According to the back of my copy of Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet was ‘the most successful writer in France by the end of the nineteenth century’, and yet, before coming across this edition in a second-hand book shop, I’d never heard of him. The introduction promised an author who prioritised story over character development which ought to be, if nothing else, an interesting change of pace from the books I usually review.
Yet it is said that at Christmas every year a supernatural light hovers among these ruins, and that peasants, going to Mass and the midnight supper in the church since built below, see this ghost of a chapel lit with invisible candles which burn in the open air even in wind and snow.The Three Low Masses, Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet
Looking down the list of chapters, Letters from My Windmill presents a real mix of different types of stories which are effective in different ways. The Three Low Masses has a really evocative ending, which can be so difficult to pull off in short fiction, while The Fable of the Man with the Golden Brain is almost disturbing once the implications of the metaphor sink in. In contrast, The Lighthouse of Les Sanguinaires didn’t really go anywhere, and was one of the least successful stories in the collection.
And how good it was, after one of these lyrical escapades, to come back to the windmill, to lie full-length on the grass of the platform, and dream of the book I would write one day, telling about it all, a book into which I would put all those songs, still singing in my head, all that bright laughter, all those enchanting legends; and in it I would reflect the light of that vibrant sun and the scent of those sun-parched hills, and I would write it as if it had been written in my ruin with its dead sails.Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet
Despite the introduction, what really stood out were Daudet’s descriptions, whether they were of Provence or the Balearic Islands. Monsier Senguin’s Goat and The Oranges really showcased Daudet’s ability to paint a picture of the natural world, while The Agony of La Sémillante demonstrated that he could turn the same skill toward stories of human interest. Though Letters from My Windmill deals with both triumph and tragedy, the overall feeling is one of whimsical satisfaction.
It’s worth mentioning that one story, At Milianah, contained some really ugly antisemitism which detracted from the otherwise pleasant mood of the entire collection. Despite that, I’m definitely curious to check out what Daudet does with a longer narrative, especially since the introduction made it seem like the themes would be ones that particularly resonate with me.