The best books about the South of France

Richard Goodman Author Of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France
By Richard Goodman

Who am I?

I’m a writer and a teacher of writing who fell in love with France after my first visit fifty years ago. I was lucky enough once to spend a year in a small village about thirty miles west of Avignon in the south where I was able to observe, and eventually participate in, the daily life of this village. I wrote my book, French Dirt, about that experience. I have read intently about the South of France ever since with an eye for those books that truly capture the spirit and character of these people who are the heart of this storied part of France.

I wrote...

French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France

By Richard Goodman,

Book cover of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France

What is my book about?

I went to a small village outside of time in the South of France to live for a year. The village was so small it didn’t have a cafe or shop of any kind. The population was 211. While I was there, I had a vegetable garden. Every day, when I came back from working in the Provençal sun, I wrote about what I saw. French Dirt is the result of those days spent digging and planting, hoping and despairing. It’s about the villagers I met and the help, advice, and cautions they gave me. It’s a book about sun, light, work, sweat, and the sublime pleasure of working the French soil, alone and happy, day after glorious day.

The books I picked & why

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Break of Day

By Colette, Enid McLeod (translator),

Book cover of Break of Day

Why this book?

Break of Day is a uniquely beautiful book, short and elegant. It's about the solace Colette's house and garden in the South of France provided her after a broken marriage. No truer book has been written about that part of France, and how that land can ravish a visitor. I thought of it often when I was writing my own book. Colette had a house in the hills above St.-Tropez, and she writes about gardening, the movements of the day, her animals, the people who come and go, and the delicious, sensual tastes of that part of the world. Break of Day is also an elegy to the memory of her mother, whose strength guides the writer through her exquisite melancholy. Colette writes with a pen dipped in sun, oil, sweat, and salt. 

My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle: Marcel Pagnol's Memories of Childhood

By Marcel Pagnol, Rita Barisse (translator),

Book cover of My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle: Marcel Pagnol's Memories of Childhood

Why this book?

No one wrote about the South of France with more affection and understanding than Marcel Pagnol. He was a novelist, playwright, director, and memoirist. Pagnol’s family had a small house in the hills near Marseille where they spent summers. His book, My Father’s Glory, is about those months Pagnol spent there as a child and about his family, mostly his father. (The companion book, My Mother’s Castle, concerns his mother more.) The story of his aunt’s sweet, delicate courtship with his eventual uncle is worth reading the book alone. If you’re like me, you will come away from reading this book wishing you’d been part of Pagnol’s kind and joyous family and his life in this little corner of France. The good news is that with this book, you very nearly are.

Two Towns in Provence: Map of Another Town and a Considerable Town, a Celebration of Aix-en-Provence & Marseille

By M.F.K. Fisher,

Book cover of Two Towns in Provence: Map of Another Town and a Considerable Town, a Celebration of Aix-en-Provence & Marseille

Why this book?

M.F.K. Fisher was not only one of our greatest food writers, she was one of our greatest writers, period. Fisher lived for long periods in France, and the result of two of these sojourns is Two Towns in Provence, which is about Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. These two iconic towns are a mere forty miles apart in distance but worlds apart in temperament, character, and spirit. Fisher captures both of their personalities with her exquisite prose, guided by her sympathy and love for these cities and their people. She is especially wonderful at capturing Marseille, a city that has been called mysterious, even unknowable. You cannot have a better guide to two of France’s most renowned and remarkable cities.

Village in the Vaucluse

By Laurence Wylie,

Book cover of Village in the Vaucluse

Why this book?

Laurence Wylie's book is a classic account of a year he and his family spent in the village of Roussillon in the South of France in 1950. This book was the key to understanding my own village. At the time, Roussillon was a place with little indoor plumbing, only two phones, and a once-weekly bus service to Avignon. So, is this simply an antiquated description of a year spent in a tiny French community seventy years ago that no longer exists? No. Laurence Wylie, better than any writer before or since, to my mind, captures the character of people in small villages in the South of France. If you stop and live in any village in Provence for any length of time, you might swear that your village is his village’s twin.  

The Illustrated Provence Letters of Van Gogh

By Martin Bailey (editor),

Book cover of The Illustrated Provence Letters of Van Gogh

Why this book?

Most everyone knows Vincent van Gogh spent time in the South of France. Most of us know he was a tortured soul and that he spent time in an asylum in Saint Rémy. And most of us know his wonderful painting, The Starry Night, which was painted in Saint Rémy. Since so much of the exquisite joy of the South of France is visual, who better to represent that visual beauty than Vincent van Gogh, one of the greatest painters to ever put brush to canvas? But what you may not know is that Vincent was one of our greatest letter writers as well. He wrote many to his brother, Theo, and reading these letters you cannot help but see Provence through Van Gogh’s remarkable eyes.   

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