Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas in Provence

A Provençal nativity with local villagers dropping in.
In Monsieur: The Prince of Darkness, the first book of his Avignon Quintet, Lawrence Durrell writes lovingly about Christmas in Provence. 'In my memory it will always be Christmas here', says Durrell's character Bruce, 'the Noel of 19-, the year that changed the direction and leaning of my life. Nothing had ever happened to me before - or that is how I felt about the events of that year.'

Bruce is visiting the chateau of Verfeuille in Provence where he and Sylvie fall in love.  The chateau is owned by Bruce's friend, Piers, who is Sylvie's brother, and you might as well know that Piers and Sylvie are also in love with one another. That is not so unusual in Durrell's novels; Pursewarden and his sister Liza in The Alexandria Quartet are lovers, for example, and there are many other relationships in the Quartet and elsewhere that are disguised brother-sister affairs - just as sometimes in E M Forster's novels, notably in Howards End, the relationships are disguised homosexual ones. 

Piers had gone ahead to Verfeuille, 
while Sylvie and I had elected to stay on in Avignon, and then pick up horses at the half-way house and ride the last few miles to the chateau. Our saddle bags were full of presents, coloured sweets for the children, confetti, crystallised fruit, and little bottles of cognac and liqueurs. Also we had brought a huge family of little santons of painted terracotta for the crèche. No Provençal Christmas is complete without these little figures which populate and deck out the family crèche which itself does the duty of our northern Yule-tide Tree. 
Santons pay their respects to the newborn child.
I became curious about these santons - the word means 'little saints'.  Curious about their place in the Christmas festivities of Provence but also because I wondered what they might signify, if anything, about Durrell's characters.  Just as in the Alexandria Quartet Durrell describes his characters in terms of tarot cards, so maybe these santons who have invaded the traditional nativity scene with the Holy Family also had some meaning.  But probably not - though Durrell can never resist a homunculus. 

Durrell goes on to explain.  
Originally the cast, so to speak, was a small one, restricted to the Holy Family and two or three other personages who figured directly in the legend, like the kings and so forth; but under the influence of the hardy Provençal sense of poetry the whole thing had flowered rhapsodically and we had found in the shops about forty santons, all different. Their verisimilitude might have been suspect but they brought the story up to date with characters out of stock like the village policeman, a poacher, a Camargue cowboy, and the like. All this gear was carefully wrapped against breakages and stowed in our capacious saddle bags before we attacked the slow winding ascent to the chateau.
In Caesar's Vast Ghost, Durrell's book about Provence, he says 'The little Christmas santons of Provence with their butcher-baker-candlestick-maker preoccupations must echo the same concern with the persistence of archetypes through the different vocations'.  

A santon produce-seller.
And so they turn out to do, and in a surprising way. For on the face of it there is nothing ancient about these santons, these figurines of painted terracotta; the tradition is barely two hundred years old. They owe their existence to the French Revolution and its suppression of religion and outward displays of belief, including the traditional nativity scene with its Joseph and Mary and Christ Child and magi and shepherds and sheep and cows and so on - all of this was banned.  But people liked them.  And there were artisans who had made a living turning them out.  And so everyone just continued on as before, but instead of the Holy Family the figures were butchers and bakers and fishwives.  And the santons thrived.  No Christmas in Provence is complete without a vast cast of characters who have nothing to do with the birth of the Son of God but everything to do with one's neighbours and local tradesmen and the passing gipsies and fishermen at sea.

As for Bruce and Sylvie making their way back from Avignon to the the chateau, their saddlebags filled with santons,
From time to time all visibility was reduced to nil, and then Sylvie, who was in a particularly mischievous mood, pushed her horse into a canter, to be swallowed at once in the mist. It was not a procedure to be recommended and the second time she did it I plunged after her and punished her with an embrace that left her breathless; feeling her cold lips and nose against my face, seeking me out. Such was its magnetism that we became fused into this posture, unwilling to detach ourselves from each other. I tried to at last - for I could feel the mist condensing into droplets on the collar of my old tweed coat; but she whispered 'Stay' and it was only too easy to obey her.
Santon woman with donkey.
Their arrival at Verfeuille was followed by a warming log fire and a magnficent Christmas dinner. (If you want to know about the traditions of a country, particularly the gastronomic ones, you could do worse than read a Durrell novel.)

The wine was going about now and the most important supper of the whole year was in full sail. By old tradition it has always been a 'lean' supper, so that in comparison with other feast days it might have seemed a trifle frugal. Nevertheless the huge dish of raïto exhaled a wonderful fragrance: this was a ragout of mixed fish presented in a sauce flavoured with wine and capers. Chicken flamed in Cognac. The long brown loaves cracked and crackled under the fingers of the feasters like the olive branches in the fireplace. ...

So it went on, our last dinner, to terminate at last with a whole anthology of sweetmeats and nuts and winter melons. The fire was restoked and the army of wine-bottles gave place to a smaller phalanx of brandies, Armagnacs and Marcs, to offset the large bowls of coffee from which rose plumes of fragrance.

Now old Jan's wife placed before the three lovers a deep silver sugar bowl full of white sugar. It lay there before them in the plenitude of its sweetness like a silver paunch. The three spoons she had placed in it stood upright, waiting for them to help themselves before the rest of the company.
For Bruce, that Christmas remained forever impressed into his mind.  
It was not a place or time easy to forget, and I had returned to it so often in my thoughts that it was no surprise to relive all this in my dreams. I must have unconsciously memorised it in great detail without being fully aware of the fact at the time. I know of no other place on earth that I can call up so clearly and accurately by simply closing my eyes: to this very day.
But the day itself came to an end as they moved off across the snow to midnight mass at the village church.
Painted terracotta figures coming to life.
By now the old man had discovered that it was nearly time for the village mass. 'We will have to hurry up,' he said consulting the old clock, 'we must set a good example on the day of the days.' The company donned hats and scarves and we straggled out into the night with its washed-out late moon trying to guide us. Our feet scratched the flinty path which led away to the tiny hamlet of Verfeuille whose ancient church was now so ablaze with candles that the whole fragile structure seemed to be on fire. I walked arm in arm with the brother and sister, silent and preoccupied and wondering about the future – the future which has now become the past.
Except that with Durrell nothing ever becomes lost within the past. Time plays itself out again and again, like the placing of familiar tarot cards and like santons introducing themselves into the world of ancient beliefs and mysteries, as the following volumes of the Avignon Quintet make clear.
Sommieres, the town where Durrell lived in Provence, with the Roman bridge crossing the Vidourle - recreated like a nativity scene and populated by santons.