I came across this book only recently, when someone mentioned it on Facebook (so social media does have its uses…) I immediately bought a copy, which I have just finished reading. The book is a memoir of the four months Jan and Cora (known as Jo) Gordon spent in Najac during the summer of 1923.
The Gordons were British artists who had a studio in Paris. They were also seasoned globetrotters. They spent time with the Red Cross in the Balkans during World War I, since Jan was declared unfit for military service. They visited Spain, where Jan wanted to learn more about Spanish guitar music in situ. And they travelled to many other places, usually writing about their experiences in magazines or in a series of books.
The couple happened upon Najac while prospecting for somewhere to use as a base during a painting trip to the region. They arrived, unusually, by walking up the railway line from Laguepie. They intended only to find somewhere to eat and ended up staying for the whole summer. The book is a record of their stay.
Two Vagabonds in Languedoc: Classic Portrait of a French Village is not a travelogue. It doesn’t list where to eat, where to stay, what to see, etc. It barely mentions other places in the vicinity, except in passing. The history of Najac is introduced only where relevant. Instead, the focus of the book is on village life and the village people as they were in 1923.
Let’s get out of the way the only things I found slightly annoying about the book. First, they mask Najac’s name by rechristening it Janac throughout. Other places, such as Villefranche (Francheville), are given the same treatment. I’m not sure why they did this. Was it to protect the privacy of the locals? If so, it was hardly likely to succeed. Najac is so sui generis that it’s easy to recognise it from their descriptions and illustrations.
Second, I found the book a little hard to get into at first. It’s written in the style of the times, a little verbose and convoluted in places. However, once I got used to it, I appreciated the wry humour and the artist’s eye for detail.
To start with, I was afraid this might be a kind of old-fashioned A Year in Provence. I needn’t have worried. It’s a more erudite and thoughtful book, even if Peter Mayle’s has a certain popular appeal (and I’ll admit to having read it several times).
The main characters in the memoir are the Sestrol (Tressol in reality) family. They lodge Jan and Jo in a room above their stable for 10 francs a day (about 10.50€ in today’s money, according to INSEE), which includes all copious meals, cooked by Madame Sestrol. Monsieur Sestrol, while being a “hotel” owner, has various other occupations. Their well-educated son, Raymond, is secretary to the Mairie, but his penchant for the pinard (rough local wine) means he actually does a minimal amount of work.
End of an era
The Gordons’ Najac was not the tourist-orientated place it is today, despite the local doctor’s unheeded calls to capitalise on its picturesque features. Almost every house was a farmhouse. The paysans owned land outside the town but kept their pigs and poultry on the ground floor of their houses and their produce in the attic. Some of the villagers carried on a trade, or several, such as the tobacconist, the cooper and the baker, but they all farmed their dispersed patches of land on the hillsides, the result of the division of farms by partible inheritance.
Najac was emerging from a way of life that had lasted for a thousand years. Apart from the chestnuts (exported to England), the walnuts and the wine, this was a subsistence economy, where the paysans produced only what they needed. Old photos of Najac show that the hillsides and the terraced plots of land within the town were cultivated far more than they are today. The people worked hard to keep it all going, and fainéants (shirkers) were barely tolerated. Paysans were careful with their money, for they had little more at the end of the year than at the beginning.
Jan predicts that corporations will eventually take over the land for intensive farming. In fact, he was wrong. This has happened in other parts of France, but what the land can produce in this region is not profitable enough and the wine not of a sufficiently high quality. The fields have reverted to woodland, and the chestnut and walnut groves are no longer managed.
The traditional lifestyle wasn’t good enough for the younger generation, who were drifting away to the towns. This, and the effects of World War I, caused the population of Najac to drop by nearly 18% between 1911 and 1921. This trend continued relentlessly throughout the 20th century, except for a brief period in the 1960s-70s. When the Gordons stayed there, the population was around 1,250 (1921 census). By 2008, it had dwindled to around 750.
The Gordons spent that long, hot summer observing and recording their neighbours in words and pictures. They describe the workings of the local magistrate’s court and its procession of habitual litigants; the serious brush fire caused by sparks from the train; the village fête, in which the upper (le Faubourg) and lower villages paraded their rivalry and their competing giant fouace cakes; and the local food, cooked in goose fat, and drink, which the Gordons felt tasted like medicine. Above all, they depict the individuals who make up the community. The Gordons’ affection for them leaps from the pages.
But, after four months, the Gordons decide to leave. They are experienced travellers. Sampling a place for a few months is not the same as living there. And outsiders in a French village are never really integrated. The more varied cuisine of Paris calls, as well. It’s not clear if the Gordons ever returned to Najac, but they sensibly knew that places gilded by our memories are seldom the same when revisited.
This website, which is devoted to the Gordons and their work, has a gallery of old photos of Najac, so you can see what it looked like at roughly the time Jan and Jo stayed there.
If you want to read what seems an authentic account of life in a southern French village just after World War I, then I recommend this book. You can get it on Amazon, the Book Depository, and in bookshops, apparently including the one in Najac itself, Nomade et son livre. This is a book I will keep returning to.
Two Vagabonds in Languedoc: Classic Portrait of a French Village, Jan Gordon and Cora J. Gordon, Bene Factum Publishing, ISBN 9781903071113.
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