French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy

French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy

by Jeffrey Greene

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When Jeffrey Greene, a prize-winning American poet, and Mary, a molecular biologist and his wife-to-be, discover a moss-covered stone presbytery in a lovely village in the Puisaye region of Burgundy, they know they have to live there. In lush, lyrical prose, Greene recalls their experiences turning the 300-year-old stone building — a "château in miniature

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When Jeffrey Greene, a prize-winning American poet, and Mary, a molecular biologist and his wife-to-be, discover a moss-covered stone presbytery in a lovely village in the Puisaye region of Burgundy, they know they have to live there. In lush, lyrical prose, Greene recalls their experiences turning the 300-year-old stone building — a "château in miniature" that the locals believe houses numerous spirits-into a habitable refuge. He brings to life their adventures in finding wonderful bargains with which to furnish their new space, including a firm mattress and some rather suspicious antiques" bought from the back of a van.

Greene offers the unexpected joys and surprises of village life, from celebrating his and Mary's simple backyard wedding to toiling in a verdant garden. He shares the experience of surviving his mother's decision to move in and humorously introduces the locals — both human and nonhuman — who define his and Mary's new world.

Woven throughout this luscious tale are the pleasures of rural France: wondrous food and wine, long-held rituals and feasts, dark superstitions, and deeply rooted history.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Books by English-speaking writers about renovating a French ruin and converting it into a vacation home such as Yvone Lenard's The Magic of Provence and Nicholas Kilmer's A Place in Normandy belong in a genre of their own. In this Peter Mayle readalike, Greene, an award-winning poet (To the Left of the Worshiper), chronicles the restoration of a historic stone presbytery in the village of Rogny, Burgundy. Not surprisingly, the book is extremely well written, even lyrical in parts. We learn about the history of the presbytery from its original construction in 1754 and Greene's dealings with roofers and masons, neighbors, and assorted residents of Rogny, such as Coco, who expresses assent with a "ho-kay." Amid the minutiae of restorations, major events occur, too. There is the author's own wedding to Mary, a molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and an American expatriate; musical soirees; and the arrival of the author's mother from New Haven for a permanent stay. Recommended for all armchair travelers, especially Francophiles. Ravi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The story of yet another French country house and its travails in the hands of its new, non-French owners, this time told in a relaxed, un-selfconscious, and observant fashion by poet Greene (American Spirituals, not reviewed). In the small Burgundian village of Rogny in France's Puisaye, still a raw and wild landscape, Greene and his wife purchase the remains of a presbytery and set about putting it back in shape. This is to be a weekend place-they live in Paris and have day jobs, Greene's taking him back to the US every autumn-so they can't get too precious about the details of getting the house up to speed, nor so enrapt as to become tedious. They display just enough exasperation to show that they're thoroughly familiar with the distinctively French sense of time. Greene gets to know his neighbors as humans rather than sideshow curiosities, charismatics and nuisances together: "farmers, woodsmen, artisans, widows, thieves, and drunks," the last category including the alcoholic Coco, "the tutelary spirit of the presbytery." Running through the story are the happenings-enough of them disagreeable to create a convincing sense of reality-that make up a life: big occasions, like Greene's and Mary's wedding or his mother's arrival to live with them; smaller ones, like their maneuverings with a neighboring marquis to acquire a prayer path of ancient hornbeams bordering their property, or the purchase of furniture of suspicious provenance. Greene is also attentive to the land, discerning its seasonal moods, mooching along its river, informing himself about its wildlife, even adopting and nursing a robin-like bird he names Charles, which promisingly returns to the wild. There's always somethingafoot in these pages, but the atmosphere bespeaks sweet torpor as Greene pursues an infusion of pleasure, a modest slice of history, an honest sense of place. Author tour

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial Series
Edition description:
First Perennial Edition
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Presbytery

How is it that real estate agents know even before they look at you, as they shout on the phone to a colleague, that you are a waste of their time? They must develop a sixth sense to spot dreamers, like us, who know nothing about owning a house. The agents spend their days taxiing people around a particular region, fumbling with keys and feeling about for light switches, each house a disaster, a trap, a mystery, an answered prayer. They wipe spiderwebs out of their eyes, confuse the facts, answer each question with �I'll find out for you,� knowing that they'll never have to. Meanwhile their clients see themselves sleeping, eating, listening to music, bringing up children, getting drunk, making love in rooms that strangers have forsaken because of a job change or moving up, or in some cases divorce or death.

Mary and I, with our little white Maltese, Christabel, waited patiently to be noticed by a middle-aged man wearing a green checked jacket with an ocher shirt and dark green pants, a kind of uniform of the French salesman. Seizing the chance to impose herself before his next phone call, Mary announced, �Monsieur, nous cherchons un moulin ou une petite maison, pas trop cher, pour restaurer, quelque chose sur le Cousin ou la Cure.� We wanted a cheap house or old mill to restore, maybe on the Cousin or Cure rivers. We had lived long enough in France to know that all such negotiations begin with �C'est impossible � trouver.� This conversation began with an equivalent: �Quelle surprise, madame. Tout le monde cherche la m�me chose.� Everyone is lookingfor the same thing.

Mary responded, �You've listed a mill in M�lusien, and we're interested in learning more about it.� Touring nearby, we had seen the mill and noted the distinctive Day-Glo�orange poster proclaiming � vendre. We wrote down Jean Rousselet, rue de Paris, a small real estate office in Avallon. Undeniably, a picture of the mill was taped to his window, and it became all too clear to Monsieur Rousselet that his afternoon was as good as shot.

Before the summer of 1992, Mary and I had never seriously considered owning a house together, so there must be a mental condition that could be called house buyer's psychosis. No one can be rational about such a huge commitment or expense as buying a country house. That summer, we had both become stricken while staying in a relatively unknown region of northwestern Burgundy. Once the condition takes over, you begin to hallucinate. Maybe you see an ivy-covered house in the Burgundian rural landscape, the reality of a photo in a nerve-worn magazine stacked in your dentist's waiting room. Maybe you see your life set in the restorative pastoral calm and solitude of nineteenth-century painting and literature. You see a chance to live a second life, to reinvent yourself in another country. Or you see your rural childhood home, if you had one, your childhood river, a place to slip back to in middle age, into the reassurances of a remembered world. Unfortunately, your childhood home is long gone, and as you age you become ever more tangled in the person you happen to be, no matter how many houses you acquire. Still, when looking at houses, you see many things that aren't there.

For years, Mary and I had visited French friends in their country houses along the Loire, in Normandy, or in Burgundy. Our friends invariably bad-mouthed their places shamelessly -- Quel boulot! �a co�te une fortune! Ce n'est jamais fini! Quel esclavage! In turn, we'd answer the requisite and sincerely felt Quel paradis! as we sat in gardens, listened to songbirds in young fruit trees, or inspected the freshly finished rooms. We assumed that complaining in a state of happy slavery is one of the delights.

The idea of Mary's and my owning a country house together was even more preposterous because we spent most of the year living on separate continents. When we got together, we lived in an unreal world of driving off to Italy on a whim or indulging in three Paris films on a given Sunday. One owns a country house to get away from the confines of the city and one's place of work. One can let the kids go nuts.

The summer of 1992 Mary and I exhausted ourselves driving from Paris to Szeged in Hungary. We took up a long-standing invitation from Mary's colleagues Erika and P�ter to vacation there. As early as the seventies, Mary had worked with Hungarian scientists, who, in spite of severely limited resources in materials and the influx of techniques mainly from the outside, managed to maintain their strong scientific tradition. Mary had great respect for their commitment, and in turn they hung her picture in the cafeteria of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Institute. I had read and loved the poetry of Attila J�zsef and Mikl�s Radn�ti, whose tragic lives are legendary, and I was interested in the glories of Hungarian intellectual life that produced the likes of Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, the former known for his work on the Manhattan Project and the latter for the hydrogen bomb.

In 1992, the Russians had already pulled out of Hungary, leaving behind their unwanted statues and dismal barracks scrawled with graffiti. The government was desperately trying to privatize state holdings while at the same time larger European companies were buying small Hungarian industries and terminating their operations to avoid competition from low-wage workers. The massacre in the Balkans was well under way, with refugees filtering over the border. P�ter warned, �Stay on R�sza Ferenc under the lights while crossing N�pliget Park.� The whole town seemed to be out strolling the paths, making love on the riverbank, or watching the outdoor movie theater, the projection filling the trees with huge figures...

French Spirits. Copyright � by Jeffrey Greene. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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