In the summer of 2004, after a visit to Ireland, Cecilia and I spent two weeks in the village of Venasque, in the Vaucluse region of Provence, where we rented a house for two weeks. It’s the France of my imagination: a broad blue sky fractured occasionally by turbulent clouds; trees dripping with cherries and honeyed flowers; pigeons cooing by day, swallows zigzagging at sunset.
But I also brought along to Provence the sorrows of Ireland and a premonition of death.
Driving from Connemara to Dublin, a few weeks earlier, we stopped in the bustling, youthful city of Galway and discovered a local institution, Kenny’s Books. Kenny himself, seducing us far too easily with his gab, quickly sold us an armful of Irish literature after we told him that we had a taste for big, serious stuff. I was hungry for something to match my own preoccupations with aging and mortality. In my early 60s, I found myself moving on too quickly from almost forty years of full-time teaching and activism into a murky twilight.
“If it’s serious you’re wanting,” Kenny said and plied us with a pile of fiction by Dermot Healy, John McGahern, Neil Jordan, and Jennifer Johnston, our reading for France. All of these writers, deeply influenced by both James Joyce’s sensibility and style, plow through the barren fields of Ireland’s troubles, back to the catastrophe of famine and exile, the unexpected horrors of World War I – when the Irish signed up in droves, either for a pittance to send home and daily meals, or to practice how to shoot the Brits when or rather if they returned home – through the disillusionment that quickly followed the utopian dream of an independent and united Republic. There is little joy in these novels; you have to scour them hard for crumbs of relief.
I also picked up a copy of Joyce’s The Dubliners, which contains perhaps my favorite piece of short fiction, "The Dead," an essay combining elegant, compressed writing with an emotional restraint stretched taut until it bursts, a pattern I know well from experience. Joyce gives you so little to celebrate in his portraits of the disappointed lives of Dubliners in the 1900s that it is a shock to run into the extraordinary epiphany in its conclusion, when Gabriel learns from his wife’s honest revelation of a long lost love that it is “better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” For the first time in his life, and perhaps too late, Gabriel is deeply experiencing the world around him: “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Here in Provence in early June, far from the “dark mutinous Shannon waves” in winter, we’re in one of France’s “plus beaux villages,” once a thousand years ago, maybe two thousand, a center of religion and agricultural commerce, now home to a few hundred residents, and a detour from the main road for a small number of tourists who set off from here to hike trails through the surrounding valleys and orchards. It is quiet enough at night that you can hear a dog bark a mile away, yet there is a boulangerie, epicerie, three restaurants, and a handful of working art galleries to keep stomach and spirit well fed. The village is perched high on a hill, which gave it security in medieval times, and now provides panoramic views of Mount Ventoux and the forest of Venasque, of ridged hills and Irish-green countryside stretching to the horizon.
We’d rented part of a rambling house in Venasque, named Chez Kubik after Gail Kubik (1914-1984), an American composer who lived here from 1963 until his death. He rehabilitated a building dating back to medieval times, its floors held up by massive beams added in the nineteenth century. Now it’s decorated with North African touches – terra cotta floors, tiles sculpted into white plastered walls, large windows to bring in the magical Provencal light, and shutters to keep out the midday summer sun. When Kubik died, Darius and Cathy Brubeck bought the place, which they and their family use when it’s not rented out.
There is a serendipitous connection here. I grew up a teenager in England’s industrial north in the 1950s listening to Dave Brubeck’s melodic West Coast jazz, trying my best to imitate Joe Morello, his softly swinging drummer, by accompanying the quartet on my prized drum kit, the gramophone blasting out “Take Five” in my bedroom in the Manchester suburbs. It was this kind of music, and the Beats of course, that drew me five thousand miles west as an immigrant to San Francisco in the early 1960s. Now I sit here in the dining room of Chez Kubik in southern France, admiring Cathy Brubeck’s artistic touches and lived-in space, and listening to the “Afro Cool” jazz piano of Darius Brubeck, Dave’s son, his music inspired by journeys east.
When I’m not reading Irish novels or writing, I love to shop for fruit, vegetables, and regional delights: olive-studded fougasse, white asparagus tasting of truffles, chocolate millefeuilles, fruity olive oils. My favorite market assembles in tiny Velleron every day, all year round, at six p.m. prompt. While waiting for it to open in a parking lot on the edge of the village, you can sip cold beer and eat a slice of sizzling pizza, just made in a wood-burning, brick oven in the back of a truck.
Back in our adopted home, a stroll in any direction through the narrow streets lined with sand-colored, stone houses takes you quickly out to the sloping orchards. One day I slowed myself down in the Place du Presbytère, the hub of old Venasque, to look at the war memorial that is de rigeur in every French village. It was dedicated after World War I “à ses glorieux morts” – no irony intended. Here I stop to read, one by one, the twenty-three names of the young men killed in the war, mostly in their 20s, including members of the Maillet family who lost Joseph, aged 21, and Paul, aged 23; and of the Tourrette family, who lost Henri and Louis, both 21 (and, later, Andre to the Algerian War).
These dead youngsters constitute enough for a whole class of ghosts at the nearby école de garçons. They are memorialized in Venasque not by triumphal arches or resolute combatants, but by the statue of a melancholy foot soldier, feet at ease, shoulders sloping down, glazed eyes looking off into the unknown, as the warm sun beats down upon all the living and the dead. It was on a return visit to Venasque two years later that I first heard that my son too had died.