Review of The Fly-Truffler by Gustaf Sobin

W. W. Norton 2000 160 pp. 19.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

Although the decade has changed, one thing hasn't: books about Provençe continue to appear with the regularity of Peter Mayle's residual checks. Clear a space on your Provençe shelf, albeit a small one, for Gustaf Sobin's novel of love and dreams, The Fly-Truffler .

Philippe Cabassac is a fifty-something, part-time instructor of Provençal linguistics in Avignon. A lifelong bachelor and "an ardent rationalist, a man steeped in the philosophy of the Provençal Enlightenment," he makes the forty-kilometer, thrice-weekly trip into the city to teach from his ramshackle family estate, where he lives with his dotty aunt, Tanto Mirèio.

While his paycheck comes from teaching, his heart lies in the soil and soul of his native Provençe, more particularly in a specific product of its soil, the truffle. Cabassac spends his winters seeking out those delicacies, "those dense, black, globluar nuggets, never smaller than a walnut and sometimes every bit as large as a crab apple." One finds them by locating the flies who lay their eggs in the proximity of the truffle, a gentle and traditional technique known as fly-truffling.

Like so many others, this tale is structured around the death of a young and beautiful woman, his twenty-five-year-old wife, Julieta. And fly-truffling helps this "brooding, pensive, heavyset scholar" deal with his grief of two years.

Lecturing one day, he had been struck by her appearance in the rear of his classroom, "a shock of glistening black hair, a long Roman nose, a face that-heart shaped-tapered into a perfectly delicate cleft chin."

A Provençal native and an orphan, Julieta finds her identity in Cabassac's scholarship: "Only there, in that abandoned grammar, in those obsolescent participles, would she ever come to recognize and, in recognizing, ground herself in a birthright, a birthplace, a legitimacy of her own." And, for Cabassac, of course, there is Julieta's beautifully formed body.

Julieta takes up residence at the farmhouse, charming Tanto Mirèio with her resemblance to Tanto Mirèio's absent daughter, and stealing not only Cabassac's heart, but, following her untimely demise, his mind.

Gustaf Sobin is a poet, an American who has spent the last thirty-five years in Provençe. The novel, itself a dreamy, poetic reverie, seeks to establish a connection between the soil, dreams, and love. While he largely succeeds, the reader is often drawn to a halt by the near-comical seriousness of his thudding choice of words.

"He hadn't yet made that mysterious equation between one buried thing and another; between the tuber, nestled in its damp soil, and his beloved, laid to rest in an earthern chamber of her own."

"Shall I compare thee to a winter's tuber?" It's gotta sound better in Provençal.

For better or worse, the high-seriousness with which Cabassac's scholarship is treated will remind the reader that she's not in Kansas. Cabassac lolls around "reading a dense philological study on irregular verbs in the Rhône delta." Students are fascinated by Provençal geo-phonetics, "with the variations, that is, that exist between one dialectical area and another."

Other writers--most notably, D. H. Lawrence, who made a career out of it--have better handled Sobin's notion that environment causes character, treating it seriously, but not lugubriously.

Sobin, however, in his account of this May-December romance, evokes more clearly to the joys and sorrows of the metaphor-challenged rural adulteries of Robert James Waller. The publisher is no doubt thinking synergy here-let's re-ignite some aging rural passions, but move them to Provençe.

For those with a taste for doomed, middle-brow romance in a charming locale, rich with sensual detail, this may be just the thing. Others might find the funereal solemnity of the prose downright silly.