Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1000
Jean Giono (zhyaw-noh), whose works have often been compared to those of Thomas Hardy in England and those of his contemporary William Faulkner in the United States, was one of the best-known and most widely read French “regional” novelists of the twentieth century. Unabashedly rural in theme, accomplished and sophisticated in style, Giono’s writings and his actions anticipated the pacifism and the “simple life” that was pursued by artists during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Giono was turned against war by his long service in the trenches during World War I, and he was denounced during and after World War II for his obdurate pacifism, but he regained both critical and popular favor during the last two decades of his life with an innovative writing style that combines history and fiction.
The only child of an aging cobbler and his laundress wife, Jean Giono was born in Manosque, the small village in the south of France where he also died seventy-five years later. He left Manosque only for the nearly five years of his military service and, subsequently, for a brief transfer to Marseilles in connection with his bank job. In Blue Boy Giono vividly recalls the cavernous, ill-insulated building in Manosque that served during his youth not only as the family home but also as his parents’ combined workplace. A promising student in nearly every subject except literature, Giono left school at the age of sixteen because of his father’s precarious health. He found work almost immediately in the local branch of a national bank; excepting the time spent in wartime service, Giono remained with the same bank until the age of thirty-five, when his earnings as a writer proved sufficient to support his family and to buy the house in which he spent the rest of his life.
In 1920 Giono married Elise Maurin, with whom he had two daughters. He devoted his spare time to voracious reading of Greek and Latin classics in French translation; such a reading habit, formed while he was still in school, also suited the budget within which the young banker attempted to support his family, which for a time included his widowed mother and an uncle. The landscape around Manosque closely resembled the descriptions of ancient Greek and Roman territory, and before long Giono was plotting his first novel, Naissance de l’“Odyssée” (birth of the Odyssey), a tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Ulysses legend, which was, however, not published until 1930, after Giono had attained success with several subsequent efforts and resigned from the bank. The rural-agrarian setting and ironic tone of that first effort was, however, sustained throughout the first few of Giono’s original novels, in particular the so-called Trilogy of Pan (Hill of Destiny, Lovers Are Never Losers, and Harvest).
During the 1920’s Giono’s development and his success as a novelist owed much to his friendship with Lucien Jacques, whom he had met as early as 1922 and who encouraged Giono. Jacques, a writer and graphic artist with influential contacts in Paris, was, like Giono, an ardent pacifist—the result of long and disillusioning service during World War I. Once published, Giono’s early work also received considerable support from André Gide, then the outstanding living writer of French prose. Giono’s vigorous, elemental portrayals of human beings’ perpetual struggle with nature were also quick to gain favor in English translation, both in the United States and in Great Britain.
As a prose poet of the soil, Giono during the early 1930’s began to attract a considerable following among disenchanted, newly impoverished urban readers nostalgic for the simple life that he portrayed. Visitors began flocking to Giono’s Manosque home in such numbers that Marie Giono suggested one day in 1935 that her husband take his unbidden callers “for a walk.” The resulting overland hike, rich in conversation, lasted several days and led to the Contadour movement, dedicated to the rural resettling of urbanites. Giono became the guide and prophet of the movement, which eventually became loosely associated with the Youth Hostel organization. The movement also produced its own journal, which was edited by Giono with the help of Lucien Jacques and published into the 1940’s. The success of Contadour also provided Giono with the inspiration and material for three volumes of loosely constructed social thought, beginning with Les Vraies Richesses (true riches). In time Giono renounced, even repudiated, both Contadour and the essays as products of misguided youthful exuberance; notwithstanding, similar social stirrings in France and elsewhere thirty years later renewed interest in Giono as a social thinker and prophet.
Born of his demoralizing wartime experiences, Giono’s unshakable, deep-seated pacifism had led him to distrust politicians of all persuasions, liberal or conservative, who might believe in war. His somewhat naïve beliefs, outlined in his political essays of the 1930’s, earned him severe censure and even imprisonment by the Vichy government during World War II and later from the liberated government, which branded him a collaborationist. Between prison terms, Giono busied himself with a translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) into French. He also produced Pour saluer Melville (salute to Melville), a strange short novel that inserts fictional material among the known facts of the American novelist’s life; although no hoax was intended, Giono’s account proved so convincing that the tale was accepted by Melville’s own descendants as authentic.
During the sixth decade of his life, Giono rebounded from the various professional and political reverses of his career with a new, vigorous writing style, which extended to his choice of theme and subject matter. Best-known, and most widely disseminated, were the novels of the so-called Hussar Cycle, including The Horseman on the Roof and Angélo, which are loosely based on the lives of his Italian ancestors, in particular his paternal grandfather. Tightly written and documentary in style as in scope, Giono’s later novels brought him some of his highest acclaim, including the Prix Monegasque and election to the prestigious Académie Goncourt.
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