The songs they sing in the South of France

Olivier Burckardt looks for modern echoes of the ancient language of Mediterranean love
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The Independent Culture
In both theme and form, the influence of the troubadours on Western literature and poetry has been of incalculable importance. The apogee of their activity is usually placed between 1100 and 1350, however, the tradition has not perished and continues to the present day.

The troubadours were poets to the various courts in southern France. Love, both sexual and courtly, became the hallmark of their compositions. But of even greater import than the evolution of the "pure love" theme was the fact of their writing in the vernacular. The move away from Latin had tremendous impact and influenced such literary giants as Petrarch and Dante. The language, often referred to as Provencal, was Occitan; a blanket term which covers local variants.

With the publication of the epic poem Mireio in 1859 by the Provencal poet Frederic Mistral (awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904), and the establishment of the Felibrige movement, a literary association that sought to promote Occitan culture and writing, the revival of the literature took on the proportions of a renaissance.

The fate of Occitan in the 20th century, however, makes for a strange tale of contradictions and vicissitude. While the works of troubadours were studied as a pinnacle of the poetic tradition of France, and Mistral hailed as embodying its greatest re-awakening, the living language was systematically vilified. Although, since the post-war years, Occitan has been reinstated to the status of an important regional language, it is doubtful that anyone born after the 1940s can be said to have it as their true mother tongue.

If a literature in Occitan continues to enjoy a lively publishing activity it is partly due to those writers who struggled to keep it alive over the years when it seemed doomed. Among the older generation, three voices stand out for their originality and diversity of approaches.

Robert Lafont, born in 1923, is a maverick figure whose writings cover a wide spectrum of genres in both literary and academic fields, ranging from poetry and fiction to history and political pamphlets; until mid this century Occitan literature was largely confined to poetry. His first novel, Vida de Joan Larsinhac, a chronicle of the war and the Resistance published in 1951, opened the way for fiction and he has steadily broadened the genre to include philosophical tales, a science-fiction novel, a detective novel and an epic poem of 2600 lines. As an activist for the Occitan cause, he has challenged the conservative approach, which would see contemporary Occitan relegated to the status of a quaint voice of folklore.

Max Rouquette was born in 1908 in Argelliers, a Languedoc village surrounded by a landscape of Mediterranean oaks, vineyards and garrigues; the wastelands of spiky scrub and limestone that imperceptibly dissolve into a desertscape where light becomes a predominant element. He has been actively writing a chronicle of the landscape and its people since the 1920s.

From the Gascogne Landes, south of Bordeaux, hails a poet whose language sticks to the palate. Well neigh incomprehensible to French speakers and most southern Occitan speakers, Bernard Manciet's language belongs to the trobar clus style, the hermetic tradition. Born in 1923 at Sabres, Manciet has recorded his native town in a unique fashion; L'Enterrament a Sabres (Burial at Sabres), a poem of some 5,000 verses, is rightly regarded as his major work.

Writing in a regional language offers a unique opportunity. One that cannot be easily shared by the mainstream tongue, which by widespread use, if not abuse, falls with ease into the banal. Occitan literature might be confined to a small readership but the fact that each village can be said to have moulded its language to the contour of its environment gives it the ever-present vibrancy of a language newly discovered, a language where the process of creating and exploring new forms and rhythms is a constant force.