PEZ Bookshelf: Ventoux
Book Review: Mont Ventoux, the legendary “Giant of Provence” stands alone and apart from the Alps to which it belongs geologically. Topping out at 1,909 m (6,263 feet) above sea level, it has acquired considerable fame through its association with the Tour de France, which has ascended it 15 times since 1951. It is a magnet for amateur cyclists, including a group of Dutch friends who are the protagonists of the novel “Ventoux,” a fictional account of how one ride changes lives forever.
Author Bert Wagendorp is a Dutch journalist who began his career, after studying literature, as a cycling reporter, covering the Tour de France six times, and describes himself as a cycling aficionado, both active and passive. He shares some attributes with the central figure of the book, Bart Hoffman, but “Ventoux” is not so much about cycling as about how it links six friends together in 1982 and then again three decades later.
The Giant of Provence
Considering just how distinctive is each member of the cast of characters, the author has done an admirable job making them believable. There is Bart, the one-time cycling journalist, now crime reporter, who celebrates his divorce by buying a new Pinarello; André, his oldest friend, who has slid into highly profitable criminal enterprise, and has a Pegoretti displayed like a piece of art in his expensive apartment; Joost, the pedantic son of the town doctor, who likes to control things, and has built a reputation as a physicist exploring string theory, something nobody seems able to explain; David, the black immigrant from Surinam who may or may not be gay; Peter, the brilliant young poet, who sails into town with his eccentric parents on their floating bordello; and the stunningly beautiful and intelligent and somewhat mysterious Laura, growing up in an oppressive household.
Bert Wagendorp at his first book launch
The story begins in their small Dutch town as the characters assemble at school and we learn something of their personalities. There is foreshadowing of some pivotal event to come but the interaction of the group is very entertaining and often very funny. These teenagers bond like pieces making a completed puzzle image, or so we think, as each brings something very different to the group. But everyone seems to be in love with Laura. There is much posturing and teenage angst and good humour amidst the stress and confusion.
Bart Hoffman begins his first person narrative by examining a photograph of the group, in the summer of 1982, taken at a campground in Bédoin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux. He explains his job as a crime reporter and how he discovers his old friend André is charges related to drug trafficing. It is soon clear that he has not communicated with André for years, nor with the others except for David, who is the only one to have remained in their small town. He gets in touch with André, then Joost, and all are surprised to receive messages from Laura, who seems to have vanished without a trace after the Ventoux trip. She will be in Avignon and proposes that they meet once again in Provence, exactly thirty years after they had all been there together at Mont Ventoux.
The Tom Simpson memorial
By 1982 Bart had ridden a good deal with a local group as a teenager and Joost was suddenly inspired to do the same and decided that they would ride up Mont Ventoux as the ultimate goal. He is much caught up in the story of Tom Simpson and quotes from that great Dutch novel about cycling, Tim Krabbé’s “The Rider”. Joost worked out all the training details and with school over for them it was time to head to France, with climbs in Alsace and the Galibier to warm up. They are joined by their friends in Bédoin and Bart experiences something he never expected the day before the ride begins in earnest. He and Joost begin the ascent of Ventoux and are followed by Peter, who has suddenly decided to join them in spite of not doing any training and using the old Raleigh that André’s father, who had been a talented amateur, had acquired from Jan Raas. For those who have ridden this famous road, the account rings true and in fact the author has ridden it himself (as well as persuading his wife to do so as well—which he describes as a sign of true love in the acknowledgements!). They are followed by Laura, André, and David in the car and at the summit—reached with some effort—Peter takes the opportunity to declaim what might be his finest poem. This is followed soon after by tragedy, an unexpected turn that shatters the group and everyone, just finished school, move into the adult world and their imperfect lives.
Jan Raas and his Raleigh
The return to Ventoux in 2012 is very different but in many ways the group has not changed. As it was in 1982, this ascent would also mark a turning point as much more about the characters is revealed and destructive secrets unleashed after three decades of silence.
Mist on Ventoux
“Ventoux” has much in it about cycling, a realistic portrayal of amateur riders, those famous Middle Aged Men in Lycra, that seek challenges, or only try to outride despair. But the strength of the book is the wonderful portraits of the protagonists—the dependable Bart, whose great accomplishment is really his daughter; Joost, whose mother smoked cigars, played jazz saxophone and had Italian lovers, and whose life as a famous researcher is becoming unravelled; the rebel André, rejected by has family; Peter, the golden word artist with an evil side; Laura, seeking escape; and David, the travel agent who sends his clients on extreme adventures to exotic locales without having any desire whatsoever to leave his small town. Much is brought into the story-telling, including Tom Simpson, hallucinations at altitude, Petrarch, Italian cinema, Dutch literature. In a small country, differences tend to loom large and they make fun of each other’s dialects. Peter’s precocious celebrity comes through his poetry, something much more likely in the Netherlands, it seems, than in North America.
The first recorded ascent of Mont Ventoux was in 1334, but the poet Petrarch’s “The Ascent of Ventoux,” a possibly fictional account related climbing the mountain with his brother in 1336 and opens the book with a citation that ends: “Yes, the life which we call blessed is to be sought for on a high eminence, and strait is the way that leads to it.” The lives in “Ventoux” are perhaps not always blessed but certainly are memorable.
“Ventoux” by Bert Wagendorp, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
295 pp., softbound
World Editions, New York/London/Amsterdam, 2019
Suggested Retail Price: US$16.99/C$24.50
# Apart from the cover and author, all photos are not from the book. #
# You can buy “Ventoux” by Bert Wagendorp at AMAZON.COM. #
Author: Bert Wagendorp
When not wondering where he can see a copy of the Dutch film version of “Ventoux”, Leslie Reissner may be found forgetting how much it hurt to ride through The Forest at Ventoux. www.tindonkey.com.