JEAN GIONO, A PROPHET FOR OUR TIMES
Here is Jean Giono (1895-1970) prolific French novelist, militant
pacifist, and native of Manosque, Provence, on the principal underlying reason
for the outbreak of WW1:
‘The men, too well fed, had forgotten their powers of procreation; they were uniting with gasoline, phosphates, things without thighs. This gave them a thirst for blood.’
Blue Boy (1931)
Things without thighs? Whether or not you subscribe to his view of shall we say Direly Estranged Early 20th C Pan-European Masculine Fecundity, I would bet a small fortune you have never read anything like it, not even in the most magical of South American Magical Realism, Marquez included. The tone is truculent and didactic, and above all original, forcing us to contemplate things anew, in a radical and paradoxical way. People who fall in love with Giono’s fiction, do so partly because of his anger with the ugliest side of alienated 20th century technology, and our consequent estrangement from the beauty and the poetry of the stabilising natural world. They also fall in love with books like Second Harvest (1930, made into a film by director and novelist Marcel Pagnol in 1937) and his autobiographical childhood novel Blue Boy, because of his quite phenomenal powers of evoking Nature in its all force, finesse and fury (variously Provence’s wild birds, foraging sheep, wandering goats, woodlands, skies, clouds, rain, drought, thunder and lightning).He is quite simply, and by a long margin, the most gifted of a handful of European writers (see also parts of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and some of his short stories, and one or two of the novels of fellow Provencal author Pagnol, and ditto of the Vaudoise Swiss writer CF Ramuz, 1878-1947) who evokes with uncannily vivid and accurate precision the transcendental power of Nature. He does so with the authority of someone who really knows what they are talking about, in this case the remotest reaches of rural Provence of 120 years ago. For they have seen it, smelt, it, heard it, touched it, noted it in every nuanced detail, effectively photographed it in their memory, then bestowed it on the page for ever more.
The quotes that follow are all from Blue Boy.
‘The ewes slept in the thyme. Sometimes without opening their eyes,
they would open their lips, bite a tuft of blossoms, and begin to chew from
right to left, dripping a little purple foam.’
Note the unparalleled precision: eyes closed, chewing from right to left, the purple foam. You might vaguely imagine that Thomas Hardy could have written with such touchingly exact detail, but no he couldn’t: his rustic characters are larger than life, but their pastoral milieu is not evoked with such tender exactitude. As for that other English novelist and countryman, Henry Williamson, avid Hitler-admirer (true, incredibly, even after WW2 was over) and author of Salar the Salmon and Tarka the Otter, he wrote all-purpose anthropomorphic lyrical impressionism, which is to say that actually we are reading not about Salar nor Tarka, but about the quaintest refractions of Henry Williamson. Meanwhile 1920s upper crust British writers Mary Webb, Eden Philpotts, TF Powys etc, who as a rule only observed people of the soil from their parlour windows, yet who chose stylised Shropshire and Dorset countryfolk for their idealised bucolic tableaus, went in for overwrought at times hysterical rustic gothic, as roundly satirised by Stella Gibbons in her 1932 novel, Cold Comfort Farm.
The very greatest artists in any genre (e.g. in music, Bach, Django Reinhardt, John McLaughlin) are often to be seen moving towards the absolute limits, then heedlessly pushing beyond them. On that basis, here is Giono performing the theoretically impossible as he particularises an elaborate process taking place between a man and a bird. He is describing his Dad, a shoemaker of Piedmont/ Italian extraction, feeding his caged nightingale.
‘The nightingale’s cage had a putrid odour. He had to be fed on
earthworms chopped into bits. My father cut the worms with an iron fork whose 5
prongs he had sharpened with his 3-cornered file. He also fed his nightingale
flies. He would catch the flies in his hand, then give them to the bird. The
nightingale stuck his bill through the bars to pierce the fly’s abdomen. A drop
of blood, thick and white like pus, oozed out. When the fly was a big one, or
if it was a May beetle, my father would cut the insect in half. First, he gave
him the thorax with its blue wings. “The poorer bit first,” he said. Then he
would offer the little honey-filled sack of the abdomen.’
Note that the 5 prongs and the 3 corners to the file are not put there
like two dogged items of police reportage. Alongside the vividness and
astringence of some of the grisly entomological detail, they give a life to the
prose that can never fade, which is to say that in their absolute precision they
become, as if by sleight of hand, immortal.
Blue Boy is told in the first person, and Jean the narrator
starts his story when he is around 5 years old. The initial scene-setting, in a
fictionalised Manosque around 1900, is predictably vivid, economical, and
‘The carts rolled noisily into the jaws of the wayside inns with their
loads of corn flour and black wine. The carters said “Porca madona”. They
sneezed like mules that have puffed up pipe smoke, and they stayed on this side
of hill the with the poplars and the carts. The chief inn was called Au
Territoire de Piemont.’
Jean is the only child of the cobbler, a gentle political radical, who regularly gives shelter to Italian anarchists on the run from the Piedmont police. His mother runs a laundry from the same premises and she has 3 playful and flirtatious young women in the house who look after Jean, take him to school, kiss him and pet him, and one of whom knots his tie in such a way she half strangles her little charge. Their characterisation is confidently idiosyncratic, and as always, allusively precise.
‘Antonine was redhaired and abrupt…She laughed as she eyed the boys and then her narrow lips could be seen opening over sparkling teeth, as though they had been split with a knife. At times her glance was gathered in one corner of her eye, as if she had let all that purple viscosity of her ordinary glance run into the corner, in order to spurt it from there into the boys’ eyes as from the spout of an oil cruet.’
As fictional foil to these no-nonsense girls, there are the colourful eccentrics, the quaint in-roaders, best exemplified by two scrawny music teachers, one a violinist and the other a flautist, and they are called Decidement and ‘Madame’ La Reine. Madame is the tallest and thinnest man Jean has ever seen, while Decidement is ferociously anticlerical and always greets the fat abbe at the top of his voice with, ‘Quack! Quack!’ Jean’s father encourages his son to have music lessons with these 2 odd gentlemen, who always politely address him as ‘The little Monsieur’. Though note that eccentricity is not just the province of troubled humans, for the animal and inanimate worlds that surround young Jean, can also be bizarre to the point of being horrific.
‘It was the ancient well that was speaking. Its door had been locked
and it had been left to rot within. The well digger had said that down inside
were two races of creature: white toads, completely white, without eyes, and as
big as plates. They swelled up like bladders in order to float… “Toads yes and
snakes too. Skinless snakes, or with a skin as thin as cigarette paper, just
enough to hold their heart and vitals together.”’
A major pivot of the novel is infant Jean taking ill one day with an unspecified condition that is probably croup or diphtheria, but in any case, potentially fatal. There is seemingly no trained doctor or nurse involved in what happens next:
‘My throat had been swabbed with a spoon wound with cotton. I clenched
my teeth. They pinched my nose. I opened my mouth and they quickly probed down
deep with the spoon handle and scraped my throat. Then I vomited pus, skin and
blood. Once I discharged from my nose two long candles of greyish membrane,
throbbing and endowed with life like little wriggling fish. From that day, they
let me alone, save to give me potent herb brews that descended inside me, hot,
perfumed with the taste of earth and sun peculiar to irrigation waters in the
After this brush with death, the father, Pere Jean, decides to send him way up into the hills to Corbiere, with the shepherd Massot, for a lengthy recuperation. As for his paternal advice on departure, one function Pere Jean has in the novel is as a kind of orator of sharp folk wisdom, meaning he allows Jean Giono to expound his singular pantheistic philosophy.
‘Eat Madame Massot’s soup nicely. It is coarse soup, but it is just
because it is coarse that it will teach you to see things as a whole. And get
some muscle. Big shoulders are useful in life, even if it is only to pull a
thorn out of a hand.’
And as classic, and indeed unnerving Giono paradox, the soup maker Madame Massot’s outstanding beauty as a person, is understood as coming from her extraordinary ugliness.
‘She was an agreeable country lady, very ugly; with so much goodness
in her blind eye, so much goodness in her good eye, so much goodness in her
moustache, in her snuff-taking nose, in her sagging cheeks, in her black-lipped
mouth, that she was frightfully ugly. It was an ugliness made of all that
sacrifice which constitutes real goodness. In the photograph…all rigged out for
the wedding, she was beautiful and fresh and seemingly inflated with an artless
loveliness. That creature had to be gradually broken, burned, twisted, kneaded;
the eye blinded, the body made ungainly, be cooked in the oven of goodness like
a brick or a pot; it had to forget everything but that little red fruit that
was the heart. She had fully succeeded.’
After the endless journey in the cart and before he collapses into bed, he is given a rustic supper of fritters, bilberry jam, some warm goat’s milk with a hair in it, and toast rubbed with garlic. In the restorative months that follow, way up in the hills, he does a great deal of reading of the classic epics, including Homer’s Iliad (loaned to his father by another Italian anarchist fleeing the police) as well as the Bible. This is of importance in understanding Giono’s extraordinary originality, because some of his most pantheistic and idealistic novels, The Song of the World (1934) and Joy of Man’s Desiring (1935) depict a Provence where the country characters e.g. the sage and prophetic vagabond Bobi, are more like the epic giants of the Iliad than workaday peasants. Which is to say that he makes his particular Giono Provence, an epic and timeless Provence, not an ordinary one…
However, here in Corbiere things are far from ordinary, as there is a sudden epidemic of suicides, principally because of thwarted and jealous love, a major motif in this novel as a whole. The priest shrewdly takes things in hand, by getting the villagers to attend a special service where they bring the ashes from their fires, which they throw to the winds, and then commence a festival of dancing, as a kind of communal exorcism. None of which would have anticipated the outlandish crisis that happens when the baker’s wife Aurelie, runs off with the handsome shepherd of Les Conches. Unfortunately, this new baker (the previous one committed suicide) possesses no chest to speak of, and Aurelie makes no bones about how she feels about that.
‘“You are a pitiful sight,”’ his wife said to him.
The shepherd, by contrast, arouses her healthy lust.
‘The bread for Les Conches was a 40 pound sack…She did not throw them
in, she placed them in the bottom of the sack. She stooped down and
straightened up with each loaf, and in that way, she displayed her breasts more
than 100 times…and there he stood, dazzled by it all and by the pungent female
odour that floated before him in the bright Sunday morning light.’
Aurelie elopes with the shepherd to the marshes and in the fine weather they camp out on an island of reeds. The stunned villagers take quite some time to track them down, and meanwhile the baker gives in to melancholy and alcohol and stops baking the bread. It has now gone beyond the rather enjoyable comedy of someone else’s cuckolding, to a communal crisis, for as the villager Cesar says:
‘“Love is all very fine. But people have to eat.”’
If the elopement tale so far seems rather familiar, it might be because you have seen Pagnol’s 1938 masterpiece, The Baker’s Wife. As in the movie, the priest and schoolteacher are sent out to bring Aurelie home, the former entertainingly on the latter’s back as they approach the reed island, the teacher being the only one in the village with a pair of oiled boots. In the novel, the outraged shepherd rides down to retrieve her, and a queasily vicious fight with Cesar ensues, reminiscent of the lethal even bestial violence depicted in Giono’s late novel about 2 homicidal brothers, Two Riders of the Storm (1965).
‘The shepherd’s head flew back, his arms hung limp. Cesar struck with
his fist, deliberately and straight at the shepherd’s liver …Cesar struck again
at the shepherd’s belt…The shepherd took 2 or 3 steps forward, fell to his
knees, bowed his head and lay still on the ground.’
The novel ends with the outbreak of WW1 when Giono was 19, and the imminent death of his beloved father, the Piedmont cobbler. Giono was conscripted and as depicted in his novel To the Slaughterhouse (1931) saw the indescribable carnage, involving not just frail and compromised men but the harmless animals. Thereafter, he became a militant pacifist, which unfortunately and with the approach of WW2, came at times to be seen as a form of appeasement or even tacit connivance with always thriving if nascent French Fascism. It didn’t help that during the War he contributed to literary journals run by collaborators, though the final judgement was that he did it out of sheer naivety and unworldliness rather than covert ideology. He was briefly jailed, and then released without charge.
There is one obvious and overwhelming proof that Giono was no latent nor clandestine appeaser. Consider that there is no such thing as a Fascist who is not a Nationalist, and Giono not only repudiated Nationalism, he also questioned the very ontological reality of that fiction or illusion called ‘France’.
‘What do you want me to do with this France that you have helped, it seems, to preserve, as I too have done? What shall we do with it, we who have lost all our friends? Ah! If it were a question of defending rivers, hills, mountains, skies, winds, rains, I would say “Willingly. That is our job. Let us fight. All our happiness in life is there.” No, we have defended the sham name of all that. When I see a river, I say ‘river’; when I see a tree, I say ‘tree’; I never say ‘France’. That does not exist.’
At a time in the UK when far from epic heroes like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith and the like, are babbling their infantilised drivel about putting the ‘greatness’ back into Great Britain, we could all learn a thing or two from Jean Giono.
The next post will be on or before Sunday, August 4th