical. Sometimes the tone is a little off, making me feel that maybe the author was a little too cynical, his stories a little too contrived. And some of the pieces were a little too fragmented, making me wonder of this was a ragbag rather that a lovely patchwork.
But those feelings didn’t stay with me for long; and I can say that as a whole the book was a lovely.
This isn’t a book to analyse, it’s a book to wander through, and it’s a book I’m sure I’ll visit again. Not to read from cover to cover, but to recall certain characters and to revisit places that were described to me so vividly.
I found many things to love, I can’t pick out a single favourite, or even make a short list, but I can pick out a gorgeous passage to finish with; a recollection of time the author spent in Algeria:
“To really appreciate oranges, you have to see them in their natural setting; in the Balearics, Sardinia, Corsica, and Algeria; in the sunny blue skies of the warm Mediterranean. I can recall with great pleasure a small orchard of orange trees, at the gates of Blidah, just such a place where their true beauty could be seen! Amongst the dark, glossy, lustred leaves, the fruits had the brilliance of stained glass windows and perfumed the air all around with the same magnificent aura that usually envelops gorgeous flowers. Here and there, gaps in the branches revealed the ramparts of the little town, the minaret of a mosque, the dome of a marabout, and, towering above, the immense Atlas mountains, green at the base, and snow-capped, with drifts of snow here and there.
One night during my stay, a strange phenomenon, not seen for thirty years, occurred; the ice from the freezing zone descended onto the sleeping village, and Blidah woke up transformed, and powdered in white snow. In the light, pure Algerian air, the snow looked like the finest dusting of mother of pearl, and had the lustre of a white peacock’s feather. But it was the orange orchard that was the most beautiful thing to be seen. The firm leaves kept the snow intact and upright like sorbets on a lacquered plate, and all the fruits, powdered over with frost, had a wonderful mellowness, a discrete radiance like silk-draped gold. It was all vaguely evocative of a church saint’s day; the red cassocks under the lacy robes, and the gilt on a lace altar cloth….”
* * * * * * *