Sunday, March 07, 2010

"Village in the Vaucluse", a Harvard man in Provence

Laurence Wylie,  eminent teacher for whom a chair was created in Harvard, spend a year in Luberon with his wife and young kids. He didn't stay in a million-euro mas with a pool and a couple of 4WDs, bought on a huge consultant's or lawyer's salary, but during a sabbatical, on a small university grant, in an icily-cold rented village house. It all happened sixty years ago, and the Wilies didn't even own a car. Instead, they seem to have made a great number of friends. After a while, even the communist villagers agreed Laurence  was not a spy busily preparing an American invasion in case France went Red.
Born 1909, the friendly American actually was an anthropologist specializing in the study of French culture and civilization. In his book he draws a very warm, and at times quite witty, account of life in the early fifties in this remote Provencal village he calls 'Peyrane' - actually Roussillon, 40 km from Avignon, between Gordes and Apt.
His fascinating work  'depicts the villagers within the framework of a systematic description of their culture and way of life' (Harvard University press blurb). The book was translated in French during the sixties,  but is, somewhat remarkably, not very popular in France, maybe because the author chooses  not to focus his incisive, jargon-free analysis on parent relations, symbolic expressions, language, religious beliefs and mythologies. Instead, he affectionately and precisely describes things as exotic as  'securité sociale', bowling manners, etc, and also  what the French call " une société bloquée",  a stuck-up society, where jealousy, even hatred impregnate most interpersonal relations, to a degree which for instance effectively prevents the village as a whole to get  a new school building, or young tenants to move in unoccupied houses. The owners had rather the roofs removed.  Poverty was widespread, even the well-off were living in extreme simplicity. Post-card pretty as it may look in the author's B&W photographs,'Peyrane' in the fifties was a hell to live in. But a hell where everybody knew everybody.
 Sixty years after the Wylie's sabbatical in Roussillon, Provence has become a world favorite destination and Vaucluse " golden triangle" a favorite holiday  haunt of the ruling French elite, with a good deal of rich Americans sprinkled over. 
The unconfortable house rented in 1950 by the anthropologist and his wife - which they could have bought for $3000 - was sold to a sculptor, then to world famous novelist Jean Lacouture. It was valued well over a million dollars in 1987 when Wylie wrote a postscript to his study, noting that the village was invaded by tourists on the watch for celebrities,  but hmself failing to recognize most of his former friends. By this time the 'community' that once was 'Peyrane', with its bitter interpersonal feuds and wonderful sense of beign a united village, had all ceased to exist.

The POSTFACE was published in Wylie L., 1988, « Roussillon, un village dans le Vaucluse, 1987 », Terrain, n° 11, pp. 29-50.