The Great Jean Giono

Hill of Destiny

by Jean Giono
translated from the French by Jacques Le Clercq. Brentano’s, 266 pp. (out of print)


by Jean Giono, translated from the French by Henri Fluchère and Geoffrey Myers
Viking, 192 pp. (out of print)

To the Slaughterhouse

by Jean Giono, translated from the French by Norman Glass
Peter Owen, 200 pp., $23.95 (paper)

The Malediction

by Jean Giono, translated from the French by Peter de Mendelssohn
London: Museum Press, 156 pp. (out of print)

The Horseman on the Roof

by Jean Giono, translated from the French by Jonathan Griffin
North Point, 426 pp., $35.00 (paper)

Récits et essais

by Jean Giono
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1,376 pp., €59.00
Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Jean Giono, Manosque, Haute-Provence, France, circa 1950s

Jean Giono (1895–1970), whose complete works are available in an eight-volume Pléiade edition, had a long writing career, from his first novel, Colline (translated into English as Hill of Destiny), in 1929, to his last, L’Iris de Suse, published in 1970, the year of his death. During several crucial periods he was deeply influenced by American writers. First, he discovered Walt Whitman in French and read Léon Bazalgette’s biography of him in 1924 (he later studied “the American Homer” in English). He loved Whitman’s all-embracing egalitarianism and his pantheism, and the first part of Giono’s oeuvre obviously owes a debt to this revolutionary, passionate figure.

In Colline he tried to illustrate two very Whitmanian truths: “The first of these truths is that there exist people who are simple and nude; the other is that this earth fleeced [entoisonnée] with woods…this living earth, exists without literature.” He decided to show the peasants of his region of Provence in all their particularity—and also to show the beauty and terror of nature in its raw state, stripped of its classical allusions (his juvenile poems had been full of Virgilian references). In these two respects he was like his contemporary the Swiss novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz—today best known for his collaboration with Stravinsky, Histoire du soldat, but celebrated in the past for his novels of man vs. nature, such as When the Mountain Fell. Like Ramuz, Giono recorded the real speech of the ordinary people around him (but without resorting to Provençal, associated with a literary movement he disapproved of) and wrote about the natural world in simple, elevated prose mostly stripped of figurative speech.

For Giono to cut down on metaphor and simile (he could never altogether forgo them) must have been painful, since he was so naturally gifted for that kind of eloquence. As Aristotle suggests in Rhetoric, metaphor is one of the greatest ornaments of writing, but it is the one no one can learn. (“Metaphor especially has clarity and sweetness and strangeness, and its use cannot be learned from anyone else.”) The “clarity and sweetness and strangeness” of Giono’s writing, especially in his more generous, mature style, owes everything to its poetic strategies, as many other readers and writers (André Gide in France and the American Henry Miller) were quick to notice. Colline created a sensation when it was published; it soon led to other remarkable books.

In all these early novels Giono deals with the people of his town, Manosque, in the Haute-Provence and of the neighboring villages, though he shouldn’t be dismissed as a regionalist, any more than Faulkner should. He is aware of—but doesn’t dwell on—the eccentricities of his part of the world. Except for trips to Italy and to Paris, and to a few other parts of Europe, he seldom traveled—except in his armchair. He was widely read—in the classics, the great Russians, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans, French fiction and poetry—and he was always emphasizing the universal aspect of his characters’ experiences, the exhilaration of being an animal and the tragedy of being a human being. Although he had dropped out of school early on to contribute to his family’s earnings, he was an ambitious autodidact who knew classical music and great painting (from reproductions); I was fortunate enough to visit his very impressive library. I only mention his wide and deep culture because even the French often dismiss him (without reading him) as a “primitive” or “Provençal colorist.”

Colline has a Desire Under the Elms quality about it (Giono knew the work of Eugene O’Neill) in that it is about violence and love among poor farmers. Regain (Second Growth or Aftermath, an agricultural term; translated as Harvest) is about a remote village that has slowly lost its population until it is down to just two inhabitants: Mamèche, an old witch from Piedmont, who lost her husband under a landslide and her son when he nibbled hemlock, and Panturle, a rough giant of a man who is a part-time poacher. The village comes back to life and the story has a happy end when Panturle marries Arsule, a traveling performer. The writing is obviously the work of a man who understands nature and agriculture:

Those who have already made the trip two or three times notice it [that the road is getting higher and higher] because at a given moment there are no more vegetable fields, then because the wheat stalks are getting shorter and shorter, then because you’re traveling under the first chestnut trees, then because you’re passing at a ford torrents of grass-colored water shining like oil, then because at last there appears the blue stem of the Vachère clock tower and that, that is the boundary.

Only someone who truly knows the countryside notices that the wheat gets shorter the higher the terrain.

Starting in 1916, Giono fought as an ordinary soldier and saw battle near Verdun. In 1918 his eyelids were burned with mustard gas, though his lungs were unaffected. His company suffered huge losses. The experience made him an uncompromising pacifist, during both the Spanish civil war and World War II. This alienated many leftists and eventually led to his imprisonment for “defeatism.”

He wrote a powerful novel against war called Le Grand Troupeau (The Big Herd, translated as To the Slaughterhouse), which shows the horrors of the front but also the hardships of the home front—the untended (or confiscated) livestock, the loneliness, the physical demands of running a farm without men or only with feeble old men. At the beginning of the novel all of the neglected sheep in the district have run away and banded together in a large, hungry, dirty herd; the air is filled with an odor of “wool, sweat and trampled earth.” Fish are dying in the stream, flies are everywhere, and stray birds are “sputtering like oil in a frying pan.”

Giono’s details are always well found. Big mountain bees, alive or dead, are trapped in the errant sheep’s fleece. “The foal has stopped nursing, he is drunk. He trembles on his hoofs. A thread of milk flows from his muzzle.” The ram has been injured: “All of his wool below, soaked with blood, uncurled, heavy, was hanging down like moss under a fountain.” A young woman, abandoned by her new husband who’s gone off to war, has to feed the horses: “Every time she would go to open the barn door, she would be embraced by fresh hay, this odor that made her temples ring like the basin of a fountain, this odor of hay and horse, this odor of thick life that grated against her skin like a stone.”

A young soldier arrives back in the village while the family is improvising a memorial ceremony for a friend, one of the fallen. He looks around and thinks that he could stay at home and not return to battle if he were a lamp—“If he were this lamp…the tree, this table, the sow, I could stay. If I were the dog, I could stay. If I were the dog….” The accumulation of these details becomes a burning indictment of war.

The second great American Giono discovered (in the 1930s) was Melville, whose Moby-Dick he translated with the help of two friends. The translation is accurate—but Melville’s strange turns of phrase, as elusive as Shakespeare’s, cannot be reproduced. When Melville, for instance, writes, “the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours,” it doesn’t sound exactly like “ajoutent les Rabbis peu canoniques, les démons se livrèrent à des amours terrestres.” But translating Melville was a labor of love—for years Giono would read him in the open fields—and his translation was the first in French and still the standard one. Is there any way to capture Melville’s biblical-Shakespearian prose in French? “La plus petite chose peut avoir une signification” doesn’t really capture the diction of “the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings.” It was something Giono worked on and completed when he was imprisoned for being a pacifist. He earned the undying hatred of French Communists for not endorsing the war that the Soviet Union was waging against Germany.

To introduce Moby-Dick Giono wrote a preface using the biographical information available at the time—and then it ran away from him and became a novel, Pour Saluer Melville (To Salute Melville). Giono, one suspects, wrote a fantasy starring himself. Instead of the tormented, introspective, somewhat homosexual real Melville, deeply disappointed in the reception of his work, Giono names a character “Melville” who is burly and sleeps in the nude, is proletarian, bristling with self-confidence, successful, a smooth operator with the ladies, and tirelessly eloquent. Giono’s Melville has come to London to promote his work, becomes bored with city life and wearing a frock coat, buys himself a sailor’s old clothes—and chooses a carriage and an English destination almost at random.

During the trip he meets another passenger, a beguiling Englishwoman named Adelina White. “Melville” endears himself to her during a stroll through the woods while the carriage waits; he reinvents the natural world around them by describing it. This magical power to describe the natural world is something Giono revisited in his very last book, L’Iris de Suse; here Giono is a Prospero saying farewell to his powers. He has a very Whitmanian view of his Melville (“I am a man like all the others!”), who is far more egocentric than the historical Melville: “The real title of his books is Melville, Melville, Melville and still Melville, and always Melville.” He can make Adelina, herself a rural woman, perceive the birches anew:

Has she really noticed the birches with their horsehide bark? “No.” He called the birches. And the birches came. She not only had them against her as if she were standing in an ordinary field and she were pressed against a tree, she also had them in her heart. He took the tree with its honey, its noise, its smell, its shape, its leaves, its four seasons and no one knew how he did it but she had the tree in her heart….

What’s a little stranger is that he returns to America, writes Moby-Dick for her, sends it to her—and years later, on his deathbed, he’s still waiting for her to acknowledge his masterpiece as testimony to his love. What he doesn’t know is that she’s long since been dead and never received it. Despite its preposterous, contrafactual plot, Pour Saluer Melville, which has never been translated, is a powerful testament to the magic of words.

The third American who directly influenced Giono was Faulkner. His books were expertly translated—and possibly improved—by Maurice Coindreau, a French professor at Princeton. In any event Giono expanded his concept of the novel by reading Faulkner in translation. He began to experiment with multiple, not necessarily coherent narrators; he created his own “Provence,” just as Faulkner invented his Yoknapatawpha; finally, he dealt with incest and he followed the lives of several generations of the same family. After reading Sartoris Giono began to write about dynasties (the tragic fate of the Costes, for instance, in Le Moulin de Pologne, or the endless struggle between the two brothers in Deux Cavaliers dans l’orage).

If he learned these thematic and structural possibilities from Faulkner, he managed to avoid the verbal, seemingly drunken absurdities that can be found, for example, in one of Faulkner’s best books, Absalom, Absalom, where he wrote, “That aptitude and eagerness of the Anglo-Saxon for complete mystical acceptance of immolated sticks and stones.” Faulkner’s prestige in France (the French revived his fortunes and favored him for the Nobel) may owe something to Coindreau (who decided, for instance, not to try to translate Dilsey’s “Negro dialect,” thereby rescuing one of Faulkner’s most sympathetic characters from interminable—and untranslateable—folkloric nonsense).

Giono’s approach is always much more linear and chronological than Faulkner’s—avoiding Faulkner’s competing narratives and intelligent disorder. But Giono often introduced into this stew his own brand of rapturous nature descriptions, his eccentrics that owed more to observed village “characters” than to Gothic ravings, as well as his irony and comedy and his always rational, calibrated style spiced with vivid metaphors. Unlike Faulkner he never says anything hard to picture or that makes only approximate sense. Every page of Faulkner is littered with phrases such as “the augmenting and defunctive twilight” and “author and victim too of a thousand homicides and a thousand copulations and divorcements.” (These passages are from successive pages of Absalom, Absalom.)

The mysteriously named novel Le Moulin de Pologne (The Polish Mill—the name of an actual farm near Manosque that burned down; also Casanova, a writer whom Giono read, lived for a while in France at a farm called the Petite Pologne; it was translated as The Malediction) is Faulknerian in the best sense. On the first page the narrator refers to himself as “us” (nous) and we are often reminded that he speaks for the community (in French the use of on or “one” is often translated by the passive voice or by “we,” which discreetly suggests a collective chorus).

As it turns out, the narrator is an impossibly egocentric snob of the pettiest, most provincial sort, who only on the last page admits in parentheses that he has a reason to be bitter. (“Have I said that I’m a hunchback?”) His prejudices are so hilariously narrow-minded that he almost seems like one of Nabokov’s crazed narrators rather than a Faulknerian old maid or Civil War hellion. Giono presents five generations of the Coste family, all doomed to a terrible death. Suicide, choking on a cherry pit, apoplexy, cardiac arrest, burning to death in a locked train car—these are just some of the gruesome fates suffered by the Costes. The petty narrator takes pleasure in all these tragedies:

The life of others, with their vicissitudes, their unhappiness, their defeats, is extremely pleasant to look at. It was a matter of, as always, fine hatreds, splendid nastiness, self-centeredness, ambition.

One of the Coste parents hopes to ensure a long, boring life for his two daughters by marrying them off to two utterly unexceptionable brothers “forgotten by God” who have eight hundred years of placidity behind them. But the father himself, while tranquilly fishing, hooks his hand with a fishing lure and dies of tetanus. His daughters are the ones who die in the locked and burning train compartment at Versailles, a famous catastrophe of the nineteenth century. There is no escaping the fate of the Costes—just as the curse on the Sutpens in Absalom, Absalom! is inescapable. But whereas Faulkner uses shifting, unreliable narrators, Giono is far more straightforward and readable, if less “experimental.” Of course Faulkner had the great subjects of the American Civil War and the abiding legacy of slavery; Giono’s is far more the tale of a family than an entire history of a people.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in Le Moulin de Pologne occurs when Julie, a beautiful Coste girl who has a great body (the narrator strangely adds “for those who like bodies”), but whose face has been blasted by a terrible paralysis, goes to a village ball and begins to waltz all by herself. The other guests are horrified and begin to laugh a torrential laugh:

If I take my own case, the laugh was a blessing for everyone. The spectacle of this girl with the torn face who revealed her shameless wishes burned me like an acid. You can’t let yourself go without the risk of being stripped bare to the bones, clothes and flesh, ruffles and skirts, shirt-fronts and cuffs. Everyone has his own despair—who doesn’t? What would become of us all if we were forced to stop playing the comedy? The laughter with its torrential noise was the simplest way to soothe the burn and spread the coolness. We went at it for all we were worth.

After being publicly mocked Julie rushes through the night and gives herself to the mysterious, attractive Monsieur Joseph, an outsider who irritates the narrator by not tipping his hat with much enthusiasm. What Giono lacks in historical Faulknerian resonance he gains in horrid village gossipiness. Giono is funny, something no one ever accused Faulkner of.

Of course Giono with his vast culture was not just influenced by his three great Americans. He was also shaped by his reading of Dante and Ariosto, his interest in local histories, his immersion in the classics, and his love of French writers, especially Stendhal. He was in particular smitten with The Charterhouse of Parma.

After the Liberation Giono was imprisoned again, this time for about five months for collaboration. To this day many French readers wrinkle their noses when his name is mentioned, though no one can point to actual crimes of collaboration with the enemy. As the great historian of the Vichy period Robert Paxton said to me, several of Giono’s views were convergent with those of Vichy. Giono was a pacifist because he’d been at Verdun; Vichy was pacifist because it wanted to surrender to Hitler. Giono was against industrialization and for agriculture because he lived in a peasant culture and was an ecologist; Vichy was pro-agriculture because cultivating the land was seen as admirably reactionary. I’ve never found an anti-Semitic word Giono wrote but I’ve heard he made some casual snide remarks in letters. He never made the trip to Berlin as other French notables did. Nevertheless in September 1944 he was placed on the blacklist of the Communist-organized Congress of Writers and was forbidden to publish till 1947.

While he could not publish he read extensively and wrote a novel, Angelo, which he read to friends, who told him it was too Stendhalian. Eventually his character, Angelo, an Italian young officer and the illegitimate son of a duchess whom the Austrian officials are pursuing, became the leading figure in Giono’s most famous novel, Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof, the subject of one of the best historical films ever made, starring Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez, and directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau in 1995).

The ingredient Giono added to strengthen and make personal this novel was a disaster: the cholera epidemic that decimated Provence in the mid-nineteenth century (Giono made it even more devastating than it was; historians estimate that only 5 percent of the population died annually). Just as Tolstoy relished describing the horrors of war, in the same way Giono took real pleasure, reportedly, in describing the agonies and deaths of cholera victims. He even added to the medical symptoms one of his own; he decided that at the moment of death the victims spit up a sort of milky white rice, copious and gluey.

And yet The Horseman on the Roof is anything but a harrowing or even gloomy novel. Though there are painful scenes of disease and death, the feeling one comes away with is of lightness, giddiness, pure pleasure. What becomes clear is that, contrary to Aristotle, metaphors that compare one dreary or frightening thing to another can have a dulling effect, whereas those that are striking, powerful, and vivifying contradict the spirit, while echoing the material reality, of what they are illustrating.

Giono’s brilliant Horseman on the Roof is a perfect illustration of this paradox. The epidemic is accompanied by (perhaps caused by) an unprecedented drought and heat wave:

At that moment Angelo saw the barbarous splendors of the terrible summer in the high hills: rusted oaks, charred chestnuts, verdigris starved pastures, cypresses in whose foliage shone the oil of funeral lamps, fogs of light which spread out around him in a mirage, and in the transparent warp of the tapestry worn down by the sun floated and trembled the design that remained grey of the forests, the villages, the hills, the mountain, of the horizon, the fields, the groves, the fields almost entirely wiped away under a burlap-colored air.

Angelo is a dandy who submits everything to his personal aesthetic; he supplants the world’s ethical code with his own aristocratic rankings. He observes the austere beauty and pitilessness of nature as a backdrop for the desperate egotism of human beings at risk. The entire book is a series of picaresque adventures that opens like a Chinese scroll of a pilgrim crossing the landscape, in this case blasted. Giono is careful to preserve the crisp outlines of his dashing hero by not excessively reporting his thoughts; he remains a silhouette seen rather than an interiority explored. He has the same endearing sprezzatura as Stendhal’s Fabrizio del Dongo.

Pigs eating cadavers, dying people turning blue and spitting milky rice, children with waxy, shrunken faces, the plague-ridden locked in a tower, and starved and the living forced to cohabit with the dead—every possible horror is detailed. Angelo becomes very attached to a small, young French doctor who risks everything trying to save the dying by feeding them herbs and rubbing their cold limbs vigorously, but the brave doctor dies on him. Angelo keeps judging his own behavior and worries that it (and his face and even his way of riding a horse) are becoming vulgar and base. Always obeying his own generous aristocratic code, he is horrified that fear has led some villagers to turn back suffering women and children—and he longs for a saber to attack the malefactors.

One striking scene occurs when Angelo observes a desperate orgy of sex and drink right out of Hogarth; when he comes back to the inn the next day the torches are still burning brightly but all the guests are dead, their bodies twisted in terrible paroxysms. The epidemic cannot help but recall the two world wars Giono lived through.

When Angelo is trapped in a street he tells himself that now he must either kill his pursuers or die: “This idea calmed him and even gave him a bit of gaiety.” He darts into a house where he tries to see what’s going on in the half-light. Proust once praised Mme de Sévigné for describing things in letters not in a logical order but in the order in which they occurred or were perceived (just as he praised Dostoevsky for presenting character and psychological traits in the order of an observer’s personal discovery). As Giono writes:

At the same time as a chill ran up his spine, Angelo saw something that jumped from the couch; it was a cushion! No, it was a cat, a big gray cat that arched its back and stretched its long trembling tail in a bishop’s crook.

The Horseman on the Roof is a love story between Angelo and a French noblewoman called Pauline Théus. They join forces as she attempts to return home to her husband. Like Giono’s Melville, Angelo loves but does not touch a respectable woman; both men are paladins of courtly love. Giono worked on the novel off and on between 1946 and 1951—a very long time for such an ordinarily fast worker. The book terminates in a startling but satisfying rush like the rapid ensemble at the end of Don Giovanni (Giono and Stendhal were both unconditional admirers of Mozart). So enamored of Angelo was Giono that he wrote four novels about him: Angelo, Death of a Character, The Horseman on the Roof, and Crazy Happiness.

The title of the novel Un Roi sans divertissement (A King without Amusements) refers to Pascal’s remark: “A king without amusements is a man full of misery.” It is about a minor state official, very intelligent but depressed, called Langlois, who tracks down V., a prosperous man from a neighboring village, Chichilianne, who has murdered several people just as an acte gratuit, because he is bored and is looking for distractions. Langlois recognizes the condition because he suffers from the same boredom (Giono himself often complained of bouts of ennui). None of this is spelled out; one of the things Giono learned from Faulkner was to keep the central character shadowy. There are no internal monologues for Langlois; he is as mysterious as, say, Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Which doesn’t mean that Giono hasn’t worked out his psychology (he complained that thrillers, which he read compulsively, had no psychological depth); he just leaves it all to be worked out by the reader.

Some of the remains of the dead villagers are found high up in the branches of a majestic beech tree. The image of the beech cradling the skulls and bones is memorable, more like a woodcut than a snapshot. That and the sight of blood on snow are the two main motifs of the book. As in Faulkner there are multiple narrators.

The two principal female characters—Madame Tim, a rich Mexican, and Saucisse, an aging woman who runs the local café—are remarkable inventions. They are both companions to Langlois, though Saucisse, we gather, is secretly in love with him. She takes it upon herself to find him a wife, but she is careful to select a woman who is beautiful, virtuous, an agreeable companion and perfect housekeeper—and incorrigibly dull. Faced with a life with this woman, Langlois blows his brains out.

An American editor today, no doubt, would insist on explanations of why V. murders random villagers and why Langlois commits suicide; we no longer allow the reader to fill in such substantial blanks, and yet the haunting beauty of this novel lies precisely in its lacunae. This is a book rich with details (the stalking of V., the stalking of a wolf, the luxurious hunting costumes of Saucisse and Madame Tim)—everything except what we are most longing to know, Langlois’s thoughts. We must do all the work ourselves.