One of the great contemporary
French writers. His work is
infused by themes and values of country life, and by political
pacifism that grew out of his experience of the two
formative years (1895-1929)
Jean Giono was born in Manosque
(Provence) on March 30, 1895, in a family of modest background where
his father was a shoe-mender, a self-taught libertarian and a generous
person. Giono travalled very little and he rarely left his native village,
which is often described or mentioned in his writings (notably in Monasque-des-Plateaux,
or "Monasque-of-the High Hills")
In 1911, he drops school
(while in tenth grade) to work as a bank clerck until 1929. He was mobilized
to fight in the Great war (1914) and will recall this traumatizing experience
in Le Grand Troupeau (1931) (to the Slaughterhouse), a
title denoting at once both the sheep flocks and the military "flock".
Giono's father died in April
1920. In June of that year, Giono marries Elise Maurin. From 1920 to
1929, Giono keeps writing relentlessly: unfinished novels, poems in
prose published in literary periodicals. In 1927, he finishes writing
Birth of the Odyssey, the founding novel of his whole
literary oeuvre, as it already contains the elements that will grow
and develop later into actual themes: a diffuse anxiety mixed with enthrallment
when faced with nature and its forces, all in the dionysiac vein.
2. First literary success
(1930 - 1934): Nature as a source of happiness
Having turned down Birth
of the Odyssey for publication, the editor Grasset accepts to publish
Colline (Hill of Destiny) in 1929. Readers and eritics
alike ensure instant success to this novel. Andre Gide is enthusiastic
about it and visits Giono in Monasque. After producing another best-seller
(Un de Baumugnes, 1929, or "One from
Baumugnes") Giono devotes himself exclusively to writing. His following
novel (Regain or "Harvest") will be made into a movie
picture starring Marcel Pagnol.
These 3 novels, collectively
entitled Pan, now carve out a public image of Giono as poet, story-teller,
celebrating life as when attumed to nature's rhythms and sceneries in
country life. This public image is further enhanced and elaborated in
The starry serpent where human drives and desires try
to come to terms with the laws of nature and of the universe.
Having published a series
of short essays (Solitude of pity, 1930), Giono publishes
Jean le bleu (1932) or "Jean the blue one", a narrative
highly reminiscent of his own biography, where he magnifies the character
and the role of his father in family life.
"The song of the world"
(1934) marks the end of the joyful period in Giono's literary output.
For the fear and apprehension of yet another war is already looming.
But as a liberal leftist with an anarchist tinge, Giono remains at heart
an unrepentant pacifist.
3. The "Contadour movement"
and the pacifist commitment (1935 - 1950)
As a result of his literary
success and of his hymns and calls to a simple life close to nature,
Giono now gains a growing literary and moral authority. So much so that
as of 1935, there arises apontaneously around his person the "Contadour
movement" a loose association with a pacifist creed, who condemned the
excesses and abuses of urban life and culture. In the hills of Haute-Provence,
a successive gatherings (each during 2 weeks) of young people will take
place around Giono, for simple life, discussions and readings.
Alternatively, it is during
this period that the pessimistic line of thinking will emerge in his
books, with "Let my joy remain" (1935) followed
by "True riches" (1936), a title referring to the more
enviable values of rural community life, as well as to a rebellious
attitude against industrial society life; this attitude being fueled
by a rejection of city life with its capitalistic machinism that is
perceived as destructive of man.
In the same spirit, Refusal
to obey (1937) and The weight of Heaven (1938)
plead for a return to nature-inspired values, standing against war and
This pacifist commitment
will reap imprisonment to Giono for 2 months in 1937. Later on, he will
translate Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
During the second world war,
and until 1951, Giono will be often criticized and unfairly blamed for
his political stand of non-commitment and his refusal of ideological
enrollment. In this context, he will even be imprisoned again, for 5
months in 1944, and remain balcklisted (even after his liberation) by
the "Comité National des Ecrivains" (The powerful French National
Commitee of Writers).
Still, is is during that
period that he publishes Triumph of life (1941) and Fragments
of a paradise (1943) as well as the 3 books of the "Horseman's
cycle": Angelo (1948), Death of a character
(1948) and Horseman on the roof (1951).
4. The period beyond literary
and political ostracism (1951 - 1970)
The widely noticed success
of "Horseman on the roof" (1951) marks the end of Giono's
ostracism in the French literary world. From then on, the writer will
regularly publish a series of texts bearing witness to his new interest
for History and its teachings. He first publishes the "Cycle of chronicles"
tinged with a somber spiritual mood, and which includes A king
without entertainment (written in 1946), Noah (written
in 1948), The strong souls (1950), The mill of Poland
(1952) and "The great trails" (1951). The first
three of these novels have led critics to find in them a prefiguration
of certain aspects of the "Nouveau Roman" literary school of the early
Giono publishes in 1954 his
"Notes on the Dominici case" (about the old peasant accused of having
killed 3 English tourists) at the request of Gallimard, the publisher.
He also returns to the theater with 2 plays: "Joseph at Dothan"
" The Disaster of Pavia",
presented as an historical novel, is given much attention for its style,
and less for its value as historical document. Giono will return standard
fiction with "The man who planted trees", "Ennemonde
and other characters" (1968) and "The deserter".
His last book will be "The
Iris of Susa" (1970)
Jean Giono died in October
1970, of heart failure.