FESTIVAL / Lover of women and foie gras: Philip Sweeney reports on a matter of love and letters in the Dordogne

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The Independent Culture
Four decades before the invasion of GB-plated Volvos and British estate agents, an early anglophone visitor, Henry Miller, fell in love with the Dordogne. In a letter to Anais Nin in 1939, he described it as 'God's own country'.

In honour of this enthusiasm, the references to the Dordogne in his writing and his repeated visits, the regional capital Perigueux has decided to stage a Henry Miller Festival. 'Miller's known here for two things,' says Thierry Grognet, director of Perigueux's modern library, centre of most of the events. 'As a writer of scandalous books, and as someone who praised the Dordogne.'

Thirty miles south in Tremolat, in the garden of his auberge Le Vieux Logis, hotelier and Miller aficionado Bernard Giraudel agrees: 'We're not exactly modest about our region - the Texans of South-west France, you might say - but no native of the Dordogne could have been so extravagant or poetic as Miller about the region.' Giraudel, who is offering a cut-price gala lunch to kick off the festival, claims a major if contested Miller landmark: Room 4 of his hotel. 'Miller arrived at Tremolat in 1953 on a canoeing trip,' Giraudel explains. 'Bare-chested, with no papers - you needed to register with the police in those days - he asked for the best room. He stayed a month, writing - letters mainly - every day . . .'

Off-duty in a Perigueux bar at midnight, this story is pooh-poohed by Guillaume Vivier, the president of Perigueux's Henry Miller Association, who has spent much of the last two years tracking down rare and unpublished Miller correspondence. Vivier worked in radio and art galleries and sold second-hand books from a stall in Perigueux market before setting up the association with his vice-president Dominique Bar, an ambulance driver, and Jose Correa, a graphic designer. Chief among these is the Association's magazine, which has succeeded in unearthing and printing a vast quantity of Miller's prolific correspondence from around the world - letters to and from Gide, Breton, Celine, Simenon . . . 'We've got so much material,' says Vivier, 'we could put together a new edition of the magazine blindfold, just dipping into the pile of book jackets, letters, interviews, documents of all sorts.'

Vivier's and Bar's youthful enthusiasm has won the support of professionals such as the agent Georges Hoffman, Miller's Parisian literary executor, and a Bordeaux company is about to start publishing nationally selections from the magazine under the title Cahiers Miller. As for the Festival, their plans - exhibitions of Miller's drawings and watercolours, a production of his play Transit, a season of Miller-linked films, round tables, conferences - were so forcefully put, the city hall had no option but to offer facilities and logistical support. Sceptical eyebrows may be raised upon mention of Vivier's claimed '3,000 visitors from as far away as Africa', but Henry's daughter has confirmed, the sun is shining, and the duck livers are fattening.

Runs from 15 June. Details on 010 33 53 03 41 12