A Good Place to Shed Your Culture

In the summer of 1986, Paul Christensen, a poet and professor of modern literature at Texas A&M University, left the suburban confines of Bryan with his wife and three young children and moved into a small stone cottage in the farming region of Provence in southeastern France. He had gone there under the auspices of taking 20 A&M students on a tour of European cities where noted American authors had written some of their most famous works: T.S. Eliot’s London, Henry James’ Rome, Gertrude Stein’s Paris. But this “summer course” was merely his pretense for the trip. The reason behind it was rapidly growing dissatisfaction with what Christensen calls “the long plateau of midcareer. The time when raises slow down and committee assignments grow tedious, and the things one didn’t do grow alluring and important.” A summer in France, he decided, would be the perfect antidote to an early midlife crisis unfolding in the wastelands of East Texas.

Before shutting down your brain at the thought of another sentimental travelogue by an American expatriate searching for his soul among the ancient buildings and cozy traditions of the Old World, believe me when I say Christensen, a regular contributor of book reviews to the Observer, isn’t your garden-variety travel writer-memoirist. Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence isn’t your garden-variety travel book-memoir, either. There are dozens of passages describing in loving and lengthy detail the windswept hills of the French countryside, the simple wisdom and quirky charm of the local Provencals, even the life-restoring possibilities of shopping for fruits and vegetables. In France, they are “beautiful heavy objects still alive, potent with nature, lying there in a great profusion of colors. … The peaches were erotic little spheres, warm, bruised, dripping a gold sap from their swollen skin.” When’s the last time you had thoughts like that in a grocery store?

Strangers in paradise cover

Christensen is no travel agent peddling two-week excursions for people with inclinations toward rapid self-discovery. He’s an academic, artist, and examiner of the world long since resigned to the isolation needed for revelation. Where many writers would discover their reborn spirits in a foreign land and be content to sing their victory with self-satisfied, Oprah-approved glee, Christensen goes deeper, searching for any clues-historical, personal, psychological, mythical, even meteorological-that will shed light on his condition. He wonders, with a practiced, cynical mind, just what kind of man could allow himself to fall so completely under the spell of a foreign land, leading him to renounce, to a large degree, his own country.

Upon waking his first morning in Provence, Christensen feels as if he’s dropped 10 years from his life. He spends his early days wandering around the stone house, ruminating on the beauty of a grasshopper, on the spiritual potency of sunlight and shadows, on the significance of walking in the footsteps of the ancient “pioneers who had begun agriculture in Southern France, as early as 6000 B.C.” As it is for any poet worth the name, for Christensen there is nothing in life that can’t be mythologized or recontextualized into significance. His calling card as a memoirist is his artist’s ability to describe an afternoon walk through the mountains as an epic journey worthy of Charlemagne, or a visit to the ice-cream parlor as a mental and psychological trip through the past (both his own and the world’s), accompanied by ghosts who don’t speak his language.

Language is at the heart of Christensen’s project (both his life-project in Provence and the writing of this book). Not just the French language or the English language, but the myriad languages with which we’ve been trained to describe our world, and all the languages we haven’t. One of the first things Christensen encounters in Provence is a sudden inability to write. Faced with a blank page and a distracting view of the French countryside, he comes to the unnerving realization that he has nothing to say. “I was so used to working,” he writes, “I didn’t recognize fallowness when it came. There lies a moral for Americans: thinking it’s always harvest time makes us dullards … [Our] false rules rob life of its seasons.” Here in Provence, where “farmers still plant and harvest by the ancient calendar of moon phases and feast days,” resigning themselves to the inevitable peaks and valleys of the seasons, Christensen the foreigner experiences a crisis of language: Sometimes, he realizes, you don’t have one. This realization comes to him throughout the book: The inability to speak in a foreign country goes beyond a simple lack of facility with a particular language. It extends to the most fundamental, most firmly held beliefs we have about ourselves. With refreshing modesty, Christensen describes dozens of situations in which he feels that his lack of understanding of his context leaves him mute. Provence, he decides, isn’t merely a place. It’s a history and a mythology and a poetic tradition and even a geology that, taken together, form the consciousness of the people who live there and allow them to speak.

Christensen finds this consciousness rooted in the landscape itself. “Nature is the real story of Provence,” he writes, a nature that is “generous and extraordinarily fertile, even in droughts.” He writes at length and with the associative vigor of a liberal-arts academic of the relationships among Provence’s landscape; its long history as a region inhabited by nature-worshipping Celts, pagans, and early Christians; and its centrality in the development of the written word and of the whole of Modernism as an artistic philosophy.

History is full of writers who found inspiration in Provence, including Samuel Beckett and Emile Zola, but it was Ezra Pound who, upon discovering the great medieval-era “pagan” poets of the region, began to piece together the puzzle that would eventually form the landscape of Modernism. Reading the love songs and poems of the 12th-century troubadours who wandered in Provence, he saw how they had “reworked the Greek link between desire and the forces of nature,” between the natural world and the human psyche, and waxed “lyrical over the muses who guarded soil, rivers, and the weather.” In Provence, a region dependent on the understanding of the land and the seasons, Pound saw the remnants of a whole nature religion that had survived for thousands of years, transfigured nature into gods and goddesses, and was now subsumed in the Christian tradition. He decided a revival of these pagan traditions could form the basis of a new artistic movement. “The rerooting of poetry in pagan worship,” Christensen argues, “was implicit in all the arts of the Modernist movement,” from the nature paintings of Matisse to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Christensen may be right on this point, or he may be wrong, but there’s no doubt the discussion adds aesthetic weight to his book. How many travel memoirists could claim that their adopted home is the birthplace of a great artistic and philosophical movement? Even if they could, how many would bother? There’s no money in it. It’s just this kind of associative, intellectually curious thinking that allows Christensen to transcend the travel-writing genre and connect his own experiences as a writer living abroad to a world of language interpretation. If, as he and Pound suspect, nature has a language, “a pageant of light and pattern coming toward the human eye,” then it is Christensen’s job as a writer in Provence to open himself to that language, which was all around him and which can only be learned through long years spent in humble absorption.

Humble absorption? No wonder Christensen had such a hard time getting to work. There he was, a 45-year-old American poet coming to the realization that, if he were going to be any kind of writer in his new adopted hometown, his method was going to have to be rearranged: Goodbye, long nights plowing away at misconceived ideas until something can be resuscitated from dead words, puffing up failures into “partial successes”; hello, long nights staring out the window, relishing the slow rhythms of the world and hoping that one day all that untamed, unmanageable nature will translate into something worthy of appearing on the page.

Christensen knows the odds are stacked against him, that as an American he isn’t trained in the art of nature worship or attuned to the idea of seeing the past as a source of inspiration. We Americans view the past not as something to be revered, but as something to be lived past and to one day leave unacknowledged. We see nature as something to be conquered and bent to our wills. Our creative impulses stem from a desire to forget and contain. “America is built on the fear of [the] past returning,” Christensen writes. “Our architecture, our food, and our culture are ramparts built high against the return of nature.” Now, 20 years into his Provence adventure, it appears Christensen has shaken free of his American shackles and learned what it takes to be an artist in paradise, though somehow I doubt he would ever claim he’s become one. Reading Strangers in Paradise, I’m not so sure he hasn’t.

Josh Rosenblatt is a writer in Austin.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.

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Published at 12:00 am CST