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French life still inspires authors

From tSmollett through to Joanne Harris of Chocolat fame, France has proved an inspiration to generations of authors

SCOTTISH poet and author Tobias Smollett included a trip to France in his popular novel about the adventures of a dandy, Peregrine Pickle (1751) - and he returned to the subject in later life in Travels Through France and Italy (1766), which recounted his own trip through the country, down to Nice.

He often grumbled, finding fault with the inhabitants, food, architecture, religion and culture and attacking that "savage custom" of duelling which left "families ruined" and "valuable lives lost to the community".

He described the Niçois nobility as "strutting about in lace and embroidery" adding the women were "pot-bellied, owing to the great quantity of vegetable trash which they eat".

Their sexual morals - with both husbands and wives having lovers - also came in for acid remarks.

Nonetheless, Smollett was one of the first to draw British attention to the Riviera, foreseeing the potential of the "neat village" of Cannes, with its "mild climate" and "fine air," and writing that "nothing can be more delightful" than the coast between it and Nice, in winter temperatures like "May in England."
His grumpy personality was parodied in a character called Smelfungus in Yorkshire writer Laurence Sterne's novel about travels in France, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768)

Scottish novelist and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson was another writer whose French visits inspired books, including a 120-mile walking trip that was the basis for Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), one of the first accounts of a hiking and camping holiday.

Much of his poetry collection A Child’s Garden of Verses was written while staying in Hyères for his health, where he said: "I have so many things to make life sweet for me."

American writers as well as Britons visited France in the 19th century, like Henry James, who lived in Paris for a time in the 1870s and set much of his novel The Ambassadors (1903) there, which he thought his "most perfect work of art."

More started coming after the First World War, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who first came to the Riviera in 1924, visiting Hyères, Cannes and Monaco as well as Saint-Raphaël, where he wrote much of The Great Gatsby and began Tender is the Night, his bittersweet novel set among American expats on the Côte d’Azur.

His fellow countrywoman Edith Wharton wrote her novel The Age of Innocence (1920) while staying at Hyères, for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

From the 1920s onwards, many of the well-to-do came down via Le Train Bleu, from Calais, including Agatha Christie, who commemorated the luxury train in one of her Poirot whodunnits, The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928).

British writer William Somerset Maugham, reputed to be the highest-paid author during the 1930s, was among the passengers.

He lived in France at the end of his life - in a villa on Cap Ferrat in the Alpes-Maritimes - and had begun it there, born the son of a diplomat at the British Embassy (technically British soil, which got him out of French military service).

As a child he would recite the fables of La Fontaine to his mother and he once said: "It was France that educated me, France that taught me to value beauty, distinction, wit and good sense, France that taught me to write."

In the 1920s, Paris attracted Americans including the poet Ezra Pound and novelist Ernest Hemingway, who attended literary salons hosted by fellow American writer Gertrude Stein.

Stein called the young expats "the lost generation", a term Hemingway popularised in his first major novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), which is partially set in Paris among expats.

American novelist Henry Miller lived in Paris between the wars and was influenced by the Surrealists and Dadaists, who he said were "revolutionary" and had made a "conscious effort to turn the tables upside down, to show the absolute insanity of our present day life."

Hearing French spoken around him, "sharpened" his English language skills, he said. "It makes you aware of shades and nuances you never suspected." He added that being in France encouraged him to explore sexual themes.

"Sex pervades the air," in France, he thought. In his book The Colossus of Maroussi he mentioned his particular love for the Dordogne: "Whereas France may someday no longer exist, the Dordogne will survive, just like dreams, endlessly nourishing the human soul."

A popular meeting place for English-speaking writers was Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookshop owned by Sylvia Beach, who first published James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

Hemingway met Joyce there in 1922 and they shared "alcoholic sprees". Paris inspired aspects of his novel Finnegans Wake, written in the city over a period of 17 years.

Joyce’s countryman Samuel Beckett was known for his experimental writing style in plays such as Waiting for Godot (1953), which was one of many works he originally wrote in French.

It premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. Beckett had settled in Paris from 1939, preferring, he said "France at war to Ireland at peace".

His most famous play - in which two tramps wait in vain for Godot - might have been inspired by Balzac’s Le Faiseur, in which a character going bankrupt tells creditors to wait until his elusive ex-partner, Godeau, can be found.

At one point he yells: "Godeau’s a myth! A fable! A phantom! Have you seen Godeau?"

English author, playwright and critic Graham Greene came to France after the Second World War because of Britain’s "parish-pump politics" and "snobbism".

He had homes in Paris and in Antibes, where he was interviewed by fellow writer VS Naipaul in 1968, from where, Naipaul claimed, he could see Maugham’s "unsold £360,000 house" (he had died three years before) - "a different south of France from Mr Greene’s compact and plain sitting room".

Greene said he found "an extreme lack of snobbism in the French middle class - the taxi driver calls you monsieur and you call him monsieur - I like that." One of his last works, J’Accuse, the Dark Side of Nice, alleged organised crime was rife there and the city authorities corrupt.

He lost a libel case, but was vindicated after his death when, in 1994, former mayor Jacques Médecin was imprisoned.

A lighter side to French life comes out in contemporary English novelist Joanne Harris’s novels, several of which are set in a fictional village in the Gers, Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. She was born in Yorkshire to a French mother and English father and studied modern languages.

She named the heroine of Chocolat, Vianne, after a town in the Lot-et-Garonne. Her passion for French life also comes out in a sideline in French cookery books. Writers including Jules Verne, Maupassant and Flaubert are among inspirations, she has said.

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