"The traditional rural way of life has thinned out"
Author Adam Thorpe speaks to Jane Hanks about French country life and the expat experience
Adam Thorpe is a critically acclaimed writer. His first novel Ulverton, which is about the reality of harsh rural life through the ages in a fictional Berkshire village, was nominated for the Booker Prize and won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. It was described by writer John Fowles in The Guardian as “the most interesting novel I have read these last years… Suddenly English lives again”.
Hilary Mantel has said of him that he is a writer’s writer: “There is no contemporary I admire more than Adam Thorpe.” His last novel, Missing Fay, was a Guardian and Sunday Times Book of the year in 2017.
He has mostly written his eleven novels, poetry and short story collections and two non-fiction books from his home in the Cévennes. He has lived there for the past twenty-eight years with his wife and three children, who grew up and went to school in France.
Three books are about being in France. No Telling is about a French schoolboy’s experience of May 68. The Standing Pool is a dark thriller about two Cambridge academics who take a sabbatical in a remote Languedoc farmhouse and their dreams of a rural paradise turn into a nightmare.
His latest book, published this month, Notes from the Cévennes; Half a Lifetime in Provincial France, recounts his impressions of the land he has come to call home, written in his perceptive and poetic style. He talked to Connexion about his new book and love of the Cévennes:
Why did you come to France and why the Cévennes?
I took a sabbatical year to finish my first novel, Ulverton. I have to be political here, we had got fed up with Margaret Thatcher and it is a bit like now really, grim news after grim news. I was born in Paris and I think there was a native pull somewhere there because the first three years of my life were French.
We had two very small boys, my daughter was not yet born, and we wanted a different experience in our early thirties.
I knew the Cévennes from staying there with friends and I found it corresponded to the kind of wildness and remoteness that I was really looking for. I wanted to get somewhere where you couldn’t hear traffic in the background, or jets. A place full of birds and animals where I could look out and see nothing but the woods, forest, mountains.
I finished the book in a matter of months in a very cold house, collecting wood and everything, but that was perfect for the novel really. I was experiencing all sorts of things I would not have experienced back in England that were relevant to the rural past of England.
In May, we made the decision not to go back. It could have been read as a foolish decision to leave both our jobs and carry on in this rather idealised life where we were fairly broke. We eventually bought a house from the advance for my following book as Ulverton did very well, unexpectedly. I’ve earned less since then so we have always lived slightly on the edge. What can you expect as a writer? It was the romantic life of a freelance writer.
Now I’ve got a job teaching English in Nîmes art school and my wife Jo has a full time job teaching in a Nîmes lycée and we live in town during weekdays in term time, but our real home is the village I write about in the book.
In your book you describe many of the local characters and often the hard lives they have lived and that rural life is not really the expat dream of living in the peace and quiet of a beautiful countryside. Do you think that is something many of us discover when we get here?
Yes. Ulverton, which I was writing when I came here, is about shedding the English romance with the countryside, so in a way I felt I had walked into my novel with the stories and the sufferings and the tragedies you find in a rural
village, but there are also the beautiful moments.
We had moments of disbelief when we first came here in the sense of how could it be so beautiful. Imagine back in London diving into a crystal clear stream. The wildlife was extraordinary.
There are wonderful places in England but it is a crowded countryside and I never felt I was sufficiently away from modern civilisation. I have never got bored with the Cévennes on a daily basis. Nature is always offering something.
So does living somewhere beautiful make a difference to the way you live your life?
Yes, I think it does. I am not saying life has been perfect since I moved here. Not at all. I miss friends. I even miss London and going to the theatre there. Here it is much freer, but that is not to say it has been without difficulty.
I am fluent but not bilingual so the language was a challenge. I didn’t feel at home at first, and we had to create home in a way, and that took a number of years.
My three children are in London now and we go quite often. When I arrive I think, why did we leave London? But after three days I begin to miss the Cévennes, the smells, the light, the sense of being in the deep countryside and the pace of life.
The Cévennes is one of the hidden secrets of France. We link it with Robert Louis Stevenson and Travels with a donkey – but I for one had to go and look on a map of France to know exactly where it is. Can you describe it to me?
It is the beginning of the Massif Central and covers a huge area, and its very distinctive history is tied up with its wildness, as this is where people fled to from oppression. That is why in the Second World War it was so important as a Resistance area. It is the place where the Huguenots resisted persecution from the Catholics.
It is very underpopulated. There is no major road passing through the Cévennes, because it would be hell to carve a major road right through. There is the National Park, the only one in France with people living in it. There is no major city and it has pretty impressive mountains.
Has it changed much over the past 28 years?
Yes. There is more Tarmac and more modern villas now and people have internet and satellite TV, so it used to be easier to cut yourself off and a lot of the traditional rural way of life has thinned out.
A lot of the huge houses are empty now. Yet many of the electricity wires have been removed as there is now more sensitivity to the beauty of the countryside. There have been ecological gains. The rivers are getting cleaner and there are vultures and wolves now.
In Notes from the Cévennes, you talk about many of the controversial themes which are debated in rural France. Do you think the wolves should be protected?
It is a question where I sit on the fence a bit. If you talk to a shepherd you can understand that it can be catastrophic for them, and if their way of life was to go it would change the whole nature of the Cévennes.
On the other hand the green argument is that this is their natural home and wolves can be very beneficial. It is a very tricky question.
Hunting is another big issue in rural France. What is your attitude towards the hunters?
As I describe in the book, I have briefly hunted and I know it is extraordinarily thrilling. It is deep in us and when you are part of it, it changes your perception of the countryside around you.
However, I feel it is a human indulgence and when I came here I was very anti-hunting. But now, I have just absorbed it. When we see signs there are hunters, we just walk in the other direction. You have to accept it is part of a rural life.
What I don’t accept and the issue that makes me really angry and I think is far more dangerous is the use of chemicals in the countryside.
At the end of the book I talk about global warming. When you live in the countryside, you are very conscious of the weather and its impact and you know the dangers of climate change.
You have French nationality and you live deep in the countryside. Will Brexit make a difference to you?
If I did not have a French passport I would be extremely anxious and even angrier than I am. At present I am really deeply ashamed of my country. The immigration problem could have been sorted out within Europe.
My personal history means I have always been a Europhile. My father was in WWII which made him a deep Francophile as he was greeted very warmly by the French, so my personal life is bound up in it. I have always loved France – my birthplace – since I was a kid. I find Brexit almost spiritually offensive. I am not sure that it will ever happen. I think it is an “impossibilisme” as the French say.
Your most recent novel Missing Fay was set in contemporary Britain. Was that difficult when you no longer live there?
In some ways it helps. When I go to England I am picking up everything new, and I can see some things I wouldn’t have noticed if I was living in England.
I go to enormous efforts to make sure I don’t sound like an expat who hasn’t got it quite right because I am out of date. I am a perfectionist and I will study the way people speak. If I am on a train I might hear a conversation, and I will write it down so I can find out exactly how people talk.
Many, many writers have written about living in France. Why did you decide to do so, when you already have plenty of subjects to write about?
I write a column in the Times Literary Supplement about living in France, which is a great honour for me as it is a paper I have read and admired since I was a teenager.
My editor at Bloomsbury Continuum said he liked reading them and asked me if I would like to make a book out of them. I had been thinking about it and so I said yes.
I wrote new parts for the book and the aim was to give it a kind of coherence, but for it not to be a proper memoir. It is anecdotal and poetic. It is more about the feeling of being somewhere in all its myriad complexity and there is humour in it. It is risky writing about local people, of course, even when their names have been changed out of respect, but it is an affectionate look.
What would you say it says about living in France?
I think it is an honouring of a place. Life is short. A large part of it is spent in certain places so it is interesting to see how they affect you at every level. And I wanted to inform the reader of a particular place.
It is also inevitably about being an immigrant, being a foreigner. I think it is appropriate at this period. I think the whole business of being an expat is very interesting and I have written about that in The Standing Pool. I think it is a big deal to leave your native land, to make a home somewhere, where your language is not spoken.
If you do live in a foreign place and you do not stay in your own bubble it gives you insight. I think moving to new places is a very important aspect of being human.
Notes from the Cévennes; Half a Lifetime in Provincial France by Adam Thorpe, published by, May 3 2018. Hardback ISBN 978 1472 9512 98; Price £16.99
In the village where Adam Thorpe lives (no name because he does not want it identified), people used to make their living by making Cévenol silk which was regarded as some of the finest in the world.
The silkworms used to feed on white mulberry trees that still grow there. This is an extract from Chapter One of Notes from the Cévennes.
“In April, our children would bring back silkworm eggs from school as part of an annual project. In the old days, these were wrapped in cloth sachets and tucked between the warm breasts or thighs of the woman of the house, despite posters warning Ne faites jamais l’incubation dans le corsage (never use a bodice for incubation). Tiny black worms appeared and, instantly gorging on fresh mulberry leaves, grew fat and translucently white, like a resplendently helmeted maggot, the heart beating visibly in the tail. At one point, we had around 80 tiny jaws working through the daily supply from the three old mulberries that still grace our terraced garden, their forms gnarled and swollen by centuries of pollarding. The sound is like the rustle of rain in a wood.”