Saturday, March 15, 2014

Alphonse Daudet's Letters from My Windmill - I ought rather to be dispatching rose-coloured poems and basketfuls of love stories

Letters from My Windmill (1869) is a collection of newspaper columns – folk tales, sketches, lazing around – by Alphonse Daudet, an author who for a time, a bit after Windmill was written, was the most popular novelist in France, the “Dickens of France,” a designation I would not take too seriously.

This particular book has become his most prominent in English, and I believe also in French, by chance.  The pieces are mostly about Provence, about “noble peasants living uncomplaining lives of suffering amidst the cicadas and lavender and Mistral and so on, drinking harsh red wine and eating their simple but nutritious peasant fare,”* and how was Daudet to predict Vincent van Gogh and Michelin Guides and the now massive Provencal tourist industry.  Americans romanticize Provence more than the French do, but it is summer cottage land for all of us.

Provence is in France, and therefore wonderful, so my argument against its romanticization is that Normandy, Bordeaux, Roussillon, etc. are also in France and also wonderful.  But  I have barely been in Provence, just in the edge of it, two days in Avignon, which was wonderful, so perhaps someday I will recant much of this.

What role Daudet had in popularizing Provence I do not know, but the love of Provence has helped keep the book alive, much like Washington Irving’s Tales from the Alhambra has remained attached to a visit to Granada.

The book itself is a work of pure charm.  Colleen of Jam & Idleness liked it so much she vowed to read all of Daudet’s books.  It is a happy, sentimental book.

After all, why should I be sad?  I live a thousand leagues from Paris, on a sun-soaked hill, in the country of tambourines and muscat wine.  Around me all is sunshine and music…  I ought rather to be dispatching rose-coloured poems and basketfuls of love stories.  (Ch. 15)

The little joke here is that the stories generally end in suicide, revenge, shipwreck, or, in one memorable case, mortal combat with a wolf.  The sentimentality is that of Dickens or Hugo.

The style is more of a blend of Flaubert and Hugo.  Daudet catches some nice effects.  Here is a priest racing through a Mass:

Like hurrying wine-harvesters treading the grapes, both splatter about in the latin of the Mass, sending splashes in all directions.  (Ch. 17)

Here Daudet has shifted to Algeria to see a snowfall:

In this so pure, so rare air of Algeria, the snow seemed like dust of mother-of-pearl.  It had the sheen of white peacock feathers.  (Ch. 18)

That last piece, “The Oranges,” begins in Paris, where “oranges have a sad look.”  In the winter they are sold from handcarts, so that “thousands of oranges [are]scattered about the streets, the peel lying in the mud of the gutters, making you think of some gigantic Christmas tree shaking its branches laden with artificial fruit all over Paris.”  If you are writing a historical novel set in 19th century Paris, you would be crazy not to steal this.  With a step or two, memories about oranges take Daudet to a Campo Santo in Corsica, where he watches, in between naps, an old man tend the cemetery:

Yet, without his being aware of it, this good man worked with a kind of reverence, softening all noises and gently closing the door of the vault each time, as if he feared to waken someone.  In the great, radiant silence, his care for that little garden disturbed not one bird, and it had nothing of sadness about it.  It only made the sea seem more immense, the sky more high; and this siesta without end, amid the ever-restless, ever-triumphant life-forces of nature, diffused all around it the feeling of eternal rest.

Two truffled turkeys, the skin “stretched so tightly you would have thought it was going to burst as it was roasting,” appear at the beginning of Chapter 17.  I read an old Penguin Classics edition, tr. Frederick Davies.

*  I am quoting myself, something I wrote before I had actually read the book.  I was not quite right, but I was close.


  1. This is something I read in school when I was 13. I wonder how I'd see it now.

    Foreigners romanticize Provence a lot and it exasperates me sometimes. Yes, it's sunny and beautiful but lots of other places are beautiful too, as you say yourself.

    For the French Daudet played a role in that romantic vision of Provence but Pagnol played an even bigger part in that. Pagnol's books about his childhood are really popular.
    Giono is also well-known. I suppose impressionist painters and Van Gogh concur to the myth too.

    Btw, when you say in French «c'est l'Arlesienne» it means you're talking of something that will never happen or will never come.

  2. That Idle Jam treat was delicious, thank you. Remember boys, be nice… Plus, I got introduced to Orwell's Benefit of Clergy. And, related to the misogyny theme from that Idle comment thread, I find it interesting that the very first lines from the one volume English edition of the Collected Works of Alphonse Daudet are:

    "Women certainly are a horrid invention! How I wish that a Black Plague or a second Deluge would carry you all off! What an abode of peace, what an oasis this world would then be!"

    This chivalrous, amiable sentiment was being uttered by my cousin, a fine young man of twenty-five, about six-foot-two in height, and with an eyeglass always stuck in his eye, which seems to expand when he gives vent to ferocious invectives against my sex.

  3. A "mortal combat with a wolf'?" That sounds so much better than Sapho, a novel I didn't think was particularly stimulating or memorable. I have to say, what I imagined Letters from My Windmill to be from its title, and what you describe here, are two completely different things!

  4. Men, not boys, and everyone was reasonably nice, unless "nice" means "no conflict of any sort." When I am that ignorant or sloppy in public, I beg you, tell me.

    The combatant with the wolf is actually a goat, but quite a lively, heroic goat. I will bet that what you imagined the book to be like is in there somewhere. The newspaper column format allows him to hop around, in subject and rhetorical mode.

    Pagnol, of course! For some reason Pagnol has never quite caught on as literature in the U.S. Film buffs are more likely to know him. The Jean de Florette and Manon des sources movies contributed to the American love of Provence, I think, even though the films make Provence look horrible.

    Come to think of it, Giono has never received his due in the U.S. either. I wonder about Frédéric Mistral, too, what role he (or his Nobel Prize) played. Daudet devotes one of his sketches to a celebration of Mistral.

    1. I know about Mistral but he's not as widely read as Pagnol and Giono.

  5. AR(T), no disrespect meant. Sometimes I can be bad at reading (or conveying) tone on these interwebs. All I noticed on that comment thread was camaraderie and fellow readers exchanging their opinions about interesting literary matters. Moving on, other interesting Daudet works are his very funny novel Tartarin of Tarascon and his memoir, Little Good-For-Nothing or Little What's-His-Name (Petite chose), a little excerpt:
    The child protagonist's rich industrialist father having gone bankrupt, his family has to move to a much poorer house in another town, Lyons to escape creditors. He loses his best friend and his parrot pet, and:

    "Think of my despair: no more Friday? No more parrot! Robinson Crusoe was no longer possible. Moreover, what means was there, with the best will in the world, to devise a desert island, in a fourth story, in a damp and dirty house, in the Rue Lanterne?

    Oh, that horrible house! I shall see it all my life: the staircase was sticky; the courtyard was like a well; the porter, a shoemaker, had his shop against the water pump. It was hideous.

    The evening of our arrival, as old Annou was installing herself in the kitchen, she gave a cry of distress: 'Cockroaches! Cockroaches!' We hurried to her. What a sight! The kitchen was full of these disgusting bugs; they were on the dresser, along the walls, in the drawers, on the mantelpiece, on the sideboard, everywhere. We stepped on them even without meaning to do it. Faugh! Annou had already killed a great many; but the more she killed, the more they came. The crawled out of the sink-hole, we plugged the sink-hole, but the next evening they came back through some other place, we could not tell where.We were obliged to get a cat to expressly to kill them, and every evening there was a fearful slaughter in the kitchen."

  6. I always wonder about such books . . . How much credit or blame goes to translator? . . . I usually like to compare translations . . .

  7. I wondered if I should omit linking to Colleen's post, since the comments have a little to much of me in them, but I could not ignore her enthusiasm. I hope she gets to more Daudet soon. Both of the books you mention sound enjoyable. I am also curious about The Nabob, although perhaps as much for its subject. The Tarascon book and Le Petit Chose sound more like pure fun, even with all of those hideous bugs.

    RT - Since translation, in Donald Frame's words, "is an art, though a very modest minor one," I give the translator very modest minor credit or blame.

    When I say "Daudet did this, Daudet did that," the label "Daudet" is really just a shorthand for the implied author created in collaboration by Daudet, his translator, and me. I am reading and evaluating the text in front of me, not the French seen through a haze.

  8. I've read Daudet's In the Land of Pain which is very good but certainly not charming. I should get myself a copy of Letters from My Windmill as it seems a perfect armchair travel sort of book.

  9. I know. I had to double check - is this the same guy who wrote that book about syphilis? It is.