Jean Giono Essay - Critical Essays


Almost without exception, Jean Giono’s commentators trace the emergence of his early styles to his voracious reading of the Greek classics in translation, a program of self-education and entertainment begun in childhood, to be continued after-hours at the bank. While in school, Giono, like his contemporary Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), had performed poorly in French composition, showing little promise for his eventual career. As Henri Peyre has pointed out, however, Giono had the distinct advantage of acquiring the classics on his own, outside the classroom in a rustic Mediterranean environment not utterly different from that of ancient Greece; in all likelihood, the sights, sounds, and smells were much the same, as were humankind’s perennial contact and struggle with the soil. Indeed, Giono’s first attempt at long fiction, not published until subsequent works had made him a better risk for publishers, was Naissance de l’“Odyssée,” a vigorous, ironic work written “within the margins” of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.).

Pan trilogy

Giono first rose to prominence in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s with the Pan trilogy, comprising Hill of Destiny, Lovers Are Never Losers, and Harvest. Giono, later to be succeeded by the Spanish-born dramatist Fernando Arrabal (b. 1932), evokes the spirit of Pan to symbolize the forces of nature, with which humankind often coexists in an uneasy truce. In Hill of Destiny, nature quite literally goes “on strike” against human “improvements” wrought upon the land; the elderly Janet is unjustly accused of witchcraft, having acquired the odd gift of communication with nature and having warned his fellow villagers to mend their ways before it is too late. Lovers Are Never Losers, by contrast, presents the lyric aspect of Pan, singing the lost-and-found love of Albin for Angèle through the voice of the old peasant Amédée. Harvest, later successfully filmed, unites humanity with nature in the marriage of the near-giant Panturle and the itinerant Arsule, who has saved him from drowning; love, although present, is here subordinated to the cycle of the seasons.

As Maxwell Smith observes, Giono in his Pan trilogy delighted readers with his seemingly effortless gift for striking, apt, and memorable metaphor, particularly in his descriptions of nature or of the forest fire in Hill of Destiny. In Lovers Are Never Losers, description is equally vivid, although style and vocabulary are pared down somewhat, to suit the speech patterns of the uneducated peasant narrator. The style of Harvest remains restrained if colorful, with seemingly authentic rustic speech. Only in the middle volume, Lovers Are Never Losers, does Giono see fit to delineate or humanize his characters in a way that makes them memorable; in Hill of Destiny and Harvest, it is nature itself that dominates, often attaining the stature of a character through the author’s vivid descriptions.

Lovers Are Never Losers

Perhaps the most successful of Giono’s novels in his earliest mode, Lovers Are Never Losers combines his rare evocative power with a sure gift for storytelling. Thenarrative, although limited in voice and viewpoint to the uneducated old peasant Amédée, is both sensitive and credible in its portrayal of young Albin and his pining love for Angèle, who has been “carried away by a city slicker.” Within the context of the tale, Baumugnes is a village whose Huguenot inhabitants, their tongues cut out by religious persecutors, learned to communicate with one another by playing the harmonica; understandably, their descendants, including the unfortunate Albin, have supposedly inherited an uncanny gift for playing that instrument, and Albin’s talent stands him in good stead in the rescue of Angèle, long since abandoned by her lover and held captive on her father’s farm. Unlikely though the story may sound in summary, Lovers Are Never Losers remains a remarkable and memorable narrative, as notable for the deftness of its characterizations as for the economy of its style. Only the city-bred seducer Louis seems closer to caricature than to character, but even that lapse can be seen as credible within the story’s rural context.

In 1930, the year that he resigned from the bank and purchased his house, Giono managed also to publish his first-written novel, Naissance de l’“Odyssée,” which would enjoy an even larger printing eight years later, with another publisher. He also began for the first time to put himself into his books, with such semiautobiographical novels as To the Slaughterhouse and Blue Boy. His style in these volumes is increasingly confident and frankly lyric, tending toward exuberance; perhaps his most masterful scene, also a metaphor (as reflected in the original title Le Grand Troupeau), shows two old men stampeding sheep through a provincial village; the young shepherds who would normally have done the job have themselves been “stampeded”—to war. Giono’s descriptions, worthy of the Greek poets whom he so admired, anticipate the “epic” style that would soon burst forth, full-blown, in The Song of the World and Joy of Man’s Desiring. The style of the meandering, episodic Blue Boy is more restrained, although amply supplied with deft similes and metaphors. Representative of the book’s tone and content is the doubt of old Franchesc Odripano, on hearing of the Wright brothers’ flight, “that anything will really change.”

With his epic novels of the middle 1930’s, Giono began increasingly to assert the claims of the soil against, and above, those of modern technology. Indeed, the modern world is conspicuous primarily by its absence from his impassioned, vivid storytelling, set in modern times but showing man eternally involved with nature.

The Song of the World

In The Song of the World, the first, as well as the best-remembered and most...

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