BOOK REVIEW / A tear in Provence: 'A Short Walk From Harrods' - Dirk Bogarde: Viking, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS a book that fits into no obvious category, although you might say that it belongs to the Year-in-Provence movement in English autobiography: it's meditative and loosely structured, one of its subjects is nature (another is food, another is death), and it is the sixth volume of memoirs by a writer whose work is continually praised for its 'readability', as though this were not the first and simplest requirement of any book.

Unflappable in self-exposure, Dirk Bogarde here goes over much the same ground as he covered in a previous volume, An Orderly Man. The book matches two love affairs - one a grand passion for the south of France, the other involving his manager and longtime companion, known simply as Forwood.

The first half of the book has a sort of predictability. Bogarde describes the various stages of renovating 'Le Pigeonnier', where he lived with Forwood for almost 20 years: the upkeep of the terraces, the pruning of the vines, the spraying, the cutting of the hay, the raking, etc. In the process you learn a lot about fruit-picking and peasant farming and the landscape of Provence. You learn, for instance, that olive trees fruit biennially and that you can serve gigot aux flageolets with salads and cheese, or with a feuillete de jambon. But unlike the food, the writing has a curdled quality, the air of something that has gone off slightly but hasn't been thrown away.

In the second half of the book Bogarde reverses the Mayle order of things. He sells Le Pigeonnier and moves back to Chelsea. The move is prompted by Forwood's ill-health, by the onset of Parkinson's and cancer, and the increasing necessity of making hospital visits. Inevitably, there are some harrowing passages in which Bogarde describes the agony of seeing a friend in pain.

The return to London involves a return to the haunts of Bogarde's youth. The autobiography comes full circle - appropriately enough, because this is a book in which people come to terms with the past, make peace with inner demons, learn to say goodbye to loved ones and become sensitive, caring human beings. Traumas are dredged up. Harsh truths are faced. A passion for life yields to old age and decrepitude. The book conveys a deep sadness, but although its author tries to leaven large themes with humour and playful coincidence, his magazine-article psychology often gives the story a peculiar unreality.

Department stores bulk large. Not only Harrods but also Peter Jones, whose elegant shape Bogarde glimpses through the fretwork of trees in the back garden, or as he tramps up and down the King's Road with the shopping - which, for some reason, he calls the 'marketing'.

No more feuillete de jambon, however. Over lunch - a tin of soup, cold meat and boiled potatoes - Bogarde comes to terms with his loneliness. When he starts talking to himself he worries about senility. Living alone, he says, 'gets you chatting up a storm' - and it is this trait that mars the book: a solipsism, a prolix glibness.

Bogarde's fussy, staccato prose inflates everything - the most trivial perceptions, the most unremarkable emotions - to epic size. Yet his huffing and puffing can't disguise the banality of his ideas or a certain lack of frankness. This brave attempt to write about loss, grief and sadness is sad in other ways, too, because the platitudes that come in such dizzying profusion seem like the home truths of a rootless, unsettled sensibility.