Boyd Tonkin: The outsider's rural retreat is now a chic and pricey hotspot. So what's new?
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 16 August 2013
Around this time of year, holiday-makers trudge home with the pipe-dream of permanent escape to the country - or the coast, or the hills - smoking away in sun-addled minds. Writers have done a lot to shape this ideal of a rustic retreat from the urban rat-race - beginning, perhaps, with the Roman poet Horace and his beloved little farm in the Sabine Hills. Two millennia later, privacy-loving literary icons carry on - oblivious to the paradox - with public praise of the secluded hideaway. Meanwhile, bookish nosey parkers beat a dogged path to the door of their lairs.
Me too. Last week, I paid €2 for an hour-long bus ride north from Aix through ravishing parts of Provence (let no none say that all the joys of the South of France are reserved for the rich). At journey's end lay the village of Lourmarin, final bolt-hole - and resting-place - of the writer whose centenary the French cultural authorities have, this year, failed to honour in the way that he deserves: Albert Camus. I will return to the miserable débâcle of the Camus anniversary soon.
Lourmarin, just as beautifully nestled under the wooded slopes of the Luberon hills as when he moved here in 1958 but so much ritzier now, meant for Camus a flight into pristine beauty and simplicity. The author of The Outsider, The Plague and the wonderful, unfinished autobiographical novel The First Man - written in Lourmarin - had fled the hubbub and hassle of Paris. He felt bruised by the fame-induced stress of his Nobel Prize, in 1957, and by bitter political rows over the anti-colonial uprising in his native Algeria - with his old comrade Sartre, but with himself too. Naturally, the best goalkeeper in early-1930s Algiers became a keen follower of the village football team - their pitch stands just below the château.
Even in early August I had the Lourmarin cemetery and its blissful vistas - where Camus's rugged gravestone sits beside that of his (much-neglected) wife, Francine - entirely to myself. As for the house itself, Catherine their daughter - and zealous keeper of her father's flame - still lives there. Just as with Harper Lee's home in Monroeville, Alabama, the locals don't like to divulge the exact address.
Camus, for all his singular talents, always sought to write as an ordinary guy who shared the pleasures and passions of the common man. So I wonder what he would have thought about the ample evidence in Lourmarin of the populist allure of his Provençal idyll. In the 16th-century château, a plaque preserves the names of donors towards its upkeep. Among them is Monsieur Peter Mayle. In a village not far from here, the million-selling author of A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence made his own Luberon dream come true - and managed to advertise the region's charms in mass-market numbers.
Always the proud democrat, Camus could hardly have objected to the post-Mayle influx of humble day-trippers. However, he would surely have winced at the hyper-inflation of property prices around the Luberon. For a substantial revamped farmhouse with pool and grounds, you won't get much change out of €2 million these days. I checked.
Yesterday's modest low-cost backwater, where the wounded literary lion slinks off to heal, think and grow, becomes today's overrun and over-priced second-home hotspot. By definition, writers don't keep schtum about their secret loves. Likewise, the pastoral pioneer may not have got there first. By settling in Lourmarin, Camus trod in the footsteps of his teacher and mentor Jean Grenier, who had lauded the area. Someone else will, always already, have discovered your place in the sun. So don't fret about this proof that literature - and the life it may mould - consists of an endless chain of echoes and borrowings. Further into the hills, you can still pick up a rundown maison de village for €150,000 or so…
An ace to bank on for the Xmas charts
Mid-Wimbledon, this column noted that one event would prompt Andy Murray (or his ghosts) to update his premature autobiography, Coming of Age. Well, it duly happened. Come November, the champ's fans can look forward to Andy Murray: 77 from Headline. The new memoir will focus on the past two years and offer thoughts on the "pivotal moments" of his career - with its stress, no doubt, on two weeks this summer in SW19. Those who care to bet on an Xmas No 1 in the book charts may wish to begin here.
Limelight for the comeback kids
Everybody adores a promising first novelist. Agents, publishers, media: even today, all will drive their fangs into young flesh and savour flesh blood. Beyond that - well, it's sink or swim, and you're on your own. Hence the value of the Encore Award, which gives £10,000 and much-needed limelight to an author for a second novel. This year the comeback kid so honoured is Ned Beauman (also on Granta's "Best Young British" list), who wins for his exuberant time-hopping satire-fantasy-period piece The Teleportation Accident. Beauman notes that after the "glamorous youth" of the debutant, for the rest of your life "you're just a 'novelist' (ie dusty procrastinator on the fringes of civilisation)". The Encore takes "some of the lurch out of this transition". So how about a special prize for third - or fourth - novels? That, many veterans report, is when the hard slog really begins.
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