Friday, June 25, 2010

Missing the mistral


Before I'd traveled to Provence I'd heard of course of the mistral, the wickedly strong wind that comes up suddenly and then blows and blows and blows for days on end. I was a little skeptical. How was this possible? And this happens routinely, like getting a heavy rain shower in Arkansas in May? In fact, yes. It's such an ordinary part of life in Provence that no one thinks to say much about it. Van Gogh's only reference to the mistral is when he noted in one of his letters that he was so determined to finish a painting that once he drove the legs of his easel into the ground, strapped the canvas in place, and kept on painting in spite of the wind. I recreate this scene in my novel. I couldn't not do so, after having traveled to the same territory and experienced the same wind. But after living through a mistral or three, it's awfully hard to imagine Van Gogh could have completed that painting, at least to his satisfaction. (He doesn't in my novel.) The mistral blows so hard that once, riding on a bike, I had to get off and push the thing, because simple pedalling became too hard and too slow. I was almost literally going nowhere. On my trip last May I set off on a morning run in the face of a (unusually brief, as it turned out) mistral and could barely move forward against the force of the wind. (It lessened a bit when I turned onto a side road.) My wife has recounted stories of visiting the Arles craft market during a mistral and see all sorts of boxes and items cartwheeling away from vendors' tables.

Having done our French tours always in late spring or summer, we haven't faced the numbing bitterness of a winter mistral. I can only imagine how dispiriting it must be for residents to wait those out. Summer mistrals are a mixed blessing. One hand it knocks the top off the southern heat. (Although compared to summers in Arkansas or Louisiana, I've always found the supposedly scorching temperatures of the south of France way overstated.) It's also fascinating to watch the landscape of this rural, agricultural region sway in the wind for days. And for my wife there is no more special pleasure to be had in France than to lie in the comfort and security of our bed and listen to the mistral howl outside.

On our first trip to Provence, in 2005, we stayed for two weeks and faced one mistral in the middle of the trip. It lasted three or four days at full strength and then quickly leaked away. We woke up one morning, and it was over. On our second trip--a quick stopover not quite one week long near the end of my wife's research trip to England in 2006--the mistral met us the second we stepped off the plane in Nimes. In London, we had been watching the weather reports from Provence and realized a mistral had begun. Given that it was drizzly and terribly cool in London, this at the end of May, a mistral seemed a small price to pay for some Provencal sunshine. Once we'd arrived, however, I began to become impatient for the mistral to pass. We would only be there for a week, after all. It lingered, however, for at least four days, holding back the summery heat that I was actually looking forward to. But when it cleared we had a blessedly warm couple days before returning to England. On my last trip, a year ago, there was only the single, brief mistral (i.e., it lasted a couple days) though I spent five full weeks, and my family two, in the country. That's either a lucky or unlucky development, depending on how you look at it. Most would count it as lucky, I think. But I know that by the time we left, my wife was missing the mistral.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

metahistorical classics


I blogged a couple months ago about the great joy and utility I take in In the last month or so the value of the downloadable audio book has only made itself more evident to me as I've listened to two Wallace Stegner titles: Angle of Repose (1971) and The Spectator Bird (1976). Not only are these long-recognized modern classics, but they also can be read as historical novels--valuable ones for any writer of historical fiction to study. One could even call them metahistorical novels in that embedded in the structure of both is the very act of looking backward, an act carried out not simply by the author but by characters in the storylines themselves. Thus each book becomes not just an exploration of the past but a meditation on what that effort means. In the former novel--which earned Stegner a Pulitzer prize--Lyman Ward, a middle-aged and disabled historian, reviews letters written by his modestly famous grandmother, a Victorian era easterner who followed her engineer husband to the west. There she settled and lived a rather difficult life as a mother, wife, painter, and writer. Ward intends to write a history of his grandmother but the intense personal nature of the letters quickly leads him to write something quite different than conventional history. Instead, he writes a "history of a marriage," and in a style that is indistinguishable from that of a novel. What first annoyed me, but finally interested me is Ward's habit of pulling away from the story of his grandmother's life to discuss his own far more mundane and modern one. While at first I was impatient with these sections, eager to get back to the grandmother, I realized what Stegner--through his narrator Ward--was up to: drawing a comparison between the sexually liberated, socially chaotic early 1970s, and the seemingly more staid Victorian era. What the reader is delighted to discover is that while differences abound, fundamental similarities abide, similarities that speak to human nature, family personality, and the unavoidable chains of history.

The Spectator Bird is a less ambitious but just as engaging book. After all, it won Stegner a National Book Award. Like Angle of Repose, the book cannot help but be a study of aging--its narrator is 69 and feels it--but is even more significantly an examination of history itself. The narrator, Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, is writing an account of his life. The project is his wife's idea and not one he's too excited about. In looking over his files in preparation for starting the project Allston finds something that interests and even scares him: a journal he wrote during a trip to Denmark in 1954, shortly after his only son died. When his wife realizes that he kept a journal during that trip she is amazed and even bothered; she immediately insists he read it aloud to her. The book, similar to Angle, moves back and forth between Allston's journal-bound account of the Denmark trip and the present day life of Allston and his wife in California. Not surprisingly, Allston's account of the trip sounds more like a brilliantly composed fictionalization by someone who very much knows what he is doing than the everyday journalizing of a non-writer on vacation. But that's a mannerism I'm willing to allow Stegner because I am so drawn into Allston's story. I won't give away what happens on the trip, but I can tell you that, like Angle, Stegner expertly begins drawing his two narrative lines--the past and present--together. Once again, history, for Stegner's characters and for his readers, becomes less something to be studied objectively than a force we cannot deny or escape. In Stegner's hands, history is something that must be confronted and wrestled to a compromise.

If you like historical fiction, or simply well written realistic fiction, I emphatically recommend both titles. Read them, listen to them, whatever is easier for you. Just do it soon. I must admit that it took a while for both to capture me. But capture me they did--and how. I may have found one of my new favorite (historical) writers.