- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002


By Jeffrey Greene

William Morrow, $24.95, 282 pages


Mon dieu, here comes another book about English speakers buying an old house in Europe and fixing it up at great expense while extolling the joys of the simple life.
The latest in this profitable but overworked genre, "French Spirits" by Jeffrey Greene, is a memoir a la Peter Mayle, author of "A Year in Provence," "Encore Provence" and "Toujours Provence" (all adding up to Too Much Provence) and cook-gardener, renovator-shopper extraordinaire Francis Mayes, who wrote about her adventures in Italy in "Under the Tuscan Sun" and "Bella Tuscany." All three chose to buy ancient fixer-uppers with beaucoup de possibilites and write about how they befriended their neighbors, quirky characters one and all, and the charming, eccentric workmen who helped them achieve their visions of rustic paradise.
French and Italian workmen, however, are exotic only in that they speak French or Italian; they are no more charming or eccentric than your average American builder or electrician and likely just as cunning.
The writers manage to accomplish their home-improvement goals and establish cozy relationships with the locals with, apparently, only rudimentary knowledge of the local vernacular. To his credit, Mr. Greene admits that his French is limited and that his wife Mary, who's lived in France for 25 years, does the talking when prices must be negotiated.
The story begins in 1992 several years before their marriage when they buy a 250-year-old presbytery, former home of the village cure or priest on Place de l'Eglise, the church square, in the Burgundian village of Rogny. The pair constantly pat themselves on the back for rescuing the presbytery abandoned since the last priest retired but it's not entirely clear why they chose to buy a rural ruin in the first place. They are not fulltime residents of the village; Mr. Greene, according to his publisher, "lives in Paris and Burgundy," he also teaches literature at the University of New Haven half the year and his wife has a flat in Paris, where she works as a molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute.
Like his fellow memoirists, Mr. Greene, a well regarded poet, tells readers much more than they want to know about himself, including intimate details about his sex life, while being vague on prices paid for the house and its extensive, certainly costly renovation, supposedly the subject of the book.
Among things I did not need to know about Mr. Greene and his wife were their wedding plans, laid out in loving detail. He devotes three chapters to the planning of this doubtless joyful occasion and its two days of festivities, from the bath the bride and groom take together "while [Marys dog], resembling a fluffy white bird in a white nest, sat happily in the bidet," to family jokes (none of them funny) told at the pre-wedding dinner.
There are other lengthy digressions from the progress of the house, including Mr. Greene's Connecticut boyhood, his mother's difficulties as a single parent (mom finally moves into the Burgundy house year round and helps supervise the renovation) and his jogging routine.
I especially didn't want to know how he and Mary christened their new mattress (still wrapped in plastic) in the unheated, unrestored house. At this point in the narrative I would have rejoiced if the roof had fallen in on the pair of them. Worse still, a few pages later, the happy couple is making love when a shady furniture dealer knocks on the door to announce his latest find, a crumbling Louis-Philippe buffet. They scramble for their clothes and the dealer, quick to catch on, asks as he enters, "En forme?"
This question surely doesn't need translating but Mr. Greene can't resist telling us that it's "the sports expression the French employ to inquire whether you are at the peak of your performance level." Merci bien, monsieur.
Having no sense of personal privacy, it's no surprise that Mr. Greene and his wife flout deeply held French conventions of privacy by keeping their shutters open day and night. Nothing is less French than opening one's house to the world, as he rightly points out, but while every other house on the church square was closed up in the evening, the shutters on the presbytery were wide open:
"Anyone passing by could hear us talking, see us in the long evening light or watch us in the light of dinner candles. Our neighbors turned their heads away as they passed our windows, particularly M. Bouge, who went through the greatest gyrations to be discreet, to show his deep respect for the inner sanctity of the home."
The gregarious Mr. Greene makes fun of poor M. Bouge's efforts at discretion: "We made it difficult for him, as he passed at least twice a day."
The author is reticent only about money, though he hints that large sums are involved. As the renovation proceeded, one of their neighbors would stand in front of the work-in-progress and intone, "Mon chateau! Mon petit Versailles!" then would rub his fingers together, meaning "big expense."
For a moment Mr. Greene feels a wave of guilt as he surveys his mini-Versailles on the church square. "This is the sort of thing that Americans do to another culture," he muses. "They do what they want. Perhaps we should have spent our days researching the architecture of old presbyteries and restored the building as authentically as possible." But he quickly shifts back to his customary self-congratulatory mode, concluding that the presbytery has been brought "to new, full life, after suffering centuries of impoverishment. It now ennobled the place d l'Eglise."
More than 200 years after the French Revolution, a new aristocracy throws money at old houses in small, often poor, French villages, and lives the kind of part-time country life Marie Antoinette led while playing milkmaid at the Petit Trianon, her little farm at Versailles. An interesting book could be written about what Mr. Greene's French neighbors think of the remodeled presbytery and of the curious characters who restored it.

Lorna Williams and her husband bought a restored house in rural France two years ago.

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