A new book by Peter Mayle - My Twenty-Five Years in Provence - has the power to transport a book lover back to the banks of the Seine decades before.
- story by Scott Naugle
I can tell you where I bought almost every book I own, but few purchases were as memorable as the one from a bouquiniste over the River Seine in Paris, France.
In My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now, Peter Mayle transported me across several decades and more than a thousand miles to my Junior year in college studying International Economics at the University of Nice in the South of France.
Readers were first introduced to Peter Mayle twenty-five years ago through his best-selling A Year in Provence. The book chronicled his first year of living in Luberon, in Southern France, after a successful career in Great Britain as an advertising executive.
Then and now, Mayle’s descriptive and convivial prose is a leisurely stroll through Provence:
“Where else does the sun shine for three hundred days a year? Where else do you find the truly authentic rosé, sometimes fruity, sometimes dry, a taste of summer in the glass? Where else is goat cheese an art form?”
After a week of classroom and studies in Nice, my weekends were free to explore Southern France, and occasionally, to trek a bit farther. A Eurail Pass was not only an overnight train ticket to Paris, Barcelona, or Rome, but also an inexpensive sleeping berth for a frugal college student (at least one who preferred to save his money for buying books).
I found a youth hostel to drop my bags on the Ile de la Cité, an island in the middle of the River Seine in Paris and began walking in the early Saturday morning daybreak. It was then that I discovered the bouquinistes on Le Pont Neuf, opening their charming small stalls, fussily preparing for a day of hawking their wares. Le Pont Neuf is a bridge dating to the sixteenth-century connecting the island to both the Left and Right banks of Paris.
A bouquiniste is a bookseller working from a small green permanent stall, either along the banks of the Seine River in Paris or from one of the bridges crossing it. Their storied history as booksellers dates to the sixteenth-century. In the evening, the stall is closed and locked. A recent count listed over 200 bouquinistes collectively offering almost 300,000 books.
The smell of freshly baked pastries, gesticulating Frenchmen excitedly attempting to draw passersby's to their stalls, the imperceptibly flowing Seine below, dark and mysterious, and in the distance the gargoyles perching, patient as if waiting for a call to mission, on the flying buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral, as I was overwhelmed, blissfully catatonic for several minutes, deciding which heightened sense to explore. Eventually, I walked to a stall and negotiated a price for a volume of Moliere’s plays.
It must have been the appeal of the book itself, gold embossed title and edition, on the white hardback cover, a small 1925 printing about the size of a moderate slice of dacquoise, that prompted my purchase.
I still have the volume of Moliere’s plays.
Thank you, Peter Mayle, for carrying me back to France and reminding me that “to see a ten-acre field of lavender in full bloom is to see one of the great sights of summer. And if nature isn’t enough, there are dozens of centuries-old villages, often built on hilltops, that are rarely without their artistic admirers…”
I finish writing this on a deck in Pass Christian overlooking the Gulf of Mexico; again, the gentle pulsing of water, animated conversation in the background, and dozens of shelves of books behind me. How else would one want to create a treasured book memory?