Jean Giono 1895-1970
French novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, and playwright.
For further information on Giono's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 11.
In the first part of his literary career, Giono was known for his passion for nature and classical subjects. The rural, small-town settings of most of his early novels and poetry reflect Giono's idealization of his own hometown environment. In the 1930s Giono changed his emphasis, expressing his confirmed pacifism in political tracts and beginning to write a cycle of historical novels.
Born March 30, 1895, Giono spent all of his life in Manosque, a small village in Provence. Although his family lacked formal education, they imparted a love for music and classical literature, which greatly influenced his later literary career. In his early novels Giono espoused a primitive view of man in harmony with nature. After military service in World War I, Giono began to embrace pacifism, which he expressed in a number of polemics against Nazism in the late 1930s. For a time Giono was seen as a minor prophet, steadfastly resisting the growing war sentiment of the time and giving counsel to the many people who flocked to Manosque to see him. Wrongly accused of collaboration with the Vichy government, he was imprisoned for a time during World War II. Although ostracized by many of his former disciples, he continued to write prolifically. Giono died October 9, 1970, in Manosque.
Classical themes and allusions influenced many of Giorno's works. In 1929 his first novel Colline (Hill of Destiny), drew on his own experience living in a village in the foothills of the Alps. During the period just before World War II, Giono wrote a number of antiwar pieces, including a novel, Le Grand troupeau (1931; To the Slaughterhouse). His autobiographical novel, Jean le bleu (Blue Boy), appeared in 1932. In 1934 and 1935 he published Le chant du monde (The Song of the World) and Que ma joie demeure (Joy of Man's Desiring), two attempts at recreating the epic form. His 1937 novel, Batailles dans la montagne, had a similar epic structure. Giono's postwar works, out of the mainstream of a French literary community which was emphasizing the absurdity of existence, achieved little popular or critical attention. In the early 1950s, however, he gained public acclaim after the publication of his novel Le Hussard sur le toit (1951; The Horseman on the Roof), an adventure story of a man who attempts to stave off the horrors of a cholera epidemic. His storytelling skill also came to public attention in two film versions of “La femme du boulanger” (“The Baker's Wife”), a story drawn from an episode in Jean le bleu.
English-language criticism of Giono's works rarely appeared before 1955, when Henri Peyre's seminal study of the contemporary French novel was published. Critics during this period and throughout the 1960s emphasized Giono's preference for rural settings and mythological themes, in contrast to the more socially aware bent of other French literary figures of his time. A number of critics throughout the 1960s and 1970s compared Giono with both his Greek epic forebears and contemporary English-language writers such as D. H. Lawrence and John Steinbeck. Until the mid 1980s, with the exception of some commentary on Giono's antiwar writings, much of Giono criticism was New Critical in nature, emphasizing close textual readings with little reference to the social contexts of the works. By the 1990s feminist critics were beginning to re-evaluate and deconstruct Giono's writings, as were others offering semiotic analyses which questioned traditional interpretations of his work.
Accompagnés de la flûte (poetry) 1924
*Colline [Hill of Destiny] (novel) 1929
*Un de Baumugnes [Lovers Are Never Losers] (novel) 1929
La Naissance de l'Odyssée (novel) 1930
Présentation de Pan (novel) 1930
*Regain [Harvest] (novel) 1930
Le Grand troupeau [To the Slaughterhouse] (novel) 1931
Jean le bleu [Blue Boy] (novel) 1932
Lanceurs de graines (play) 1932
Solitude de la pitié (short stories) 1932
Le Serpent d'étoiles (novel) 1933
Le chant du monde [The Song of the World] (novel) 1934
Que ma joie demeure [Joy of Man's Desiring] (novel) 1935
Les Vraies Richesses (nonfiction) 1936
Batailles dans la montagne (novel) 1937
Refus d'obéissance (nonfiction) 1937
Lettre aux paysans sur la pauvreté et la paix (nonfiction) 1938
Le Poids du ciel (nonfiction) 1938
Précisions (nonfiction) 1939
Le Bout de la route (play) 1941
Pour saluer Melville (fictional biography) 1941
Triomphe de la vie (sketches) 1942
L'Eau vive (short stories) 1943
La Femme du boulanger (play) 1944
**Chroniques (novels) 1947
Noé (autobiographical novel) 1947
Un roi sans divertissement (novel) 1947
Le Voyage en calèche (play) 1947
Fragments d'un paradis (novel) 1948
Les Ames fortes (novel) 1949
Mort d'un personnage (novel) 1949
Les Grands Chemins (novel) 1951
Le Hussard sur le toit [The Horseman on the Roof] (novel) 1951
Le Moulin de Pologne [The Malediction] (novel) 1952
Voyage en Italie (novel) 1953
Le Bonheur fou [The Straw Man] (novel) 1957
Angelo (novel) 1958
Deux cavaliers de l'orage [Two Riders of the Storm] (novel) 1965
Ennemonde et autres caractères [Ennemonde] (novel) 1968
*These works comprise Giono's Pan Trilogy.
**This collection contains the novels Un roi sans divertissement and Noé.
SOURCE: Starr, William T. “Jean Giono and Walt Whitman.” French Review 14 (December 1941): 118-29.
[In the following essay, Starr points out the obvious influences of Whitman's love of nature and the life-force on the works of Giono.]
The influence of Walt Whitman upon certain contemporary French writers, especially those who at one time composed the “groupe de l'Abbaye”, has been frequently mentioned.1 Perhaps it is not so well known that he also had some influence upon Jean Giono, a writer whose ideas are generally different from those of Jules Romains and Georges Duhamel. Unlike these authors, Giono does not so much insist upon the relation of men to society, as upon the relation of the individual to nature. As an example of the various ways in which Whitman's influence has been felt in France it will be of interest to study this relationship between Giono and Whitman.
The author himself indicates his fondness for Whitman's poetry. In Présentation de Pan, in which he begins to explain his principal ideas as they had appeared, diffused in Colline, Un de Baumugnes, and Regain,2 he says: “… Lure m'apparut au milieu du lointain pays. Je pense à Whitman et à Paumanok, l'île en forme de poisson”3 In Manosque des Plateaux, which is, in some respects, a continuation of the Présentation de Pan, he tells of the experiment of reading Whitman's Leaves of Grass to the inhabitants of a small mountain village. Despite his improvised rendering into French of the English edition, the villagers were delighted with the poetry. So keen was their sympathy and admiration that Giono later sent them a French translation.4 Finally, in Le Serpent d'étoiles appears on the fly-leaf the line from Whitman: “Votre œuvre peut-elle faire vis-à-vis à la pleine campagne et au bord de la mer?”5
Since Giono has expressly said, in this book of autobiographical sketches, that he was reading an English edition of Leaves of Grass, we have believed it permissible to ignore the question of French translations, and to refer only to the English edition.
We must first mention two important differences between these men. Giono does not yet pretend to the completeness of a philosophic system, as did Whitman. He is the first to admit this when he says that he has not, as some believe, found in the earth, in Nature, the explanation of everything; this, he says, is only a firm starting point.6 Another, and perhaps more important difference is in their attitude towards the state, and towards commercialism and industry. Whitman celebrates both, although it is true that they did not then exist in their present all absorbing form, as they face Giono. Although these differences are present, and must be kept in mind, certain striking similarities of thought and expression exist between the two writers.
Perhaps the most striking is their worship of life: the life of animals, plants, men, of the very earth and universe. In Song of Myself Whitman says:
In me the caresser of life wherever moving—backward as well as forward sluing;7
Giono, looking back over his works, writes:
J'aime la vie. Je n'aime même que la vie … j'ai voulu saouler tout le monde de vie. J'aurais voulu pouvoir faire bouillonner la vie comme un torrent et la faire se ruer sur tous ces hommes secs et désespérés … les assommer de fraîcheur, de santé et de joie …8
Such a love and such an aim are very similar to those diffused throughout Leaves of Grass.
Because it is part of the process of the life they celebrate, both poets accord great importance to the creation of life. The old narrator who relates the events of Un de Baumugnes felt this importance, as he watched Angèle's baby: “Monsieur Pancrace (the baby) mâchait la fleur du sein comme un éperdu. … C'était beau! C'était la leçon de la vie. Voilà ce que, malgré tout, vent et marée, elle avait fait. Quelle beauté!”9 Whitman expresses this idea in a similar way: “Singing the song of procreation, singing the need of superb children. …”10 Sexual relations, as symbols of creation, and as creation, play a prominent part in their works. Both writers see only the purity of sex, just as integral a part of nature as death, eating, or sleeping. Giono sees the beauty of the love gestures of women.
Je savais par intuition que ses gestes étaient beaux et naturels et que, rien dans ces gestes n'étaient défendu, que toute la rondeur du monde, depuis mes pieds jusqu'aux étoiles, tout le monde, tous ces fruits de lunes et de soleils étaient portés dans les rameaux des bras noués, des bouches jointes et des ventres assemblés. Je comprenais toute la beauté simple de ça, et que c'était juste, et que c'était bon.11
Julia, the strong healthy farm wife, deprived too long of her soldier-husband, had illicit relations with a deserting soldier. In spite of her love for her husband she succumbed to the normal ways of nature. We feel however, that the author regards her action as innocent. The fault lies in the unjust social order which had separated man and wife. Whitman, especially in Song of Myself, From Pent-up Aching Rivers, and Spontaneous Me, repeatedly celebrates the sexual act, seeing it as a part of the natural order. As he says, “Whatever will be, will be well—for whatever is, is well.”12
Urge, and urge, and urge, Always the procreant urge of the world. Out of the dimness opposite equals advance— Always substance and increase, always sex; Always a knit of identity—always distinction— Always a breed of life.(13)
In the same poem he sings:
Blind, loving, wrestling touch! … Did it make you ache so leaving me? Parting, track'd by arriving—perpetual payment of perpetual loan; Rich, showering rain, and recompense richer afterward.(14)
“Copulation is no more rank to me than death is,” he says.15 These examples are significant when compared to Giono's words: “Si l'on a l'humilité de faire appel à l'instinct, à l'élémentaire, il y a dans la sensualité une sorte d'allégresse cosmique.”16
Both poets chant the love of the outdoors, but it seems certain that both received this love through intimate contact with outdoor life. Giono explains how his father provided for this part of his rearing. Moreover, as various critics point out,17 Giono's withdrawal into the world of nature may be a revolt and retreat from the confusion of today's society, and a means of protecting the work of art. Consequently, although their works are full of this love of the outdoors, there is little reason to seek in it an influence of Whitman. However, neither writer is content with the mere love of the outward beauty of nature. They see nature as an organic whole, of which all that exists, man, animals, plants, the earth, is an exterior manifestation. Whitman symbolizes this conception as the ocean in Elemental Drifts. In “Aux sources mêmes de l'espérance” Giono speaks of the life of granite, a life whose pulsations are the same as those of plants and animals, differing only in tempo. For both writers this greater whole is a vital force that animates all living things: Whitman calls it the soul; Giono, life, or Pan. The American poet chants:
I swear I think now that everything without exception has an eternal Soul! The trees have, rooted in the ground! the weeds of the sea have! the animals!(18)
In Colline, the first of Giono's longer works, the “Hill” symbolizes all nature. Jaume says, after hearing old Janet talk of this mysterious, universal life: “Là, où avant, je voyais un arbre, une colline, … il y avait toujours un arbre, une colline, mais je voyais, au travers, leur âme terrible.”19 Gondran, too, became aware of this life-force, and it frightened him: “… si c'était une créature (the world) vivante, un corps?”20 In Le Serpent d'étoiles, the author speaks in his own name, and more precisely.
On était là … dans cette grande saumure de la vie totale, aux sources mêmes de la vérité dans cette épaisse boue de vie qu'est le mélange des hommes, des bêtes, des arbres et de la pierre. Sous la paume de ma main je sentais battre les pulsations lentes du granit, j'entendais les charrois des ruisseaux de sève …21
Man is merely another manifestation of this greater unity: soul, or life-force. Consequently, there is no essential difference between man and animals, between man and plants. This is the meaning of Whitman's verses:
The sharp hoof'd moose of the north, the cat on the house-sill, the chickadee, the prairie dog, … The brood of the turkey hen, and she with her half spread wings; I see in them and myself the same old law.(22)
Grenier quotes Giono as having said, while he was looking at the photograph of a woman's torso and a photograph of stars at the same time:
Entre l'univers et l'individu s'opérait la symbiose: la condition humaine est la condition universelle … entre l'étoile la plus lointaine et moi, pas d'intermédiaire.(23)
So far, Whitman's expression is the more precise. However, Giono's works are pervaded by this idea, and the following quotations from Whitman and Giono are strikingly similar:
I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots, And am stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over, And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons, And call anything close...
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SOURCE: Peyre, Henri. “Flight from Plague.” Saturday Review (23 January 1954): 17.
[In the following review of the English version of Le Hussard sur le toit, Peyre, one of the first English-language commentators on Giono, notes that Giono's postwar emphasis changed to one of pure storytelling, in contrast to the symbolic, anti-modernity themes of his earlier works.]
Before World War II Jean Giono enjoyed the devotion of many worshipers in Europe, who hailed him and his contemporaries Malraux, Saint-Exupéry, Montherlant as the torch-bearers of a revolt against the introspective novel of Proust and Mauriac. Giono had scored an immediate triumph as an epic...
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SOURCE: Peyre, Henri. “Jean Giono.” In The Contemporary French Novel, pp. 123-55. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.
[In following essay, Peyre summarizes Giono's work and its changing emphases during the author's lifetime.]
Historians and philosophers, with their faculty for proposing impressive generalizations, will some day speculate on the ‘necessary’ correlation between society and literature in France during the period between the two world wars. In the view of these thinkers, artists and writers stand in close dependence upon the environment in which they have grown up and reflect the prevailing mood of their age. Those who have remained aloof are...
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SOURCE: Brée, Germaine, and Margaret Guiton. “Private Worlds.” In An Age of Fiction, pp. 107-13. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957.
[In the following excerpt from their full-length study of contemporary French novelists, Brée and Guiton note that Giono is unlike most of his literary contemporaries in his preference for isolated rural settings and his visionary themes.]
Jean Giono's native province is not far distant from [Henri] Bosco's, a little more to the north, a little further to the east; yet nothing could be more different than the use these two writers make of their setting. Giono's universe is animated to the point of agitation. Everything in...
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SOURCE: de Pomerai, Odile. “An Unknown Giono: Deux Cavaliers de l'orage.” The French Review 39 (1965): 78-84.
[In the following essay, de Pomerai argues that one of Giono's last published works is an allegory for war and a condemnation of violence.]
The case of Jean Giono is probably unique—that of a writer who changed his “manner,” and changed it successfully, half-way through his career. As the Times Literary Supplement remarked in 1955, “from a distinctly sentimental lyricist of his native Provence, he has become a novelist of the greatest power and invention … one of the most important novelists in Europe.”
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SOURCE: Goodrich, Norma L. “Le Moulin de Pologne and Its Narrator.” The French Review 40 (1966): 65-76.
[In the following essay, Goodrich examines the role of the narrator, the technical skill of Giono, and the use of history, fantasy, and mythology in Le Moulin de Pologne.]
In 1952 Jean Giono published a novel which he called, for the following excellent reasons of his own, Le Moulin de Pologne:
Parce que beaucoup de fermes, ou domaines de Haute Provence avaient au XIXe siècle des Moulins à farine attenants, qu'ils moulaient du blé pour tout le voisinage et qu'ils les appelaient naturellement Moulins...
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SOURCE: Kay, Wallace G. “The Cortège of Dionysus: Lawrence and Giono.” The Southern Quarterly 4 (1966): 159-71.
[In the following essay, Kay compares Giono's and D. H. Lawrence's approaches to the Dionysian themes of death and rebirth.]
The cult of Dionysus involves two closely related elements: Dionysus as the symbol and god of the seasonal renewal of the plant world and Dionysus as the personified idea of a recurrent death and rebirth. A third strong element of the myth is the concept of inspiration brought about by some kind of communion with the god, a communion caused by participation in some ritual act. The followers of Dionysus, when they reach the frenzied...
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SOURCE: Smith, Maxwell A. “Giono as Epic Novelist.” In Jean Giono, pp. 75-87, 180. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966.
[In the following chapter from his full-length biographical-critical study of Giono, Smith analyzes the 1933 novel Le Serpent d'étoiles and the three mid-1930s novels of the Pan Trilogy—all of which use epic themes and settings.]
I LE SERPENT D'éTOILES
After writing the semi-autobiographical Jean le bleu and before beginning his trilogy of epic novels, Giono has given us in Le Serpent d'étoiles (1933) his own personal impressions of the primitive shepherds who every spring drive...
(The entire section is 5526 words.)
SOURCE: Goodrich, Norma L. “Bachelors in Fiction, Through John Steinbeck and Jean Giono.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 14 (1967): 367-78.
[In the following essay, Goodrich explores the role of bachelors in fiction in Giono's and others' work, concentrating on a comparison between Les Grands Chemins and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.]
When Pierre-Henri Simon noted in Témoins de l'homme (Paris, 1951, p. 190) that we are now witnessing in fiction a century without women characters, he stated a fact undoubtedly true for a great many modern novels created by authors generally considered outstanding. However, the novel based upon a love story involving a...
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SOURCE: Goodrich, Norma L. “Le Moulin de Pologne: Modern Novel and Elizabethan Tragedy.” Revue de Littérature Comparée 41 (1967): 88-97.
[In the following essay, Goodrich states that in Le Moulin de Pologne, Giono was heavily influenced by several Shakespearean tragedies.]
In 1952, Jean Giono published Le Moulin de Pologne1, described on its title page as “roman”, which he perhaps, as he composed it, visualized less as fiction than as drama, and most specifically as an English or Elizabethan tragedy. Despite the precision given on the title page, we are informed in the text that the work is not a “roman”, but a “drame”,...
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SOURCE: Goodrich, Norma L. “Further Investigation Concerning Jean Giono's Hussard sur le toit.” Romanic Review 59 (1968): 267-77.
[In the following essay, Goodrich establishes connections between Le Hussard sur le toit, as well as an earlier novel by Giono, and several works by other authors, finding epic and symbolic implications in Le Hussard sur le toit.]
In 1951, and after at least twenty-two years of writing highly praised and widely translated fiction, Jean Giono published Le Hussard sur le toit, a novel dealing with a central subject, a nineteenth-century plague, and with the adventures of a principal character, the heroic Angélo Pardi....
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SOURCE: Bieber, Konrad. “Jean Giono's Greece: A Kinship Between Distant Ages.” In The Persistent Voice: Essays on Hellenism in French Literature Since the 18th Century in Honor of Professor Henri M. Peyre, edited by Walter G. Langlois, pp. 131-42. New York: New York University Press, 1971.
[In the following essay, Bieber notes the ways in which Giono's works evoke the ambience of ancient Greece and the style of its epic writers.]
Stripped of Greek influences and sources, much of Western tragedy would either collapse or be missing altogether. The same may not be true to the same extent in poetry, or in the field of the novel. To be sure, our time is witnessing an...
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SOURCE: Lawrence, Derek W. “The Ideological Writings of Jean Giono (1937-1946).” French Review 45 (1972): 588-95.
[In the following essay, Lawrence examines Giono's antiwar writings during the period before and during World War II.]
The political writings of this period are not the result of a sudden impulse on the part of the author conscious of an imminent threat of war in Europe, and should not be separated from the philosophy expounded in Giono's earlier works. Unfortunately, peace-time struggles against the atrocities of war often pass unnoticed by the general public, and unchallenged by government officials until war-clouds begin to cast their menacing...
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SOURCE: Scott, Malcolm. “Giono's Song of the World: The Theme of Language and Its Associations in Giono's Pre-war Writings.” French Studies 16 (1972): 289-304.
[In the following essay, Scott explores the theme of the healing power of language and music in the early novels of Giono.]
The first and most obvious manifestation of Giono's fascination with the power and potential of language—his own startlingly rich imagery—has rightly received the close attention of critics and scholars.1 What has not been sufficiently explored is the way in which this fascination is expressed, especially in Giono's pre-war writings, in a second major way: namely, as a...
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SOURCE: Goodrich, Norma L. “The Autobiographical Mode.” In Giono: Master of Fictional Modes, pp. 231-71. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
[In the following essay from her full-length study of the “modes” of Giono's writings, Goodrich traces Giono's autobiographical themes, comparing them to those of writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Leo Tolstoy.]
MORT D'UN PERSONNAGE (1949)
In Mort d'un personnage (1949),1 where a first-person narrator tells of the aging and of the death of his grandmother, Giono performs a double feat: making an attractive old woman the central character of a novel, and...
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SOURCE: Madden, Marilyn I. “Imagery in Giono's Novels, with Special Consideration of La Naissance de l'Odyssée.” French Review 46 (1973): 522-34.
[In the following essay, Madden makes a statistical analysis of the nature of the imagery in La Naissance de l'Odyssée.]
Jean Giono's greatest originality as a novelist lies in his incorporation into his novels of the poetic device of imagery. This is a device especially suited to his earlier works, which are mostly concerned with the creation of an atmosphere, or perhaps even of a world view. It is a device which he has exploited to a greater extent than other novelists, and it is primarily due to this device...
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SOURCE: Brosman, Catharine Savage. “The Pastoral in Modern France: Forms and Reflections.” French Forum 9 (May 1984): 212-224.
[In the following excerpt from a study of the use of the pastoral form in several post-World War II French literary figures, Brosman notes the ways in which Giono and poet René Char use pastoral themes as an antidote to the vicissitudes brought by war.]
Although the pastoral, in the narrow sense, has nearly disappeared from modern French literature, certain of its features and conventions, as distinguished from those simply of rustic literature of the pre-Romantic, Romantic and post-Romantic periods, can be identified in fiction and poetry...
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SOURCE: Browning, Gordon. “Jean Giono's Un de Baumugnes: The Narrator's Inner Cistern.” Modern Language Studies 14 (summer 1984): 63-9.
[In the following essay, Browning examines the metaphorical uses of the images of the well, the cistern, and the fountain in Giono's Un de Baumugnes.]
The well, the cistern, and the fountain recur as emotionally charged objects in many of Jean Giono's early stories and novels. Giono himself recounts that it was the memory of his childhood terror of a 120-foot well inside the presbytery where he went for catechism that provided the initial idea for the short story “Solitude de la Pitié,” in which a man descends into a...
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SOURCE: O'Brien, Mari H. “Cross-gendering the Hero, Cross-gendering the Reader: The (m)Othering of Antonio in Jean Giono's Le chant du monde.” Dalhousie French Studies 48 (fall 1999): 75-86.
[In the following essay, O'Brien presents a feminist, deconstructive reading of Giono's Le chant du monde, countering Giono's own self-criticism that the book did not have a sufficiently pacifist message.]
As Pierre Citron reveals in his 1990 biography, Jean Giono was never pleased with his best-selling, critically acclaimed novel Le chant du monde. Giono's own words, in a letter to a friend, attest to his dissatisfaction with this 1934 novel, his sixth,...
(The entire section is 5784 words.)
SOURCE: Kelley, Monica. “Passive Suicide.” Esprit Createur 40 (spring 2000): 69-78.
[In the following essay, Kelley presents a close textual reading of Giono's novel Un roi sans divertissement, pointing out semiotic similarities between the processes of murder or suicide and the act of writing.]
In his first post-war novel, Un roi sans divertissement, Jean Giono obsessively returns to the physical act of writing. The novel tells the story of a murderer, M.V., and the gendarme, Langlois, who tracks him down. M.V. attacks only during the winter, when heavy snows repaint the world in black and white, and it is strongly suggested that he does so for...
(The entire section is 5064 words.)