Page 17


BOOKS & THE CULTURE A Good Place to Shed Your Culture BY JOSH ROSENBLATT Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence By Paul Christensen Wings Press 224 pages, $17.95 n 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? 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, Oprahapproved glee, Christensen goes deeper, searching for any clueshistorical, personal, psychological, mythical, even meteorologicalthat will shed light on his condition. He wonders, with a practiced, cynical mind, just what kind 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 25, 2008