Robert RubsamOctober 02, 2020
Senanque Abbey, Provence, France (Brzozowska/iStock

Jean Giono was born in 1895, the son of a laundress and an artisan cobbler in the southern French town of Manosque. Though his grandfather had once worked with the father of no less a literary figure than Émile Zola, Giono’s was a largely cash-strapped household, and his literary education came from the bargain-priced Garnier Classics editions of Virgil, Homer and Aeschylus, which he would carry with him on walks through the Provençal countryside. As the genesis of Giono’s sensibility, the image is almost too perfect: the earthy fused with the epic, imbuing the peasant landscape with high poetry.

But this is the lesser half of the story. In 1915 Jean Giono was drafted into the French army’s 159th Infantry Regiment and served four years on the Western Front, fighting in the bloodbaths at Kemmel, the Somme and Verdun, from which only 11 members of his company survived. As depicted in his bitter, fragmented 1931 novel, To The Slaughterhouse, Giono’s service was defined by repeated and seemingly random violence, a headlong flight from the ravenous jaws of modernity.

Late in the novel, his characters come upon the remains of an English battery: “All around were wheels, fragments of tubes, empty cartridge cases, shells like caterpillar cocoons, disemboweled horses with twisted necks, men with their faces in the earth, black faces biting the sky, a leg, flesh in pulp, the brains of a man on the rim of a wheel.”

And through it all, he notes, one cannon continues to fire, oblivious to the carnage surrounding it, its operators walking “over the corpse of the[ir] officer, crushing his face with their boots in order to pick up the shell.” His only decoration came from the English, for saving a blinded British soldier from the burning hospital where they were both being treated for poison gas.

As depicted in his bitter, fragmented 1931 novel, To The Slaughterhouse, Jean Giono’s military service was defined by repeated and seemingly random violence, a headlong flight from the ravenous jaws of modernity.

Retreat From the World

Giono returned to Manosque a dedicated pacifist, declaring the modern world a cruel joke. He married, had two daughters and retook his position at the Manosque branch of the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris, a bank where he had first worked before the war. Giono also began to write, first a book of prose poems published by his lifelong friend Lucien Jacques; and then, in 1928, the periodical Commerce published his first novel, Hill, where it was discovered by André Gide and republished in 1929 by Editions Grasset.

The novel is set in the remains of a tiny village, “four houses, orchids flowering up to the eaves,” which lies halfway up the slope of the southern Alpine plateau, in “the wind’s domain.” It is an isolated place, already half-emptied by the brutality of its environment and rendered all the more precarious once its well runs dry and a drought spreads across the landscape. This is a place in which much happens without explanation; and its handful of residents, including the superstitious Gondran and the fool Gagou, contemplate every excuse: a black cat, the evil eye, even a curse from the local paralytic, Janet.

In the story’s visceral climax, a torrent of wildfire scourges the countryside, described by Giono as a living organism, a consciousness against which the villagers struggle with all their knowledge of the landscape. By sheer luck they survive, the well begins to bubble, and the perilous existence of the village Bastides Blanches returns to normal.

Hill is a coiled novel, told in pointed, present-tense prose, and is in many ways the prototypical Giono work. Nature is bountiful but unsparing, and only vaguely understood by the sunburned and unlearned characters who inhabit it. There is a push and pull among animal, vegetable and human life that can achieve a kind of pastoral splendor—as in Giono’s 1930 work Harvest—but more often sparks profound fear in observers. Early in Hill, Gondran heads out to clear an overgrown orchard. After waking from a nap, he kills a lizard with his spade. Immediately, nature seems to revolt: “And there: there it is. The wind comes rushing./ The trees confer in low voices.”

“While he digs,” Giono continues, “it occurs to him for the first time that there’s a kind of blood rising inside bark, just like his own blood; that fierce will to live makes the tree branches twist and propels these sprays of grasses into the sky.” Gondran’s thoughts spiral:

So all around him, on this earth, does every action have to lead to suffering?
Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals?
Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder?
It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill.

Suddenly and unavoidably, he imagines the earth as a vast body, alive and capable of crushing him as easily as he crushed the lizard. He recalls an earthquake, and as he prefigures the conflagration that will close out the novel, he can no longer bear it:

The idea rises in him like a storm.
It wipes out all his reason.
It’s overwhelming.
It’s hallucinatory.
[…]
Earth breathes haltingly.

And, taking up his spade, Gondran flees back to the Bastides, “not even daring to whistle for his dog.”

Traces of Walt Whitman’s vast, sensual nature can be found in Giono’s writings, as can Herman Melville’s mythical mysticism.

Interwar Novelist

Over the next decade, Giono wrote a series of similarly pastoral novels, short stories, plays and hybrid works like The Serpent of Stars, many of which were very successful—including their film adaptations by Marcel Pagnol—allowing him to dedicate all his time to writing. Several of them were translated into English, gaining Giono a reputation as one of France’s leading interwar novelists.

This is perhaps appropriate, as many of Giono’s greatest influences came from English, and particularly from the United States. Traces of Walt Whitman’s vast, sensual nature can be found in Giono’s writings all throughout this period, as can Herman Melville’s mythical mysticism. In fact, he and Lucien Jacques collaborated on the first French translation of Moby-Dick, a work Giono first came to love in English. He shares a sense of scale with Melville, equally attentive to animal movement and fine shifts of light as he is to the vast sweep of the seasons or of the decades. His narrators are often grounded in a kind of eternal present, where the coach will always run and a certain tree will always stand, moving us by degrees into the uneasy past of narrative.

A King Alone, published in 1947, begins with Frédéric, “who owns the sawmill on the road to Avers,” the same owned “by all the Frédérics” from his great-grandfather on down. One might almost expect to find yet another Frédéric sawing and planing in Provence today. “There’s a beech tree there,” he promises, before dropping us into the 19th century.

In so doing, Giono gives his fictional Provençal countryside a sense of heightened reality, as full of life as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and just as fictional. The problems of the past and present intermingle, as do the movements of the seasons with the lives of his characters. This fluid relationship—between the natural and the human—could be considered the crux of Giono’s uniquely pastoral environmentalism. His characters never exist apart from nature, and the environment is never indifferent to their actions, resulting in a give-and-take that can be rejuvenating but also reactive, even violent.

Harvest centers around the character of Panturle, “a huge man” who is “like a piece of wood walking along.” Panturle’s life in a denuded village is transformed by his taking of a wife, as well as his choice to replant the dried-out fields with good Provençal wheat. By the end, life has begun to return to the “small wasps’ nest” of Aubignan, but in measure.Nature is not rejected but accommodated.

Throughout the German occupation of France, Giono maintained a kind of quiet resistance, advocating on behalf of persecuted left-wing intellectuals.

Strikingly Antimodern

This interaction goes both ways. Nature has a way of striking back. The wildfire that closes out Hill, or the perverse bacchanal of “Prelude to Pan,” in which a community’s harvest festival, and its attendant pride and waste, is deformed by a man whose connection to nature has rendered him almost animalistic.

Giono’s environmental outlook could be described as strikingly antimodern. He highly values shepherds and farmers, and scorns officials and representatives of the state. His vision of modernity is clear in his writing about World War I, which he depicts as deeply deranged, a chaos that upends and destroys everything on the front as well as back at home. He rejects all political associations and programs, as if the solutions can grow from the land itself. His faith rests with individuals, often heroic in their lonely pursuit.

Writing in his diary in 1943, Giono remarks on a friend’s daughter who studies pottery with a group of artisans in the countryside: “She lives a magnificent life, making her passion her occupation, tracking down the artisans’ secrets, the mystery of the glaze, the good—or bad—fortunes of the kiln…. This is exactly the opposite of Industry and the Commune. It belongs to Art and to Individuality.”

In 1939 Giono was imprisoned by the Vichy government for his pacifism—“defeatism,” in their terminology—and again in 1945 for collaboration, though on what grounds was never entirely clear. Giono maintained his strongly antipolitical stance during the war, and his return-to-nature vision certainly found its counterpart in Vichy’s own agricultural ideals; but throughout the occupation, Giono maintained a kind of quiet resistance, advocating on behalf of persecuted left-wing intellectuals. In October 1943, he traveled to the concentration camp at Mées to free a Protestant prisoner by the name of Meyerowitz, who had converted from Judaism, whom he sheltered at his farm in Forcalquier. This has not prevented scholars like Richard J. Golsan from declaring him “ideologically complicit” with the regime, and perhaps they are right.

Giono was profoundly dispirited by the failure of his return-to-nature movement, not to mention the continent’s descent into what he viewed as yet another “religious war.” His views remained stubbornly antipolitical, as if he could refuse to engage with the conflict. “In our modern mechanical world,” he wrote in his Occupation Journal (published earlier this year by Archipelago Books), “it’s clearly very tempting to embrace the cause of religious war. It must give one the impression, despite everything, that he is a thinking being.”

After his release from prison, Giono was prevented from publishing until 1947. His first postwar novel, A King Alone, was written between Sept. 1 and Oct. 10, 1946, and tells a deliberately fractured story of a serial killer and the gendarme who comes first to stop him, and then to do great damage to the valley, and finally to himself. It is pessimistic in a way that sharply diverges from Giono’s works of the 1930s, giving voice to a kind of communal despair at the beginning of the Cold War. Man destroys first the community, then the world, and then, finally, himself.

Jean Giono writes, “I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable.”

A Mirror of the Present

All of which makes Giono’s interwar writings feel like a striking mirror of the present, when continents burn and storms grow stronger and the warming of the earth produces “a new kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation,” as the journalist David Wallace-Wells put it in his recent book The Uninhabitable Earth. In contrast to writers like Cormac McCarthy, whom Charles Taylor calls “anti-humanists,” Giono finds not indifference but a kind of reaction from the natural world, which is fully capable of rejecting the humans who live in it. Though frequently beautiful, his Provence is a denuded landscape, full of ghost villages and failed settlements, scarred by human hands but frequently without humans to fill it. Take care of the world, he warns, or it might no longer want to take care of you.

Giono belongs to that generation of artists whose experience in World War I led them to re-evaluate the worth of human civilization. But unlike Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Robert Graves, who retreated into reactionary ideology and remote geography, respectively, Giono was not in search of escape and remained deeply committed for all of his life. Constancy is Giono’s currency, reflected as much in his daily life—as in his 35-year affair with the married Blanche Meyer—as in his fiction.

Though his novels frequently star peasants, their wisest characters are invariably shepherds, whose deep familiarity with animal and plant life rarely translates into domination. Their love of the high mountain landscape is not one of possession, but mutual understanding. It is a shepherd whose blessing of a newborn child signals a return from the slaughterhouse of World War I, and their creation play sets the narrator of Giono’s The Serpent of Stars back on his way.

And it is Elzéard Bouffier, the herding protagonist of The Man Who Planted Trees—arguably Giono’s most famous work—whose slow, steady, intimate labor, those many decades “imperturbably continuing to plant” tree after tree, transforms the “unparalleled devastation” of the Provençal Alps into a green and inviting place, capable of sustaining not only plant and animal life but human life too, villages and fields and families drawn by this one shepherd’s invisible work. Bouffier defies the drift of nature, the vagaries of politics and the devastation of two world wars and emerges an unassuming hero. When considering this kind of work, Giono writes, “I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable.” If we come to know the world, to take care of it on its terms, then it will know and take care of us.

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