Giono, Jean (Vol. 4)
Giono, Jean 1895–1970
Giono was a French novelist, the author of one play, and translator of Moby Dick. His early novels, the "novels of the soil," grandly depict Mediterranean peasant culture; the post-war novels tend toward "classical tragedy and … the sweep of history." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; obituary, Vols. 29-32.)
Jean Giono, a determinedly pagan writer,… will not let the reader be. He must continually point out how right his characters are, how beautifully attuned they are to the universe—that is to say, Giono's universe, so basically different from ours. (p. 100)
Giono's universe is animated to the point of agitation. Everything in his novels is in motion, and everyone is engaged in some precise action…. No tree in Giono—and they are there by the hundred—no stream of water, no small seed, no large glacier, fails to vibrate with human feeling. The transfer is solemnly made. Everyone in Giono's novels must approach every phenomenon of nature as if it were humanly animated; so persistent is this trait that the grandeur of Giono's natural world often gives way to a sort of crowded fussiness. We lack air, so concretely busy is the wind, so intent on its affairs. A strong sense of the great cosmic flow of life presides over the genesis of Giono's tales, but all too often he is content to express it by way of a monotonous, pervasive and all too simple animism. (pp. 107-08)
Germaine Brée and Margaret Guiton, in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1957.
The reader familiar with Giono's early work will already have glimpsed flashes of epic power in the three short novels comprising the Trilogie de Pan, in the opening pages of Le Grand Troupeau, and in the festival of shepherds … in Le Serpent d'étoiles. Though surpassed perhaps in grandeur and poetic beauty by individual passages in its two successors, Le Chant du monde (1934) is universally regarded today as the masterpiece of Giono's epic period. The reason for this esteem is the perfect balance which Giono only here has achieved among pictorial richness, interest and credibility of intrigue, and development of characters which blend into and are explained by their background. With its three divisions representing autumn, winter, and the glorious rebirth of the world in the spring, Le Chant du monde possesses at the same time the coherence and unity of great drama and the musical harmonies of a symphony. (p. 77)
Le Chant du monde deserves to be called an epic novel not only because of its grandiose background of natural forces but also because of its characters and narrative. (p. 79)
At first glance Que ma joie demeure seems much less epic and more realistic than either the preceding or following novel. The narrative, which relates the efforts of Bobi, the wandering acrobat, to bring a sense of joy and beauty to the monotonous and lonesome life of these isolated peasants, is discursive and rambling, filled with the details of husbandry and descriptions of the seasons. The style in the main is simple and free from the exuberant prolixity of imagery of the earlier volumes. Yet, on the whole, in spite of the brooding melancholy which has only temporarily given way to Bobi's poetic magic, the general atmosphere of the book is replete with quiet charm and appreciation of humble things which here are tinged with spiritual beauty. (p. 81)
In his epic lyricism Giono is especially effective in his sense of the movement of natural forces, such as the wind rolling clouds into fantastic and monstrous images, or the melting of mountain glaciers and snowfields in the spring. (p. 82)
Batailles dans la montagne (1937) is the most ambitious, the most truly epic of the novels in this cycle. (p. 84)
Batailles marks the extreme limit of Giono's epic inspiration. He realized that he had exhausted this poetic vein, for this is the last novel of what has been called his first manner. This novel is followed by the very different style of the Chroniques, in which the lyric rhapsodies of nature are subordinated to a sobriety of expression almost metallic in its hardness, even though his fondness for strange, mysterious adventures still persists. (p. 87)
The lush richness of Giono's fertile creativity reminds one indeed of a tropical jungle in which the explorer must first thrust aside the underbrush in order to feast his eyes on the exotic splendor of the foliage and fauna.
In this very profusion, however, lies one of Giono's greatest failings…. Of his enormous production, it is certain that much will prove merely ephemeral; it is unlikely that his dramas, motion picture scenarios, travelogues, propaganda pamphlets, even most of his short stories and sketches, will be long remembered.
What will remain will in all likelihood be only a handful of his novels—but enough to assure him a permanent and distinguished rank among the great novelists of France. Literary prophecy is perhaps the most dangerous and futile of all human temptations, and full of temerity is he who dares to foretell the taste of future generations…. I will suppress my own personal fondness for Pour saluer Melville and Voyage en Italie, and venture my nominations for survival among Giono's works. Of Giono's first period this list would include Jean le bleu, the short volumes of the Trilogy of Pan now available in inexpensive editions for the masses, and especially that beautiful and poetic Chant du Monde; of the post-war period the strangely haunting Un Roi sans divertissement and Les Ames fortes, and certainly Le Hussard sur le toit. (pp. 173-74)
Giono's numerous weaknesses as a novelist stem primarily from the characteristics already mentioned: prolixity and proliferation. In most of them there is great unevenness, resulting in majestic mountain peaks worthy of an anthology that alternate with dreary wasteland and monotonous marshes in which the reader is bogged down. In the earlier period Giono's verbosity keeps him from resting until he has almost smothered the reader with adjectival synonyms and breathless metaphors. On other occasions his quest for naturalness led him into the artifice of elementary dialogue, replete with irregular syntax and repetition. His absorption with natural forces sometimes tended to diminish his human figures until they were scarcely distinguishable from plant or animal creation. (pp 174-75)
But, if Giono has several faults, they are more than redeemed by virtues which in many cases are merely the obverse of the medal and spring from the same source. Thus his prolixity is only the price he pays for verve and intensity—a richness of the creative imagination which few writers have exceeded. (p. 175)
Giono is first of all a great poet in prose. It is now generally recognized that, like Chateaubriand in the preceding century, he has brought a new freshness, warmth, and color to the French language…. Uniquely open to the physical universe, he has given man a new vision of the reality about him, and expressed it with a wealth of imagery and symbol. Closely akin to this quality in Giono is his ability to transport us into a world of fantasy and mystery which yet seems entirely credible and real.
If Giono has succeeded in readapting to our blasé, sophisticated society the long-forgotten tradition of the primitive epic, he has also shown himself a precursor and initiator in the technique of the modern novel. Better than any other contemporary French novelist, perhaps, he has practiced the method of Faulkner and the American novel in allowing the reader to participate more fully in the explanation of events and characters overlapping in time as they are related in the first person by one or more humble narrators.
In one respect, however, Giono is far removed from contemporary practice. Recent tendencies in the novel seem to subordinate the story itself to the "stream of consciousness" technique until one critic has complained that "the history of fiction is simply the history of the decay of the plot." Other than his poetic spontaneity, the most persistent quality in Giono as a novelist has been his marvelous capacity for telling a story that holds the reader breathless until the end. (p. 176)
And finally, the last paradox we shall mention in regard to this paradoxical writer, Giono the regionalist is at the same time a universal writer…. [Giono's novels are mostly] concentrated in the comparatively wild and primitive valleys and plateaux of upper Provence and Dauphiné. But, though we recognize the scenery and even the faces of his characters, Giono is far more than a regional novelist. His themes are universal and timeless—the struggle of man for survival against the great forces of nature; the elemental and eternal instincts of love and friendship, ambition and revenge. (p. 177)
Maxwell A. Smith, in his Jean Giono (copyright 1966 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co.), Twayne, 1966.
Giono is little concerned with verisimilitude and the situations he describes are often scarcely credible. He could even be accused of falling into melodrama. What he is really aiming at is tragedy, classical tragedy with its choruses and recitatives. The old Giono, who tried to raise ordinary events of village life to the grandeur of epic, has not entirely been effaced. But this grandeur is now provided more by history than by folklore and the old poet of the earth and the stars turns more and more to historical reconstruction. This escape into the past saves Giono from having to take sides in the controversies of our time and allows him even more than before to turn away from a world that has disappointed him and which he totally rejects.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; copyright © 1967 by Methuen and Co. Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, p. 47 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
At the very moment when her political and economic leaders seemed powerless to avert an impending catastrophe, France produced a number of writers whose robust audacity and faith were scarcely equaled elsewhere in Europe. Jean Giono is probably the most original among these men; his appearance in the French literary firmament was truly meteoric…. The novels of that newcomer to literature were not skillfully built; they ignored academic subleties and the fashions of the day. Their heroes were not poisoned by complexes, nor did they blend desire and hatred in 'that mutual torture,' which was, for Proust, synonymous with love. In them the tone of a psychological dissector had given way to that of a poetical master of suggestive language and an epic storyteller.
Giono was also a prophet, and his message was soon acclaimed by eager disciples. He rejected much of our urban and analytical civilization; but he held out hope for despairing moderns. He aimed at rebuilding a new unity in man and endeavored to instil in him the sweet, or bitter, 'lore that nature brings.'…
The chief actors in Giono's stories are the great elemental forces: the wind, the torrents of spring unleashed over field and marsh, the parched earth in summer, the Dionysian dance of reeling odors, which intoxicate his men and his women, and above all, the stars that guide their works and their humble meditations. The novelist's purpose is to create living beings not unworthy of such a simple and yet grandiose setting, and the best of Giono's books are those in which he has conjured up the people who enchanted his childhood and taught him the meaning of life and the acceptance of fate….
[The] early novels of Giono reflected the radiant search for joy of a young man exulting in his rediscovered bonds with the mythical forces of nature and eager to rebuild a new communion through love. Soon, however, the author became obsessed with the memories of war … [and in Batailles dans la Montague (1937)] the dramatic and even the plain human quality of Giono's earlier works seems gone. Words are rich in sap and juicy as sunny grapes, but their impetuous torrent appears no longer controlled by the author. Giono's epic qualities have swollen dangerously….
More and more, as he became sensitive to the evils of the world, the prophet in him triumphed over the teller of tales.
His gift of style has not left him. His message, earnestly felt, is often expressed with great force. An anthology of Giono's thoughts, detached from a certain verbose repetitiousness, which weakens them in their context, would include some of the most convincing denunciations of the social and moral wrongs of modern life, couched in sumptuous language. But Giono's books [became] loose in structure, occasionally declamatory, and wearying in their revolt against the inevitable. The distinction the Stoics make between evils that we may hope to cure and evils that are not under our control is not observed by this old pagan wisdom….
Giono is significant in French letters because he is, primarily, a great artist…. His first astonishing gift is sensation. Giono plunges into the world with a freshness of perception denied to most adults. But that freshness is not the delicate sensitiveness of children, which blends the concrete and the magical. His sensations are as robust and earthy as they are intense. They do not diffuse objects in a halo of evanescent glimmering light; they accept them whole and capture their essence, concrete and spiritual. The novelist's world is a world of smells, tastes, palpable masses and shapes, caressed by the body; visual sensations account for little, and the intellectual content of perceptions is sacrificed to their sensuous revelation.
What he has perceived is almost instantaneously rendered through images. Giono is one of the most prolific creators of images in modern literature. He has occasionally abused his gift, but he has seldom indulged in the tricky metaphorical phrases for which [some of his older contemporary compatriots] became famous. Giono's images do not aim at surprising the reader, even less at debasing the person or the object, as was the fashion when a 'gentleman' would compare his lady's pale complexion to 'that yellow paper in which butchers wrap up meat.' Giono's rarest gift is his inexhaustibility to create precise, yet expanding and soaring, images. He fixes the essence of reality through them and ennobles it at the same time; he simplifies, and yet transfigures….
Giono is no master of the art of fiction in the traditional sense of the word; and his wealth of digression and lavish use of description deprive his books of the purity of outline associated with many French novels…. [His novels] are often loosely built. Even in character creation, where Giono is far stronger, he can lay no claim to having molded individuals overflowing with life, as are the heroes of Balzac or Proust. His women in particular remain indistinct. We know much of what takes place in their sensations and, as it were, along and under their skin, but much less about their feelings and less still about the intellectual side of their nature, their moral or social reactions. They are nevertheless real human beings and as true peasants as exist in fiction….
Giono is also an artist with words. His vocabulary is extraordinarily varied—one of the richest in French since Balzac and Hugo. He seems to have the right word always ready at his disposal to express any part of a flower, of a tree, of an animal, or of a house, for the precise sensation received from the wind or the rain. His language is as robust as it is rich. The reader actually smells Giono's verbs, breathes the fragrance of his adjectives, feels the caress of his adverbs on his skin….
[Giono] realizes that no regression is possible for men; machines will not be scrapped and probably should not be; but 'the true riches' should be shared by many of those who are at present absorbed in machines. If we cannot deny or undo mechanical civilization, we can go beyond it. To the suffering man of today, oppressed by a load of monstrous drudgery and living in terror of fierce cataclysms, Giono extends words of solace and hope…. A passionate protest against man's fate—this is the significance of Giono's work. Some will smile at these outbursts against modern civilization and affix the familiar labels: romanticism, primitivism, anti-intellectualism. There will doubtless be a measure of truth in their scoffing. But Giono's art laughs in turn at such philosophers who treat man as a purely logical and reasoning animal, or rather as hardly an animal or plant at all, while he differs only in degree from trees and horses. His creed is not likely to be long discussed by professional thinkers or to be weighed carefully by experts on economic science. But it is the living faith of a poet, the passionate and anguished cry of a sensitive man protesting against 'what man has made of man.'
Henri Peyre, "Jean Giono," in his French Novelists of Today (copyright © 1955, 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press—Galaxy, 1967, pp. 123-53.
At some point in each of Giono's works there is a climax—an explosion and a release. In Colline, the basic world of earth, water and fire is freed from the malignant hostility, or revenge, of nature when the spring restarts to flow, as if the putrid swelling on the hill had been pricked. In Regain, spring brings an outburst of new life after years of congested desires. In Un de Baumugnes and Le Chant du Monde, lovers escape from prison. Peace at the end of Le Grand Troupeau comes as a high-point, an end to slaughter, a start to living. Bobi looses longings; Saint-Jean dynamites the blocked waters. Langlois blows himself to bits; Angelo liberates himself from both plague and rebellion; the narrator of Les Grands Chemins can only wander at random again by killing his too magnetic companion. It is a literature of uncorseting, as un-Voltairian as possible. But, though it explodes outwards, it is from a fixed centre: Ulysses sloughs off fears by inventing a dream-world, but he must one day return to less tractable matter—his fellow-beings. So, Giono's world opens outwards, in the most expansive kind of egocentricity imaginable. In the country of notoriously indoors fiction and mainly psychological landscapes, Giono's private world includes the great outdoors. (p. 191)
Giono's peculiar genius has been to describe joy, freedom and achieved love more sensuously than most other, non-mystical, writers. Yet such intense sensory awareness does transcend ordinary experience, and is almost mystical…. Giono replaces reality with his own fabrication…. He has always advocated imaginary building, to fill the gaps in reality, and having, like Zola, a taste for the gigantic, he fills to overflowing. Indeed, like Zola, after knowing material poverty in his youth, ever after he seems to compensate by a sustained exaggeration, an orgy of rich imaginative experience. The result, for both, is a basic grossness, a disproportion, but undeniable force, despite the impression that the process of démesure in both writers becomes automatic, and enslaves the would-be omnipotent creator. It is less impressive than it might have been if it had paid more homage to dialectics. (p. 192)
It seems unlikely that he handles genuine moral problems so much as titillating enigmas. His people tend to have one instinctive and exclusive code of action, and rarely know the succession of disappointments lit up by only occasional triumphs and interspersed with much blankness which probably makes up an average human condition. He never shows us an individual truly wrestling with a recalcitrant inner self…. Giono stressed harmony before he added discord, so that the first seems willed and ingenuous, and the second contrived, an afterthought. The wheels on which Giono's world careers along are too well oiled. In omitting such a large area of human experience, Giono, apparently working for a unified picture, in fact produces a highly relative view, characterized by his quixotic treatment of external reality. Convinced that this century's civilization has been commercialized and atomized, he has tried to construct in opposition a fictional world, self-contained and internally coherent. Yet this is to foster hermeticism. He cannot share this with readers who do live in their times, at least not the whole of it…. So that, despite all the escapism, it is hard to avoid a feeling of inadequacy in the organization of contemporary life when reading Giono. Garden cities, national parks, week-end rambles, are only substitutes. It is not even Provence that Giono exalts in antithesis to urban civilization, but an ideal country of the mind: he has invented even what he hankers after. (pp. 192-93)
His books can enthrall, flood the reader with sense-impressions, shock, captivate, but they never move…. Strange how a literature which stresses the continuous transformation of all matter gives the appearance of being static. Perhaps, despite the cult of roots, Giono's world, being one essentially of words, is really of surfaces. Nevertheless, the spectacle of his imagination operating in full flight provokes an exhilaration rare to-day. (pp. 195-96)
W. D. Redfern, in his The Private World of Jean Giono (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1967 by W. D. Redfern), Duke University Press, 1967.
I not only liked [The Horseman on the Roof] when I first read [it] and continue to like [it] on rereading; I think [it is a minor masterpiece] in the range with such esteemed works as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Gide's Strait Is the Gate, Mann's Felix Krull, or Greene's The Labyrinthine Ways….
I have a theory. In [his book], Giono did not do homage to the great god Zeitgeist. Not only did [he] neglect honoring him; [he] did not even set out to flout him—flouting, after all, is an admission of importance. [He] simply behaved as though he were of no great consequence, no more than he had been before Hegel puffed him up….
To artists in general Zeitgeist says, not Make it beautiful, but Make it new (think of fashionable Shakespeare productions, and Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary)….
To novelists in particular, Zeitgeist says Reveal Thou Me, and of course they do. In fact, they were doing it before he told them to. They can't help doing it, at least a little. A novel brings news of the subtlest ways people are connected, and not even sociology and psychology between them can beat fiction at that game…. So, one of the best ways to find out what Zeitgeist is like in any given locale is to read good novels; but that does not mean that novelists necessarily adore him, write in order to reveal him or even to understand him….
I suspect, though I am not quite sure of this, that a novel written in obedience to Zeitgeist's command to reveal him, make it new, be modernist, revolt, will not amount to much; the best form for that enterprise, it seems to me, is journalism (think of Orwell's fiction and then of his superb journalistic essays)….
[The Horseman on the Roof] is a story of wandering, and in the course of it Giono invents plenty of adventures to show us how people of every stripe behave; moreover, Angelo is a great theorizer, and Giono lets us eavesdrop on his thoughts as well as on the occasional speculative discussions he becomes involved in with people he meets. We have every opportunity to find in the pattern of these adventures the book's message, for we are guided not only by Angelo's theories but also by comments which Giono makes in his own person. (An instance of his old-fashioned, tale-telling, pre-Jamesian, authorial ease with the reader: "For a heart like his, smitten with liberty, these inhuman solitudes had a certain charm." But for a novelist to manifest himself instead of Z is a mortal sin against the Art of Modern Fiction, one of Z's lesser avatars.) What we find by delving into this novel is that there isn't any message, at least not of a variety favored by holy Z. Giono instructs us on the spirit of neither that age nor ours. The plague does not symbolize anything, it is neither a punishment from God nor a product of social injustice nor a disaster in whose glare the wickedness of society may be exposed; it is just there in the world, a given, like hot weather…. [The] reader is on everybody's side, even on the side of the despicable characters. Worse, he is with Angelo less because Angelo has right opinions than because he is charming and full of vitality. The novel provides victims aplenty; in fact, all the characters are victims either of the plague or of fear of it. But our delight in the fortitude with which Angelo and a few others face the horror commingles with our contempt for the abject baseness with which most face it, to impurify our victim-pitying till it does not lead to indignation or other easy sentiments but to contemplation and thence to a kind of acceptance…. For the offenses of permitting shameless thoughts … to enter his liberals' heads and of telling a victim-story that deplores not at all and delights a great deal, that is not Relevant to any of the Problems of Our Age, Giono will not be lightly forgiven.
George P. Elliott, "Ramon Sender's 'A Man's Place' and Jean Giono's 'The Horseman on the Roof'," in Rediscoveries, edited by David Madden (© 1971 by Crown Publishers, Inc.; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1971, pp. 104-14.
Because of his scholarship, obvious intellectual independence, and study of such artists as Melville, Proust, Gide, Breton, Sartre, and Faulkner, [Giono] became a craftsman and technician par excellence of the novel, the tale, and story collection or cycle.
Self-educated, a lone visionary residing mainly in his native Manosque, thus isolating himself from Parisian notables by distance, climate, and way of life, Giono established himself for a wide, international reading public as an unrepentant social critic, as champion of the poor, as theologian, mythographer, scholar, revolutionary, and humanist. (p. 4)
Jean Giono widened our understanding of the uses and the possibilities of prose fiction. He elevated the novel particularly, the very form thought by many to be moribund, to new artistic preeminence. Working experimentally in book after book … Giono demonstrated over forty odd years of daily practice how brilliantly the novel fulfills the conditions, and therefore meets the needs customarily satisfied by several hallowed literary modes.
A learned man, very well read, with a personal library of over 7,000 volumes, Giono often experimented by placing certain of his novels carefully within literary traditions. In such cases he proceeded by first arousing and then meeting in his readers a thirst for literary decorum, where components fit properly into what are recognizable modes. Various of his novels thus clearly recreate long-established sets, or literary structures. Such books read as if the author, having first categorized human experience, set forth its mysteries upon which he imposed order and form. Behind his approach, in other words, underlie not only the super-narrator's watchful decision made a priori, as Giono explained in the Preface to his Chroniques romanesques (1962), concerning the basis for each conception but, even more important, his awareness of those certain issues—political, moral, religious, historical, aesthetic—best treated traditionally by each mode. Thus, adapting in some cases old formats to present use, Giono handled with striking originality various reconstitutions of a frightening, mysterious world. He hoped meanwhile, he added, that his modus operandi passed unperceived.
Adopting several different attitudes towards reality, then, and studying mankind from several different perspectives, Giono began by writing fiction according to the pastoral mode, which to the great comfort of his pre-war reader he initially preferred as an explanation of the world. Then he branched out into what we shall suggest is an apocalyptic mode, when in a spirit of prophecy he chose to treat history and theology. Much later he chose a surrealistic mode, when he undertook unearthly, fictional voyages through time and space; a symbolic mode, when he felt constrained to convey, or to suggest, by patterns, knowledge not made explicit in the text, and/or not comprehended fully by him either; an epic mode, when he proposed the ways of saints and barbaric heroes, lest their stories were thought irrelevant to modern life; a tragic mode, either according to Sophocles or to Shakespeare, when he realized that sacrificial offerings were still being made, even in the twentieth century; and twice an autobiographical and Proustian mode, when he resumed his puzzling about motherhood, creativity, and childhood, relying here, of course, upon the Bildungsroman, or portrait of the artist. (pp. 5-6)
No depth of mature consciousness, no great awareness of craft, and no accession to bitter adulthood occur in Giono much before his first near-masterpiece, Batailles dans la montagne of 1937. (p. 7)
Like William Faulkner, Giono not only rejected the city and foresaw grass growing at the Paris subway exits, but he constructed from bits and geographical particulars what he acknowledged to be a mythical "High Country" peopled by hypothetical beings like those in Jefferson, at the hub of equally mythical Yoknapatawpha County in northwest Mississippi. As early as his novel Nassance de l'Odyssée of 1930—the novel so titled because it humorously offers a theory and practice for the creation of Homer's Odyssey—Giono had selected two of his chief themes: the happiness of man released from society into the wide world as a free adventurer like Ulysses, and the privileged position of the artist, also like Ulysses, creating tales for the delight and knowledge of himself and anyone else. As an apocalypticist, Giono grappled later on at least two major occasions, 1931 and c. 1960, with the catastrophic end of modern civilization, and each man's personal abyss and absorption into the cosmos. As a surrealist rejecting reason and logic and summoning other ways of knowing, Giono imagined trips back into time in Noé and forward into space in Fragments d'un paradis. When he chose a symbolic mode, he summoned reader collaboration for Les Grands chemins as for Le Hussard sur le toit, soliciting theories and conclusions from the mazes of oblique referential patterns relating to twinships and brotherhoods, blacks and whites, warfare between nations and sexes. The epic novels call upon modern humanists to review the behavior of men and women, to decide upon what now in our days can be salvaged from what once were worshipful stances and actions, and to view the heroic women leaders of the future, after our present revolution. Always in the most noble mode, the tragic novels of Giono very movingly treat crimes and justice, triumphs, revenge, and ghastly sacrifices to olden gods, perhaps upon a frozen planet. (pp. 18-19)
The great ironic novels of Jean Giono appeal,… not only because he succeeded in clothing his vision in aesthetically admirable and identifiable forms, which allow the reader the pleasure of placing the works severally into familiar and rich literary traditions; they also afford shelter and comfort by reminding the modern reader, with whom the world is much too much, that beyond his routine and narrow horizons lies a vast, adventuresome universe of freedom and pure delight. They thrill some readers with their portraits of brave men and magnificent women, who trust the earth and their own bodies. Last of all, they delight eye and ear and bring joy to many hearts because, more than most authors, Giono possessed what Aristotle considered the surest mark of a born genius: the gift of abundant metaphor. There lies his waspish humor, and there also the reader's enjoyment. (p. 23)
When, passing suddenly to the mature novelist, we open a discussion of Giono's chronicle Noé, we see spread before us a most brilliant innovation in fictional form…. The ideas of Noah, ark, flood, and voyage produced three Giono works, all published closely together, in 1947 and 1948: Noé, Fragments d'un déluge, and Fragments d'un paradis…. Noé remains … not only one of Giono's richest and most intricate books, but also a novel closely related to a collection of short stories—a splendid innovation in fictional form. In addition, due to its sheer originality, Noé is in my opinion the most readable, even after many readings, of "modern" or "new" novels. (pp. 55, 74)
In 1951, twenty years into his career as a novelist, Giono came to the attention of literary critics at home and abroad with a major novel. His Hussard sur le toit deals with a celebrated novelistic subject, the bubonic plague, set by Giono as a background to the adventures of a central character, the aristocratic Angélo Pardi…. [As] probably Giono's greatest work, it presents problems common to the most distinguished of our modern novels. (pp. 111-12)
While establishing the fact that [Camus'] La Peste and Le Hussard sur le toit are, despite their mutual subject matter, largely dissimilar, the critics wavered in their assessments of the more troublesome, because much more complex, Giono work. The major problem shared by the critics of this novel was precisely whether the book could be best treated in terms of another familiar literary genre, the epic perhaps, or the medieval allegory. It would seem now that the romance, the roman courtois from the Middle Ages, better interprets this Giono novel, which is further complicated by the presence of symbolic patterns. (p. 112)
Norma L. Goodrich, in her Giono: Master of Fictional Modes (copyright © 1973 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1973.