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from Michael Hayward in Texts & Pretexts — a review of The Serpent of Stars


Jean Giono was born on March 30, 1895 and lived for most of his life in the small Provençal town of Manosque, about 50 km north-east of Aix-en-Provence. His father was a cobbler, his mother a washer-woman in Manosque, and together they exercised an enormous influence over their son as he was growing up, helping to instill in him an unshakable love for the people, the geology, and the ecology of the region. When Giono began to achieve success as a writer (following the completion of his Pan trilogy in 1930) it would have been natural for him to consider a move to Paris, but he had no interest in the French literary “scene.” Giono’s love for his family and for the landscape of his birth is expressed in most of his novels, first among them the autobiographical Jean le bleu (translated as Blue Boy), with its vivid evocation of the decaying, rat-haunted family home in Manosque. In many of Giono’s novels the Provençal landscape is itself a character, no less alive than the human protagonists. In To the Slaughterhouse, for example, Giono describes how, as “the wind sprang shrieking over the Alps, […] the almond trees moaned freely from the depths of their trunks, [and] the pine tree roots growled and bit into the rocks” like sentient things. In this pagan and primordial setting you sense that the gods could—and do—take any form, and at times Giono’s writing reads like a 1930s-modernist updating of ancient Greek fables.

The closest present-day equivalent to Giono that I can suggest is John Berger, whose Into Their Labours trilogy movingly documents peasant life in the villages of the French Alps. Both writers express a genuine compassion for the common man—peasant, laborer, farmer—who is often at odds with a fast-paced, increasingly mechanized world.

Praise from André Gide was instrumental in getting Giono his first book publication, and Giono’s work continues to be readily available in French (his Oeuvres Complètes is published in eight volumes by Gallimard). English translations, though, have been difficult to locate over the years. Viking commissioned translations of Giono’s major novels beginning in the 1930s, but Henry Miller decried the slow pace of their translation and publication in his essay on Giono, which was included in The Books In My Life, Miller’s 1952 collection from New Directions. In the early 1980s, Berkeley-based North Point Press began to reissue some of these translations in nicely designed paperback editions printed on acid-free paper, bringing Giono’s work to the attention of another generation of English-language readers. When North Point went under in 1991 (the name and some of their backlist being sold to Farrar, Straus and Giroux) these titles once again became unavailable, until the phoenix-like emergence of the Counterpoint imprint, which now offers a few Giono titles in their list. Enthusiasts of Giono’s work have been able to augment their library with a small selection of additional titles from UK publishers (such as Peter Owen), who have a much better track record of publishing translations from the French than do North American houses.

In recent years a number of smaller publishers have emerged, specializing in translations, and we can thank them for the publication of two of the three titles which are reviewed below. Giono was a prolific writer, producing (according to one source) “over fifty volumes of fiction, poems, and plays&rduo; during his lifetime, which means that there are still dozens of his works awaiting translation by these—or other—English-language publishers, something I hope to encourage by drawing attention to this fine author, whose writing has a way of working itself by way of the senses into your soul.

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Jean Giono’s To the Slaughterhouse (Peter Owen Modern Classics) opens on “a thick August night smelling of corn and horse-sweat,” as another trainload of conscripts departs from the station of a nameless Provençal village for the front. There is a sense of gathering dread as the distant war makes itself felt even in this remote community, and the most minor of events—a freshly-split boulder in the hills; the smell of “too much corn” in the air —become freighted with hidden meaning for those who are left behind—the elderly, the women, and the very young—as they become overwhelmed with uneasiness about the future. “What are we going to do, that’s what I’d like to know,” one asks. “We’re no race of warriors, that’s for sure.”

In alternate chapters we experience the mindless brutality of war through the eyes of Joseph, a conscript from the village, who watches in horror as many of his fellow soldiers are blown apart into so many fragments of meat and bone. Giono’s outrage is palpable as he describes the effects of the distant conflict upon the villagers, who want nothing more than to continue living the same simple life that their fathers and grandfathers lived, tending their livestock and eking a living from the land. When one young soldier returns home missing a leg, we see him through the eyes of Julia, a village girl:

[A] soft, sallow man [who] had lost that redness of men in the sun. He had the white, fat hands of those who are served their meals and have no effort to make except open their mouths. They fatten in their chairs like sacks. Julia had not forgotten what a handsome worker he was before, slim and tough as an old bean.

Giono fought as an infantryman in World War I and the experience left him a confirmed pacifist, one who was imprisoned for his views at the start of World War II. Giono wrote of his war experiences in Refus d’obéissance (Refusal to Obey), speaking out against war, conscription, and bearing arms, and he concludes one vehement passage with the anti-nationalist declaration that “there is no glory in being French. There is only one glory: in being alive.” To the Slaughterhouse is fairly described by the publisher as “one of his finest novels [and] one of the most affecting accounts of war ever written.”

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The Solitude of Compassion is a collection of twenty shorter pieces by Giono. It was first published in French in 1932, immediately after To the Slaughterhouse, and appears in English for the first time in this slim paperback volume from Seven Stories Press, which—in a nice touch—also includes Henry Miller’s extensive homage to Giono as a foreword. Together these pieces give a vivid portrait of Provençe as Giono saw it, during a period well before Peter Mayle’s bucolic accounts of living as an expatriate in that region brought floods of pasty-skinned Britons south in search of their own piece of southern France.

Giono was a romantic, of course, and his characters often seem to have stepped out of myth or fable, with a connection to the land that makes them appear as equals to the rocks and trees. In “Jofroi de Maussan” Giono tells of Fonse, who buys an orchard from another villager, Jofroi, who is now too old to tend his land. But when Fonse goes to take down some of the trees in order to sow wheat he finds Jofroi confronting him with a gun, defending the trees which he still remembers buying as saplings “at the fair at Riez, in ‘05,” carrying them home from the fair on his back, carting manure to each of them, and nursing them though freezing nights. In “Joselet” the narrator observes how the local healer derives his power by “eating” the sun, and learns from him that everything in the world is connected: wheels turning within wheels “so that when one turns the others turn also.”

As noted above it is one of Giono’s ongoing themes (found in almost every one of his books) that the world itself is alive, just as its human inhabitants are alive, and this philosophy finds its clearest expression in “Song of the World,” the piece which closes The Solitude of Compassion:

For a very long time I have wanted to write a novel in which you could hear the world sing. In all of today’s books they have given, in my opinion, too big a place to small-minded people and they have neglected to make us perceive the breathing of the beautiful inhabitants of the universe. The seeds that are sown in books, they all seem to have been purchased from the same granary. […] I know that we can hardly conceive of a novel without people, because they are part of the world. What is needed is to put man in his place, not to make him the center of everything, to be humble enough to perceive that a mountain exists not merely as height and width but as weight, emissions, gestures, overarching power, words, sympathy. A river is a character, with its rages and its loves, its power, its god of chance, its sicknesses, its thirst for adventures. Rivers, springs are characters: they love, they deceive, they lie, they betray, they are beautiful, they dress themselves in rushes and mosses. The forests breathe. The fields, the moors, the hills, the beaches, the oceans, the valleys in the mountains, the lost summits struck by lightning and the proud walls of rock on which the wind of the heights comes to disembowel itself since the first ages of the world: all of this is not a simple spectacle for our eyes. It is a society of living beings. We only know the anatomy of these beautiful living things, as human as we are, and if the mysteries limit us on all sides it is because we have never taken into account the earthly, vegetable, fluvial, and marine psychologies.

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In The Serpent of Stars (originally published in 1933) the narrator begins by describing how he meets a potter named Césaire Escoffier while at the Laragne fair, and is invited to visit him at his home up in the “jostling rush” of the Provençal hills, near a small village surrounded by “such waves of earth and spray of trees as far as the eye could see.” He finds himself compelled to go even further into the hills, in search of the shepherds who spend entire seasons tending to their flocks up in the high pastures, far from the outside world. What the narrator (a writer, who, like Giono, happens to make his home in Manosque) discovers among the shepherds is a revelation. More used to “a prison of four walls and a whole cemetery of books,” he finds that “sometimes, those walls draw apart, open, like a huge flower, and a deluge of sky crashes down inside there like a rush.”

The narrator sets out with Césaire to find an annual gathering of the shepherds’ community, rumored to take place each year on the night of the summer solstice, on a high plateau overlooking “the distant chasm of the Durance [River].” There he hopes to witness a performance of “an improvised Shepherd’s Play—a kind of creation myth that includes in its cast The River, The Sea, The Man, and The Mountain.” They fail during their first attempt, but the narrator’s obsession with his quest compels him to try again the following year, when he sets off once more into the hills as a sailor sets sail on the broad back of the sea.

The Serpent of Stars is the most mystical and myth-like of these three early books by Giono, yet it is surprisingly contemporary in the way that it anticipates many of the environmental concerns of our present day. Archipelago Books offers this haunting story in a clean, clear translation by Jody Gladding, presenting it in a lovely little paperback edition that features French flaps and an attractive interior page design. I’d love to see them continue their fine work with further as-yet-untranslated works by Giono, such as the autobiographical Noé (which Giono lists as his favorite work), or Un Roi sans divertissement, the first of his historical Chroniques.

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