Saturday, January 08, 2005

A Soupçon of Corn

A Good Year, by Peter Mayle, Read by John Lee, Books on Tape, Inc., 2004

Years ago, immediately prior to my first visit to Europe, a Francophile friend of mine sent me a letter with urgent postscript, “Get hold of P. Mayle’s A Year In Provence at once and read it.” I managed the first half of this task, but the second part remained undone due to other pressing concerns, a lack of interest in books with lame pastel artwork gracing the cover, and the library’s demand that I return the material in question.

While this southern gentleman’s taste in literature often seemed questionable, his musical discernment was impeccable, and I suppose my overweighted admiration for that has had some lasting lingerers, because I’ve never quite forgotten his almost desperately dashed epistolary addendum.

And, so when I saw Mr. Mayle’s most recent effort, A Good Year, on the shelf at the library, I assumed this would be a fairly painless way to take that friend’s advice, albeit belatedly and through a different tome in question.

Relatively, fairly painless indeed.

It’s not that Mayle writes badly or writes a bad book. It’s just that he seems, from this limited sampling, incapable of writing a good one. A Good Year is a grocery store wine, a seven-dollar bottle of Bolla and not an aged Rothschild. Serviceable, lightly entertaining, but in the end imminently forgettable. Could you remember every grocery store wine you ever drank?

In a nutshell, London asset raider Max Skinner in short order loses his job and inherits his uncle’s vineyard estate in Provence, France. He moves there, becomes enamored with the countryside, gets mixed up in the wine business, falls in love with a French woman, experiences complications in his bliss, and ultimately drinks happily ever after.

Oddly, though the unabridged Books on Tape version clocks in at seven hours, an abridged version of only five and a half hours exists. The point of such an exercise in light trimming seems to be beyond my capacity for understanding. What makes it even harder to grasp is that there are a great deal of uneventful scenes in the book that Mayle is simply not poetic enough to give value to by dint of description or flights of fancy.

We are treated to long picnics, visits to restaurants with obligatory descriptions of every dish each patron is consuming, engaging walks through the French countryside, and repetitious references to cliched jokes. Apparently in France it is high old traditional comedy to claim that your tailor isn’t poor. That hoot was so good, Mayle put it in almost every chapter. Conceivably the abridged version has only one tailor joke, the deletion of the other fifty trimming a good ten minutes of narration alone.

This is not particularly dull, per se, especially in small doses, but by novel’s end it gets a bit wearisome. None of the conflicts are particularly dramatic, no character is actually bad, just of a differing opinion, and everyone is well off enough that they’ve never truly suffered once in their lives. In a master’s hands, like Wodehouse’s, these wouldn’t even be complaints, but part of the novel’s charms. Mayle writes as a man of ease writes, a man whose direst decision is choosing Camembert or Stilton. It’s the kind of edgeless life people dream about, but it’s completely antithetical to good writing (and probably all good art as well).

This is not to pull from my sack that dusty old maxim that good art requires suffering, but it does require the vibrancy of a life actually lived, not a life garnished and stuffed with bread and pastis. Mayle writes a wax museum kind of prose, everything tinged with amber and everything as suffocated as an insect in same.

Almost all the characters are so nice that it takes them literally chapters to work out the mystery of the fancy wine sold in secret, the nameless buyer of a small batch of wine from a portion of Max’s own vineyard, and the connections between the two that keep cropping up around the village lawyer. You’ve probably figured it out already and you haven’t even read the damn book. Even the villains in this scheme, though at one point a million dollars is on the line, don’t try any of the rough stuff, but evaporate into the night.

Mayle tells this story pleasantly, but I’m always very irritated by books that feature either characters considerably dumber than me without the saving grace of their being funny or books that are written for incredibly dumb people and so lack any sense of logic or cause-and-effect naturalism. This is more of the former, though, like a good mixed wine, there is an element of the latter here too.

When Max’s twentysomething cousin Christie from California shows up, she remarks disapprovingly that the women in Provence wear their clothes a bit tight. What century United States might Mayle’s character be referring to that she acts as though young American women hie about in burkas? The attractiveness of this first cousin leads to all sorts of French misapprehensions about Max and her relationship, yet in some vaguely retarded way Max is incapable of dispelling things by revealing the familial connection. He constantly refers to her as his “friend” rather than “cousin” leading to rather subdued jealous wackiness. When Max and his cousin get rude with each other and the argument turns to fisticuffs, the frying pan she glances off his forhead knocks him out. I’ve never struck someone I’ve met within a week with a frying pan; I’ve never struck anyone with a frying pan; and I certainly wouldn’t do it just because they mocked my country.

John Lee seems to be BOT’s go-to guy for British books as this is perhaps the fourth or fifth book I’ve heard him read. He’s decent enough with the French accents and ably manages his own nation’s tongue, yet there are weird lapses of talent. A wine tasting featuring buyers from Asia allows Lee to present us with a good deal of identical coolies with their l’d r’s. The American cousin gives Lee a crack at a America’s West Coast which he doesn’t mangle, managing better than a number of British readers, yet there is this overprecision in some of his words’ rendering, especially words with “r’s” in them. Perhaps that’s his way of making up for the Hong Kong gentleman.

What’s weirdest about this audio version, and inches the total length of the recording closer to that of the abridged version, is that at the end of it there is a half hour long advertisement for living in France and a small biography of Peter Mayle read by Mayle himself. His strained voice explains why he didn’t read the book himself, and he wastes no time proving himself as carefree and bubble-headed as the book suggests. We get pointless anecdotes about his publisher and how his wife bought him a wok and, frankly, I didn’t understand why the producers even bothered.

It managed to make an unsatisfactory conclusion to an unsatisfactory book all that much more unsatisfactory. A sort of blandness hat trick and this audiobook’s only real accomplishment.

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