Giono, Jean 1895–1970
Giono was a French novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, short story writer, editor, and screenwriter. His work centers around the peasant culture of his native Provence, showing the interdependence of man and nature, and the importance of the individual. Strongly influenced by the Greek tragedies, he endeavored to translate into provincial form the complexities of the ancient classics. His early work is characterized by its rich, pastoral lyricism, his later style becoming more psychologically oriented, if slightly less poetic. Three of his novels have become films directed by Marcel Pagnol. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; obituary, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
[Le Grand Théâtre] falls neither into the category of literary criticism, nor into that of prose fiction. Although it purports ostensibly to be a 'conversation' between the boy Jean Giono and his father …, its first section is largely the latter's monologue…. Le Grand Théâtre is both theology and that branch of philosophy termed eschatology [doctrines concerned with finality of the world, life, or matter]…. [The second section] serves primarily to illustrate apocalypse in our century. Giono here, then, has not only re-written the most famous of all apocalyptic texts [from the Bible], but has furthermore modified and re-stated it. (pp. 116-17)
As we approach this complicated work—and when has Jean Giono regaled us with simplicity?—it will be less crucial to list the author's recollections of his best-known predecessor than to discuss his variations and his additions to the text attributed to John of Patmos. They are modern additions, which stem largely from two specialized areas: mathematics and astronomy. Giono's artistic method, always distinctive and unpredictable, consists here of a sliding from well-known apocalyptic to his own illustration thereof. It may also be of some interest to note in passing how Giono's approach here differs from that of D. H. Lawrence, for example, since he is a novelist to whom Jean Giono is often compared…. (p. 117)
Like Revelation, the father, or the author in his stead, to be sure, conjures deftly with numbers, and like the authors of the Bible, he proffers what he terms "grandiose commonplaces," in what we may all agree is unlike Giono's own colorful and highly metaphorical style. Like John of Patmos, Giono's father looks as a matter of course towards cosmic cataclysms, universal catastrophes, all announcing the approaching end of the world….
Once having anchored an unsuspecting reader to familiar imagery, Giono proceeds to re-interpret suavely and calmly to refute several major points of apocalyptic. Soon after having added his own prophecies, he rejects the future prophetic, declaring that the present tense must be rigorously employed since apocalypse is upon us all…. The predictions are thus modified to corroborate the end of the world in the sense that the end of our personal worlds is close, is here, is now, ergo that apocalypse is present. The human history which here interests Giono "becomes not merely a series of happenings but the disclosure and consummation of … human destiny …" Even were the world to end, however, "the end-situation within history" need not be "construed as the ultimately valid end," since the father-prophet does not confuse apocalypse with death. (p. 119)
In short, as evidenced in many illustrations, which it doubtless amused Giono to detail, as it amuses the reader to recognize, we would...
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While Giono [in Naissance de l'Odyssée] tells what "really" happened in legendary Ithaca, he cajoles the reader into a suspension of disbelief, a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the ancient epic, which creates the comic element in this modern companion piece to the Odyssey. (p. 378)
In this world of deception all existence runs its course free of convenient aid from Olympus. Ulysses must struggle for himself and with himself in a universe devoid of conventional godheads, be they anthropomorphic or transcendent. Giono has preferred to create a world where the presence of the supernatural is manifested in all creation, rather than in a traditional being or man-chosen object. (p. 379)
It hardly need be reiterated that in Homer's account Ulysses often comes to the fore as a schemer, the power of which is only matched by his physical prowess…. The leitmotiv of Giono's narrative finds its origin in [Athena's observation that she and Ulysses "are both adept at Chicane"], while it is also at this point in the Odyssey—Ulysses having returned to Ithaca—that Giono begins the novel proper. (p. 380)
As Homer tells us, there was disharmony upon Olympus which prevented Ulysses from reaching his home in blessed safety. As a parallel, Part I of Giono's novel ends on a note of doubt and fear. Walking along, Ulysses senses an "inquiétude" walking alongside him as a reminder that he has deliberately distorted the truth…. A fabulous hero has thus been born in the stories of a man who furtively tries to hide his identity…. (p. 381)
Nearing its conclusion, Naissance de l'Odyssée moves back to its beginning. Giono skillfully suggests with the last word of the novel the...
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Throughout the period from the publication of Colline in 1929 to that of L'Eau vive in 1943, there are constant references in Giono's writings to the power of language and its role in the world. Often these references develop into a major theme within particular works; even where they do not, they still help to form a leitmotiv that recurs persistently during some fifteen years of Giono's career, and which throws light in a hitherto unexplained way on his view of the role and significance of language….
[Giono's] fascination with speech is manifested, throughout the 'peasant' writings, by a constant stress on the physical utterance of words, even on the workings of the speech-organs themselves. In L'Eau vive, Giono recruits one of his favourite images—the snake—to describe the writhing of the tongue in the darkness of the mouth…. (p. 289)
This stress on the spoken word can be seen as appropriate to the settings and characters of Giono's pre-war writings. If he wanted to write of language at all, then, in these novels of peasant life, it had to be of the spoken tongue and not of the written language…. Yet this in itself clearly does not account for the emphasis laid on speech. For one thing, Giono's first fictional work, Naissance de l'Odyssée, written before he embarked on the cycle paysan, although published later than the early books of that series, already shows the same fixation. Giono retells the Ulysses myth in such a way as to bring his obsession with speech into the forefront of the action. His Ulysses is no longer Homer's conquering hero, but rather 'courageux par les seuls exploits de la langue' [courageous through the lone exploits of language] …, compensating for his frustrated and neurotic character by creating in speech an image of himself that men will admire…. It is, in fact, difficult to read for more than five or six pages without encountering some reference to the force of speech. Giono's insistence on the theme causes him to flood his first book with countless allusions to it, indiscriminately perhaps, until the impact is lost. It is not until the opening novels of the cycle paysan that we see him controlling his material fully, assigning a definite structural role to the theme of spoken language and gaining increased effect by doing so.
In Colline, extraordinary verbal powers are the property of only one character, Janet, and are brought into relief by the paucity of speech of the other inhabitants of the village. Janet's earthy eloquence and metaphor-packed delirium is crucial to his role in the novel. He is the first of a string of characters in Giono's fiction who enjoy, or are thought by other characters to enjoy, a special insight into Nature…. [Janet's] malice is in accordance with Giono's intention in Colline, namely to present the harsh and vindictive side of Nature rather than the benevolently smiling face of Mother Earth seen in many of the later books; Janet, as Nature's suspected accomplice, must thus use his knowledge against Man. In this, his weapon, and also the symbol of his malice, is his tongue. (pp. 290-91)
Just as Janet misuses his knowledge, so too does he misuse, in a sense, his power of speech. Very few of Giono's characters are guilty of this; and when they are, it is usually to achieve a contrast with the good effects of the speech of other, more important characters. This is seen in the second novel of the Pan Trilogy, Un de Baumugnes. Here, Louis misuses his glib tongue to seduce Angèle …, while the life-denying gloom of the inhabitants of La Douloire is expressed in their non-speaking….
Contrasted to this is the marvellous rustic eloquence of the narrator Amédée, and also the semi-magical appeal of the voice of Albin…. [The] final comparison of Albin's voice to the voice of Nature is obviously the highest compliment that the Nature-worshipping Giono can pay to its beauty. But the comparison has a further and more vital function. It serves to integrate the theme of speech with another of Giono's obsessively repeated themes: that of le mélange, in which the diverse elements of creation, animate and inanimate, human and non-human, take their place on an equal footing. Albin's echoing of the sounds of Nature in his voice symbolizes his assumption of his rightful place within le mélange, unlike the proud peasants of Colline who bring disaster down on themselves by wishing to remain outside and above the non-human world. (p. 292)
Again and again, the human voice is compared by Giono to natural phenomena. (p. 293)
Many … images may appear insignificant and commonplace unless they are seen in the overall pattern of Giono's work, in which case they assume a meaning that is crucial to his ideology. Those characters whose voices 'contain' Nature are those who are at one with it, and who represent Giono's positive standpoint in the pre-war period; while the description of natural sounds in terms of the human voice, like the other forms of...
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