Swans Commentary » swans.com November 1, 2010  



French Literature And Jean Giono


by Graham Lea





(Swans - November 1, 2010)   Of course, Nobel prizes are not what they used to be, but with a little legerdemain, we can say that the French have won more Nobel literature prizes than any other nation. The trick is in the definition of French. The prizewinners were:


Sully Prudhomme (1901) who received the first literature prize;

Frédéric Mistral (1904), who wrote in Occitan (Provençal), and shared the prize;

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911), a Belgian who wrote in French, and also shared the prize;

Romain Rolland (1915);

Anatole France (1921);

Henri Bergson (1927);

Ivan Bunin (1933), stateless, born in Russia, wrote in Russian, but lived in France;

Roger Martin du Gard (1937);

André Paul Guillaume Gide (1947);

François Mauriac (1952);

Albert Camus (1957), French, but born in French Algeria;

Saint-John Perse (1960);

Jean Paul Sartre (1964) who refused the prize;

Samuel Beckett (1969), an Irishman who also wrote in French;

Claude Simon (1985);

Gao Xingjian (2000), Chinese-born, wrote in Chinese, but is a French citizen; and

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (2008).


Let us pause for a moment to look briefly at some other stanchions of French literary achievement. A very early work was an epic poem known as La Chanson de Roland, first known from a mid-12th century manuscript, although it may have been sung at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It celebrated the legendary deeds of a hero. In the sixteenth century, there was Rabelais, and Montagne, with Rousseau and Voltaire in the eighteenth century. Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola were amongst the better-known writers of the nineteenth century. Apart from the Nobel laureates of the twentieth and present century, Proust, Colette, Genet, and Sartre were perhaps the most prominent, although some would add Françoise Sagan.

With the exception of Mistral who was a poet and philologist of the Occitan language, writers from the Le Midi (1) have been sadly neglected, as though their observations on rural life were somehow banal. In the Basque region where France and Spain meet on the Atlantic coast, the Basque language Euskara flourished after the Franco régime, with the emergence of Bernardo Atxaga and his splendid short stories in Obabakoak, which have been translated into English.

In a 2009 survey reported in Le Figaro, those living in the Ile-de-France (greater Paris) considered the sud-ouest to be the most attractive place to live in France. The Mediterrannée was seen to be over-priced and increasingly urban, with the result that the centre of gravity for contemporary French and expatriate writers in Le Midi has moved westwards in recent years, and is perhaps now centred on Toulouse. Several significant French writers lived in the southwest, but they are not well known outside the region: Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou, a chilling tale of village life around 1400, as well as Pierre Bayle's 1695 Dictionnaire historique et critique come to mind.

More was written in and about Provence than other parts of Le Midi. Mistral put his finger on it in part when he wrote that La Provence chante, le Languedoc combat. [Provence sings, the Languedoc fights -- a reference to the wars of religion in the 11th to 13th centuries against the Cathars, and in the 16h and 17th centuries against Protestants.]

The Côte d'Azur, also called the French Riviera (although Provence is more commonly used for a broader region), is the coastal strip from the Italian border to Marseille. It was popularised by the English, with Queen Victoria spending many summers there. The train from Paris reached Marseille in 1848, Toulon in 1856, and Nice in 1864, four years after Nice became part of France. Two outstanding Provençal writers, Jean Giono and Marcel Pagnol, worked there very productively. Many expatriate writers also lived there for extended periods, not least Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, and Ian Fleming.


JEAN GIONO 1895-1970


Jean Giono was born in Manosque in Haute Provence in 1895. His literary rival Marcel Pagnol was born in Aubagne, near Marseille the same year. Giono's father was a shoe repairer and anarchist from Piedmont in Italy, while his mother ran a hand laundry. Giono had to leave school when his father became ill, working in a bank in Manosque and becoming deputy director until it failed in 1930. Giono was un gros naïf [naïve] but Pagnol un petit malin [crafty]. Giono was primarily a novelist, with more than 30 to his credit, as well as many articles, poems, and screenplays (with which he had more limited success). Giono was a humanist and pacifist. He was befriended and supported at difficult times by André Gide, André Malraux, and Henry Miller (who wrote about him in Les livres de ma vie in 1952). Even Pagnol called Giono Le plus grand écrivain français contemporain. (2)

Giono was mobilised during WWI, serving with the infantry at Verdun and the Somme, reading poems to his comrades. He was lightly wounded, and gassed. Le grand troupeau recounts what happened. In 1920 he married Élise Maurin.

Before 1939 Giono mostly wrote Utopian and prophetic peasant novels which attempted to convert the reader to Giono's perspective on life. He developed a considerable interest in filmmaking, having seen Pagnol's success in the 1930s, and was active from the 1940s to 1960s, but without as much success. Indeed, Giono was at loggerheads with Pagnol concerning the adaption of four of his works into films, including Giono's Jean le Bleu which became Pagnol's La femme du boulanger and subsequently an American musical, The Baker's Wife. With Lucien Jacques, he undertook the first translation into French of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Giono was an ardent pacifist, producing in 1937 a pamphlet Refus d'obéissance. This brought him close to French Communists, but he separated from them when they advocated rearming. He was arrested for his pacifism for two months in 1939. In 1941 he summarised his views in Triomphe de la vie but his Le voyage en calèche was suppressed by the German censor. He played no role in the Vichy régime, and was fervently anti-Nazi. He was arrested after the war because Deux cavaliers de l'orage had been printed in La Gerbe, a collaborationist magazine. There had also been, without his agreement, a photographic piece about him in Signal, a Nazi magazine. He was released without charge seven months later.

The Communist writers of the time were unforgiving of his earlier rejection of Communism. He was called a romancier de la lâcheté [novelist of cowardliness] by Tristan Tzara, and blacklisted with half a dozen other writers following a purge by the Comité National des Écrivains, which was controlled by Communist intellectuals. For some time, this prevented his getting his work published.

The American Richard Golsan (3) and a number of French intellectuals have falsely accused Giono of collaboration. Such critics use Giono's work disingenuously to advance their personal political and ideological concerns, and to settle old scores. They seem unable to distinguish between what Camus described as the difference between writers who resisted, and resistors who wrote. (Camus was writing about Sartre, but his observation has general applicability.) Giono's pacifism and humanism made him an anarchist, and a moral man. To advocate that Giono was the initiator of the retour à la terre [return to the land], advocated by Pétain's Vichy régime, is foolishness.

Portraying peasants as natural aristocrats does not go down well in salons or the senior common rooms of some universities. Giono's narrative power and sincerity did not suit French intellectuals who were indulgent of Stalin's atrocities, and anti-American. Tony Judt, with immense intellectual authority, considered Giono innocent, and that should be an end to the matter. (4)

After the war, Giono cast aside his romanticism for a time. His post-war works were carefully developed and more narrative. He took a tougher view of human nature. (5) Giono's literary ostracism ended by 1951 when he wrote Le hussard sur le toit [Horseman on the Roof], which more than forty years later was made into an acclaimed film. Five other works were filmed. In 1954 he was awarded Colette's chair at l'Académie Goncourt, which resembled a salon des refusés of the Académie Française. The Times Literary Supplement noted in 1955 that Giono evolved from a "distinctly sentimental lyricist of his native Provence" to "a pessimistic novelist writing with great power and invention... one of the most important novelists in Europe."

Giono wrote a charming story in 1953, L'homme qui plantait des arbres, which curiously is little known in France, but became a cult work elsewhere, with translations into more than a dozen languages. Giono was commissioned in 1953 by Reader's Digest to write about the most extraordinary character he had ever met. His piece was rejected, but it appeared in Vogue in March 1954 as The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness, translated by Peter Doyle. The amusing reason for it being rejected is only to be found in Aline Giono's The story of Elzeard Bouffier, which is included as an Afterword in the 1995 Harvill Press/Random House edition, illustrated by Harry Brockway and translated by Barbara Bray. This translation, still in print, is more elegant than that by Doyle, or that by Norma Goodrich in the 1985 Chelsea Green edition, which is unfaithful and does not include the Aline dénouement. Giono generously allowed the story to enter the public domain, and sought no royalties.

Jean Giono died in 1970. His elder daughter, Aline, wrote an engaging work describing his family life. (6) His other daughter, Sylvie, suggested on the 40th anniversary his death in 2010 that his epitaph, to be added to his tombstone in Manosque, should be:

Où je vais, personne ne va, personne n'est jamais allé, personne n'ira.

J'y vais seul, le pays est vierge, et il s'efface derrière mes pas.

[Where I go, nobody goes, nobody has ever gone, nobody will go. I go alone, the country is virgin, and it fades behind my steps.]

-- Journal de Giono, 3 April 1944.


Jean Giono on Wikipedia: English -- French


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About the Author

Graham Lea is a British writer and journalist, inter alia for the BBC and The Register, where he covered the Microsoft antitrust case. For many years he was a geologist. Apart from London, he has lived in Canada, the USA, and the Netherlands before settling in la France profonde with his Dutch wife. Lea's work for Swans brings another bit of international flair to the coin français.   (back)


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1.  Le Midi is a general term for the south of France, derived from mi-di, where mi = middle and di = day, a reference to where the sun was to be found at midday in the northern hemisphere. [Many a foreigner has thought that midi meant middle. To add confusion, méridien means both midday and south.]  (back)

2.  Jean Contrucci: Giono-Pagnol: le match du centenaire, lexpress.fr 22 December 1994.  (back)

3.  Richard Golsan [editor]: Fascism's return: scandal, revision, and ideology since 1980, University of Nebraska Press, 1998.  (back)

4.  Tony Judt: Past imperfect: French intellectuals 1944-1956, University of California Press, 1992.  (back)

5.  Odile de Pomerai: An unknown Giono: Deux cavaliers de l'orage, The French Review [American Association of Teachers of French], October 1965.  (back)

6.  Mon père: contes des jours ordinaire. Edition Philippe Auzou, 1986 [and Gallimard, 2003].  (back)


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Published November 1, 2010