Adam Thorpe’s memoir begins with a quotation from Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat: “I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them.” This seems to hint at a complicated yearning and a particular sort of book – one in which an English person moves to France but never quite belongs (like Emma Beddington’s We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to Be French, or Love Like Salt, by Helen Stevenson, which explains how her children, although bilingual, were never quite accepted as French).
But Thorpe’s memoir is not part of any herd. Nor does it belong in the fast-and-loose category of potboilers about swapping English life for continental idylls, such as Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Farm or Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. It is erudite, firmly embedded in its own soil and yet evasive. It never answers the questions the Du Maurier quotation raises.
Twenty-five years ago, Thorpe and his family moved to the lower slopes of the Cévennes mountains, what he describes as “the last thrust of the Massif Central before the southern plain and the sea”. It was not long after the publishing of Ulverton – now a Vintage classic – a novel about the life of an invented English village. Thorpe’s village house in the Cévennes has a “modest, unattached garden behind, sloping up in a series of terraces” and a marvellous view, “you can see the far-off Alps on a clear day, small and sharp as a shrew’s lower teeth”. The arrestingly precise image is typical of Thorpe’s vision as a poet as well as a novelist.
Briefly, he explains his reasons for decamping to France – he was born in Paris and, with a novelist’s uncertain income, it seemed a good move. I’d have liked to know more – about doubts (if any), highs, lows and how he has assimilated. He has a nuanced sense of France and one imagines that he comes as close to proving Du Maurier’s character wrong as it is possible for an Englishman to do. But this must remain guesswork, for Thorpe writes about what he sees more than about how he feels.
The book is based on Freelance columns for the Times Literary Supplement upon which he has expanded. This accounts for the discrete chapters and sense that, for all its articulate intricacy, the book does not quite hang together. Yet, form aside, there is much to enjoy. Thorpe writes like an archaeologist – the prose stratified. He remains a pencilled figure in his adopted landscape, mindful, perhaps, that the landscape predates and will survive him. He writes especially well about his house’s ancient, human quirkiness.
The locals are quirky too – his penetrating accounts recall Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield. The chapter about Guillaume, a Parisian rebel from ’68 who stayed on in the Cévennes and became a compulsive purchaser of junk, is intriguing and troubling. I loved the account, too, of the animal locals, the martens who make his roof their temporary residence. I relished meeting artistic Lisa, the baker’s wife, and her husband, Alain, who goes awol, causing widespread alarm before winding up in Nîmes, defiantly sloshed. A diverting chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson (Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes) describes a company offering “docile” donkeys, standing in for Stevenson’s Modestine.
Thorpe is sensitive to village tensions, in despair about Brexit, aware history is anything but dead. In the most enjoyable chapter, he allows himself a shout-on part. He describes living in a flat in Nîmes (the children went to school in the city) above a penitentially noisy cafe. A nightmare for him, an entertaining cartoon for us. It made me reflect on how often the book dwells on nuisance – in the medieval sense. No matter how affectionate, appreciative and perceptive, this memoir serves as a corrective to unchecked dreams of living in France.
• Notes from the Cévennes by Adam Thorpe is published by Bloomsbury Continuum (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99