Saturday, January 20, 2018

Adult Interruption: Peter Mayle & the Art of the Escape Novel

In my mind, authors who write genre fiction -- at least in the adult world -- don't get enough respect. They may write best-selling books and make piles of money, but these authors are generally regarded as inferior to those who write literary fiction. Sometimes that designation is merited, but sometimes it most definitely isn't.

Today's case-in-point is author Peter Mayle, who died on Jan, 18 at the age of 78. Mayle, an Englishman who first wrote sex-ed books for kids, was working as an advertising executive years ago when he decided to quit, move to France, and become a full-time novelist.

Instead of writing a novel, however, he found himself writing about what it was like to move to a village in the south of France. The resulting book,  A Year in Provence, was published in 1989;  it became a best-seller and made Mayle famous. It also helped to establish a now-flourishing market for what is often called "travel literature." Today, you'll find dozens of narratives written by people who have decided to move to another country (more often than not that country is France.) Mayle, meanwhile, eventually found himself inundated by curious fans and ended up moving to the United States for a while to get away from the tourists drawn by his tales of southern France.

I love A Year in Provence, and its sequels, Toujours Provence and Encore Provence. Mayle perfectly captures the humor and the challenges in the culture clash of living as an English ex-pat in the south of France. The books are both entertaining and educational, and stand up to repeated re-readings. As an antidote to a gray winter day, these books can't be beat.

But I'm also a huge fan of Mayle's novels, in which he displays his elegant writing and superb sense of pacing. I'm particularly fond of his Caper quartet, which are among the last books he wrote: The Vintage Caper, The Marseille Caper, The Corsican Caper and The Diamond Caper. Perfect escape novels, these books offer interesting characters, witty repartee, and exotic locales,  as well as Mayle's trademark humor and sophisticated writing style. The audio versions, read by Erik Davies, also make fun listening.

Mayle's other novels include Hotel Pastis, Chasing Cezanne, and A Good Year, which was made into a film starring Russell Crowe and Albert Finney. Like the Caper series, these novels are make lively and diverting reading. They take you to places you'd love to visit, introduce you to characters leading lives you'd love to lead, and provide a fast-paced, satisfying story. But it's Mayle's stylish writing that elevates these books and makes them far more than genre fiction, in my opinion.

In fact, Mayle's writing is so facile that I think it's easy to overlook what a craftsman he is. In that way, Mayle reminds me of that master writer, P.G. Wodehouse. As in Wodehouse's novels, the subject of Mayle's fiction is basically pure fluff. Like Wodehouse, he doesn't deal in serious issues or weighty emotions. Yet the books of both Wodehouse and Mayle are just pure pleasure to read because of the exquisite writing.

So it is with sadness that I read the news of Mayle's death. I had hoped that he would write a few more books in the Caper series, plus more stand-alone novels. Alas, that's not to be. But I'll comfort myself by re-reading (or re-listening to) some of my favorite Mayle books. They are, after all, the perfect escape from the political turmoil that surrounds us.

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