Peter Mayle, the British bestselling travel book author, has gone on his last great journey, leaving behind a unique literary legacy
Whoever has not read, or at least heard of, A Year in Provence, one of the staples of any Waterstone’s or Barnes and Noble’s, and of course the little bookstore at the corner of your block? When the autobiography was first published in 1989, chronicling the trials and tribulations of a modest British writer following his move to the sunny South of France, author Peter Mayle became an accidental overnight celebrity. News has now reached us that he passed away on January 18 in Ménerbes, his beloved Provençal village he adopted almost 30 years ago. He was 78 years old.
A Year in Provence saw the light of day quite by accident. In the late 1980s, Mayle had moved there from Devon in England, with the intention of staying there for six months to write a novel. But he became so intrigued by the day-to-day encounters and the cultural differences that he started chronicling them. Little did he know that he would spend the better part of the rest of his life there.
It may have been his very relatable (mis)aventures, known to any expat, which befell him as he was adapting to his new home. Perhaps it was his very British knack of observing a situation he was directly involved in from a bird’s eye perspective … or his humorous tone – always gently irreverent but never mocking or condescending … or simply his gifts of painting vividly colourful landscapes and personalities with his words. Whatever it was, the magic potion worked, and the book hit top spots on every influential list from London to New York.
Mayle was no stranger to international relocation. Born in Brighton in 1939, his family moved to Barbados in the aftermath of World War II. He would return to England in 1955. He left school early to start a career in advertising, which took him to New York, among other locales. He worked for big names like Shell Oil, Ogilvy, and BBDO. But in the mid 1970s he became disenchanted with his fancy international corporate exec lifestyle on two continents, and withdrew from the frenzy to follow his passion, writing.
He started out writing educational literature for a pay cheque’s sake but instinctively knew that fiction, based on own observation, was his real calling. An excerpt from his 1992 book “Encore Provence” circles back to that: “I have a terrible weakness for collecting snatches of other people’s conversations, and occasionally I’m rewarded with unusual fragments of knowledge. My favorite of the day came from a large but shapely woman sitting nearby whom I learned was the owner of a local lingerie shop. ‘Beh oui,’ she said to her companion, waving her spoon for emphasis, ‘il faut du temps pour la corsetterie.’ You can’t argue with that.”
Published without much hype or marketing in 1989, Mayle’s inaugural book A Year in Provence made it to the top of the book charts around the world, surprising the author and publisher more than anyone else. Countless awards, including Best Travelbook of the Year and Author of the Year followed in swift succession. “I remember the first fan well – a man in a BMW. I invited him in, plied him with wine and signed his book at least twice. He was followed over the course of several years by hundreds of others”, the writer reminisced.
Several more blockbuster books followed. All in all, Mayle published 15 books, including eight novels, sold copies in the millions, had his work translated into over 20 languages, and was awarded a Knight of the Legion of Honour by the French government in 2002, one of the nation’s highest distinctions. Film offers were not long in coming either; A Year in Provence was produced as a TV series starring John Thaw and screened in 1993. Even as much as 17 years after the book’s first edition, Ridley Scott’s 2006 adaptation A Good Year starring actors Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard, became a box office success. In his tribute to the late writer, the award-winning English director said, “It was all that humorous competitive spirit between the French and the English that Peter captured brilliantly.”
But there was a problem with Mayle’s instant fame: his location was easily identifiable from the details he had provided in his books. And suddenly, “We had people coming up the drive from Japan, from Australia, from Germany, from Sweden, from England, from America. At the beginning, it was really quite exciting… Then it just increased in volume until we were getting four, five, six visits a day”. When one day he was having Sunday lunch with friends, he heard some splashing sounds coming from his pool. “When I went round to see what was going on, it was a couple of Italians with a video camera in the pool. They were taking photographs of each other with our house in the background.”
To protect himself and his family from overly nosy drop-in visitors and reclaim his privacy, Peter Mayle sold his Ménerbes property and relocated to Long Island, a good hour’s drive outside New York City. But even there, his fame as a bestselling author had already preceded him.
He finally returned to “his” village in France and kept writing books. It has gotten a little quieter around him over the past several years, even though his name still brings smiles and memories to the minds of armchair travelers and Francophiles the world over. In recent years, he moved on to the Capers series of detective stories set in international locales.
Peter Mayle was a jolly, life-affirming man who never really sought the spotlight. But he knew how to grab opportunities by the horns and make the best of each and every day. He saw his adopted country’s quirks and idiosyncrasies with piercing clarity still bore it profound love and respect, teaching us all tolerance and appreciation for different cultures and habits. Farewell and keep telling your stories wherever you are now, Peter.