Jean Giono was born in 1895 at Manosque, a rural village in southern France where, except for extended military service during World War I, he would spend his entire life. His father, a cobbler, and his mother, a launderer, had married when they were no longer young, and Jean was their only child. His childhood, recalled in Blue Boy and elsewhere, appears to have been a reasonably happy one, although lived close to the poverty line and in close touch with the forces of nature. In 1911, faced with the declining health of his father, Jean cut short his formal education to take a job in the local branch of a national bank; with time out for military service, he would remain with the bank until 1930, when he at last believed himself capable of earning a living from his writings; it was in that year that he bought the house in which he would spend the remaining forty years of his life, and in which he would receive visitors attracted from throughout the world by the increased success of his writings. In 1920, soon after the death of his father, he married Élise Maurin; the couple had two daughters, Aline in 1926 and Sylvie in 1934.
As early as 1931, with To the Slaughterhouse, Giono began to express in his writings the deep and obdurate pacifism that was the result of nearly five years of enlisted service during World War I. With the publication of his rural epics, notably The Song of the World and Joy of Man’s Desiring, Giono’s pacifism gradually fused with his glorification of rustic life to produce the phenomenon of Contadour, a back-to-the-soil movement that anticipated by some thirty years many similar communal experiments in the United States and Western Europe. According to critic and Giono expert Maxwell Smith, the Contadour experience arose more or less by accident when, in the fall of 1935, the number of youthful “pilgrims” to Giono’s home in Manosque exceeded the Gionos’ capacity for hospitality, and Élise suggested to her husband that he take some of their uninvited guests “for a walk.” Knapsacks on backs, Giono and some three dozen of the faithful set off soon thereafter on an extended hike through areas that Giono especially loved or about which he had written. When, after several days, the leader happened to sprain his ankle near the tiny town of Contadour, the group decided that they had found what they had been seeking. Housed at first in a barn, the group later bought land for sheep...
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