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)

Harvest

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
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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 …

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