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Giono, Jean 1895–1970

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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.)

Norma L. Goodrich

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[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 thoroughly enjoy apocalypse. There is a dearth of pure joy in the universe…. We would therefore stay to the last curtain, for apocalypse as previously defined does not necessarily destroy our lives….

What is Apocalypse? To Giono's father, who loved the sweet shadows under the centaurs, the golden locusts with lion's teeth, and all such splendors, it is also literature in the line from Vergil to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. What else? With its patent allusions to Rome, it is political writing, its author pouncing upon and utilizing events like foundlings. But most of all, it constitutes a timely warning to beware of super-civilizations which would forbid to man the sovereign remedy for all holocausts: death itself,—that final triumph, as Giono would characteristically believe.

In addition to these refutations of Revelation, Giono's modern apocalyptic contains two blocks of material … relating to astronomy [and] … mathematical thinking. (p. 120)

Giono introduces new material, which marks his apocalypse as being of the twentieth century, while by its use he repudiates science, as he did in Le Hussard sur le toit, preferring poetry or art on whose grounds he himself is probably to be preferred.

His own terrain, where he commands our instant respect … is human nature, which he can reliably observe and from whose case he can posit conclusions later generalized to apply to all humanity, then to our planet, and finally to the universe. Very wisely the novelist finds apocalypse verifiable in one person whom he takes … for his illustration. (pp. 121-22)

The reader is introduced to him via the father's discursions upon apocalyptic, but the method used, or the author's technique in this parallel material, which serves as concrete illustration of apocalypse, contains the chief interest of the piece…. The reader is introduced to Oncle Eugène … who is becoming blind [and deaf in his old age]…. This feeble and unintelligent septuagenarian is himself a world, a universe even, in whom apocalypse unfolds; he typifies the only verifiable illustration within our grasp of man succumbing to a series of awful calamities…. There is much apocalypse in this old man's frail body.

Apocalypse is apprehended, not intellectually, but by our senses…. (p. 122)

The abyss of ten thousand years is the past into which all present plunges, then, faster than the speed of light. In this abyss of space Uncle Eugène floats with thousands of years to go, perhaps, before touching bottom, on his way towards a new universe, of which there are thousands. When we contemplate the heavens, we also gaze into this abyss in the description of which all our numbers are inadequate. Uncle Eugène arrives at the end of a world, which has perhaps also ended. (p. 123)

The Giono text is itself a work of art and an apocalypse, rather than a criticism thereof, as in the case of D. H. Lawrence. Giono proceeds throughout more subtly even where he may agree with Lawrence; while the latter had demonstrated by argument that apocalyptic thinking represents a popular or mass reaction, Giono allows his father, a man of the poor, to speak the text. While Lawrence brilliantly analyzes the symbolism of the text, Giono-the-apocalypticist points out a philosophical error inconsistent with his knowledge of man: that apocalypse excludes death. Where Lawrence feels a grudging admiration mixed with contempt and scorn for John's Apocalypse, and while he concentrates upon the mythological interpretations of the text, Giono goes behind the text to put himself in the author's place and thus, allying himself with John of Patmos…. [While] Lawrence treats various aspects of Revelation in chapters, Giono re-constructs the whole, making it apply to our own times. Lawrence is interested in Revelation as a past fact; Giono is interested in it as a present, living entity, a power still in the world.

Jean Giono's apocalypse text, Le Grand Théâtre, is, like all his writings, anthropocentric. Man, he says, is here on earth like a spectator in a vast theatre, a privileged viewer before whom and to whom revelations occur…. Dangers to man … threaten him only because of his past, asserts Jean Giono, diverted from diurnal fiction for the nonce to become an apophatic theologian as he re-composed a Book of the Bible. (pp. 124-25)

Norma L. Goodrich, "Jean Giono's New Apocalypse Text: 'Le Grand Théâtre'" (1964), in The French Review (copyright 1970 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Winter, 1970, pp. 116-25.

Felix Rysten

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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 one that began it, aplati. The hero glimpses behind the dense foliage that protects the pond his angry and spiteful son. Telemachus, with wet hair matted like a helmet, is—so ends the final sentence—sharpening "un épieu en bois de platane."… With the word platane Giono has recalled aplati, and in so doing so has once more "flattened" his hero. Although the menacing intrusion upon an idyllic scene of a grown child at play is unexpected, it may convey Giono's view that the perpetual bliss of an enchanted world can too readily be destroyed by hate and resentment. However, in order to provide a point of stability for Ulysses, Giono has created a Penelope so affectionately that it is difficult to miss his preference for the woman of the narrative.

In the Odyssey it is said of Penelope that she has an excellent brain and a genius for getting her way…. It is this combination of qualities, together with a casual negligence, which Giono has selected to portray an idle, but not unsympathetic woman. For Homer she bore a resemblance to the spider-that-was-Arachne, endlessly weaving and thus repeating the truth of death; for Giono she is a latter-day Ariadne who provides more than one thread in the maze of her husband's doubts to lead him astray in his search for the monster of inquiétude. (pp. 382-83)

In a real sense it can … be said of Ulysses that he has become the healer of minds grown apart from nature, a healer of the spirit in man dulled with labor and monotony. His success has depended, as Giono implies, upon the mythological enlargement of his human personality which has never lost touch with the natural world of the senses. With enchanted disrespect Giono has spoofed a hallowed epic without turning his vagabond hero into a subject of ridicule. The mockery never obscures Giono's love for his principal character who set out to seize the world and who, in intense cosmic communion, gathered each day for better or for worse. With imagination victorious, but never so triumphant that the reality of the natural sense impression is shut out, Giono concludes with Ulysses that the secret of their happiness lies in communion with sand and water, with flower and tree, with the land which partakes of the Woman, with the earth which has become Penelope…. She has the russet color of the pond, Ulysses' microcosmic world which, in ultimate transfiguration, is about to become the perilous sea that brought him home to Ithaca. (pp. 386-87)

Felix Rysten, "Jean Giono's 'Naissance de l'Odyssée'," in The French Review (copyright 1971 by the American Association of Teachers of French), December, 1971, pp. 378-87.

Malcolm Scott

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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 personification of Nature in Giono's work, serves to reduce the gulf between Man and Nature by suggesting unsuspected similarities, and thus underlines the theme of le mélange….

In Jean le Bleu, Giono's fictionalized autobiography, it is finally affirmed, through the mouth of the poet Odripano, that Man can reintegrate himself with the rest of the animal kingdom through vocalization, by being absorbed into Nature's pattern of ritual calling….

It is noticeable that in ranging the human voice alongside the other sounds of the universe, Giono often envisages the voice merely as sound, and not as a verbal agent at all; or rather, words are seen as a later embellishment, a sophisticated human development, moulding precise meanings from the original instinctive utterance. Man's voice always retains the vestiges of this original animalic sound, which manifest themselves at moments when instinct speaks louder than intellect…. (p. 294)

This insistence on Man-produced sound, as Man's contribution to the sounds of the world, finds another extension in the theme of music…. Throughout Giono's pre-war work, in fact, the effect of music on a listener is described in the same terms as that of speech…. Also, analogies between music and the world of Nature are created through Giono's imagery the many musical instruments described by Giono, some real, some invented, and which assume something of the mythological importance of Pan's pipes, have as their primeval ancestor 'cet instrument premier d'où tout rejaillit, d'où toute musique a coulé, la libre, chanteuse terre qui est là tout autour avec son poids de bêtes … [this primeval instrument from which everything did spring, from which all music has flowed, the free, singing earth that is everywhere with its animal weight …]'….

'La libre, chanteuse terre', 'le chant du monde'—such images recur constantly in Giono's writings, and remind us that for him song, which occupies so large a place in his work, and where lies the fusion of speech and music, has its roots, like these two elements separately, in the melodious sounds of Nature. This is stressed time and again by his imagery, which accords the gift of song to so many diverse natural phenomena. (p. 295)

The use of imagery by certain carefully selected characters in Giono's novels is noticeable … as early as Colline. When Janet sees a whip lying on the floor and describes it as a snake … this is partly due to his delirium, and partly to his gift of metaphorical vision. Janet sees the whip as a snake; Gondran sees it as a whip. This is the difference between the sick mind and the healthy mind, but is is also the difference between the poet and the ordinary man. (p. 297)

[The] initial inspiration of [the theme of language] is probably the same as that which helped to create Giono's first fictional work, Naissance de l'Odyssée, namely Homer. The original Odyssey, read and loved by Giono since childhood, bristles with references to speech and song, both human and divine. The vocal accomplishments of Giono's characters are prefigured by those of Homer's Odysseus, a master of 'the graceful art of speech', as well as by other characters in the Odyssey…. (p. 298)

When Giono turned from his direct rewriting of Homer to his peasant novels, he simply transferred to the new context the same intense interest in speech, incorporating it into his new themes and characters. The voices of the gods become, in gradual stages, the voices of Nature, and hence the 'song of the world'…. The fusion of Giono's love of classical literature and his adoration of the Provençal countryside—the two dynamic impulses behind his work—is nowhere more interestingly achieved than within this theme of speech.

Like Homer, too, Giono was not afraid to celebrate in his works his own gifts as a story-teller. (pp. 298-99)

In addition to this element of self-celebration in Giono's work, there is also the romantic elevation to mythic status of the often pithy and picturesque speech of the peasant….

Furthermore, the insistence on spoken language that this article has traced does not prevent Giono's work from being also a celebration of his medium and his powers as a writer. In his unique stylistic world, where the colloquial and the poetic are fused, the borderline between the spoken and the written language is blurred…. [For] Giono, the healing powers and world-role ascribed by him to spoken poetry are, or should be, the properties of literature also. (p. 299)

There is a strong suggestion here that Giono's own ambition, in the pre-war days before his flight into historical fiction, was to be a healer through words. This helps to explain his position in inter-war literature: his re-affirmation, along with those otherwise vastly different writers Bernanos and Malraux, of the spiritually renovating values of heroism and stoicism; and, above all, his constantly reiterated stress on the world's natural beauty and its promise of a cure for modern ills.

Thus Giono's writings-refer frequently, albeit indirectly, to his own ambitions as a writer. In writing books about language and, obliquely, literature, he is contributing to that mass of self-reflective writing that looms large in the twentieth century. And in claiming for the poet a special role as a bringer of enlightenment to men, he allies himself to both the romantic and symbolist traditions of the nineteenth century. (p. 300)

Giono seeks … to refer us to the material world, to make us rediscover through his words the physical beauties of Nature….

Co-operation with Nature, its re-creation through words, and especially its rejuvenation through imagery—which unearths new aspects and encourages new angles of vision—this is the mission of Giono….

Que ma joie demeure,… is Giono's most important treatment of the impact of poetry, including the image, on men's lives. With great honesty, productive in part of the novel's pessimism, he describes Bobi's difficulties in communicating his message to the peasants of the plateau. The problem is primarily linguistic. (p. 301)

Poetry is seen here as something less than the universal panacea that Bobi hopes it will be—not because of any inherent limitations in poetry itself, but because of the lack of comprehension and misuse of poetry displayed by the peasants…. The poet can provide the first imaginative insight on a problem; but the true advancement of society demands that the poet must stand aside and be replaced by the more practical man. (p. 302)

The failure of Bobi's poetry may well reflect a feeling on Giono's part that he had failed, or would fail, to communicate his healing joy through the medium of his books….

Que ma joie demeure is in fact the last novel to present so romantic a vision of the peasant's world. The next novel, Batailles dans la montagne, stresses instead the hardships of a peasant community struggling against a hostile nature. Soon, too, Giono was to abandon his cycle paysan and embark on his chroniques and historical novels. He was largely to abandon also the rich imagery of his pre-war books, which seems to have been a conscious attempt on the part of this underrated artist to carry the reader with him into a joyful appreciation of Nature's vitality. His failure, or self-supposed failure, to convey his own joy in Nature, leading to a conscious under-playing of the poetry that had been the intended vehicle of that joy, may lie at the heart of Giono's switch to his post-war 'second manner'. (p. 303)

Malcolm Scott, "Giono's Song of the World: The Theme of Language and Its Associations in Giono's Pre-war Writings," in French Studies, July, 1972, pp. 289-303.

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