Skip to main content

The French Provençal Novelist: Jean Giono

Art Composite of Jean Giono

Art Composite of Jean Giono

French Writer Jean Giono

Jean Giono was born on March 30th, 1895, and grew up in a small Provençal town called Manosque in the French department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. His father was a Piedmontese cobbler and his mother a laundress. Much of Giono’s love for nature was due in fact to his childhood visits to a sheep herding family during the summer. These pastoral highland adventures were pleasant memories which stayed with him in adulthood and became the base for which he weaved his earthy grass-roots writing.

Jean Giono in childhood.

Jean Giono in childhood.

Giono: Simplicity at Its Best

Jean Giono’s honest eloquence breathed life into his cherished settings of Provence. In his writing, he had an arduous love affair with his homeland. Giono’s beautiful prose bears witness to the fact that he did not stray far from his hometown of Manosque, or the surrounding villages of Apt, Banon, Forcalquier, Lurs, and Mane- those nearby local villages for which he set many of the backdrops of his stories.

Typical landscape as described in Giono’s novels.  Atop Mont d’Or near Manosque, France.

Typical landscape as described in Giono’s novels. Atop Mont d’Or near Manosque, France.

Remember, all of man’s happiness is in the little valleys. Tiny little ones. Small enough to call from one side to the other.

— Jean Giono

Writer in the Making

Giono had a rare gift. Despite his lack of opportunity to take his education further, he still schooled himself through his voracious appetite for reading. Known to be an autodidact, he learned to hone his writing craft by reading the Bible, a gift from his father before he died- an irony since both father and son were both professed atheists.

Giono also studied the Classics, and French prose- writers such as Marcel Proust and Andre Gide, and even more so, he had a fascination for American writers such as the humanist poet, egalitarian and pantheist Walt Whitman and regionalist writers Herman Melville (from the north) and William Faulkner (from the south).

Portrait of French Provençal Writer Jean Giono by Eugene Martel circa 1937

Portrait of French Provençal Writer Jean Giono by Eugene Martel circa 1937

Call to Arms

The odds stacked against Jean Giono. By the time he turned sixteen, he had dropped out of high school and took on a banking job to help subsidize his family because of his father’s advanced age and failing health.

To make matters worse, the onset of World War I ensured even more hardship for the young man. Giono received a call to serve the entire length of the war. It was the bloody battle of Verdun and losing his best friend that would forever impact his views on the human conflict.

Battlefield of Verdun.

Battlefield of Verdun.

Post World War I

After the war, Giono went back home to Manosque. He returned to his old banking job. Even though he found employment to his satisfaction, he felt something amiss as expressed in his own words when he explains how his repetitive work had somehow taunted him to take up a more significant challenge:

I had to draw up the statements, with complicated thirty-five figure sums showing the discount premiums. It was unforgiving arithmetic. The disbursement locations which I had to write out in the second column added some geographical interest to the job, but in spite of that I found it impossible to really get involved in my work. It was only in fits and starts that – writing a Saint-Etienne-les-Orgues here, a Noyers-sur-Jabron, Orpierre or Nyons there – I suddenly saw, as if illuminated by a flash of lightning, the green slope of a hill, wind on the plateau, or night falling on the chestnut orchards.

~ Jean Giono

In 1929, Giono published his first work, Colline, which brought him success, allowing him the means to build himself a cottage home along the Impasse du Parais in Manosque. After 17 years of working in the banking industry, he walked away from the only security he had ever known. He quit his job at the bank and turned to write his famous prose.

Imagine Giono staring out these French  windows while writing his greatest works at his home in Manosque.

Imagine Giono staring out these French windows while writing his greatest works at his home in Manosque.

Pacifist Incarcerated

In 1931, Giono published a critical work Le Grand Trapeau which focused much on his negative experiences with war. His ideas and thoughts about the war did not go over well with his countrymen when in 1937 he asked, “What is the worst that can happen if Germany invades France?”

Two years later, at the onslaught of World War II, Giono found himself arrested on charges that he sympathized with the Nazi Regime. The witch-hunt charges were frivolous in turbulent times and went unproven. The authorities released the writer because of a lack of evidence and hearsay, but it did not stop the suspicions.

In 1944, once again the authorities arrested Giono, placing him under protection instead of an episode of revenge killings that began after France’s liberation. After the incarceration, the publishing world shunned him. To remedy this obstacle, he removed himself from the political ideology sphere and focused on the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, which helped him understand the darker side of humankind. Giono's fervent study brought him more success and fewer political repercussions.

Sample of Giono's Early Literary Works

  • Colline (1929)
  • Un de Baumugnes (1929)
  • Regain (1930)
  • Le grand troupeau (1931)
  • Refus d’obéissance (1937)
  • Lettre aux paysans sur la pauvreté et la paix (1938)
  • Mort d’un personage (1948)
  • Les Ames fortes (1950)
  • Le Hussard sur le Toit (1951)
  • L’homme qui plantait des arbres (1953)
  • Le Bonheur fou (1957)
  • Angelo (1958)
  • Le Désastre de Pavie (1963)
Giono's hometown of Manosque in the Alpes-haute-de-provence Department of France.

Giono's hometown of Manosque in the Alpes-haute-de-provence Department of France.

Giono's Waning Years

In later years, Giono’s writing career continued to flourish into his advanced years. With the war years far behind him, some of his greatest works came in a time of peace.

He enjoyed life, centering himself by taking long walks and relishing the oneness of nature. One of his favorite locales for his many walking expeditions was the medieval hillside village of Lurs, a tiny magical haven for which time had stood still and somehow forgotten. The old rendezvous became a shared restoration project for him and his publishing friend Maximilian Vox had enjoyed. To this day, the village stands out like a rare gem thanks to the writer’s unfailing commitment.

Despite his failing heart and awareness of it, Giono continued to pour himself into writing as much as could until his dying day. In 1970, he suffered a major heart attack and died in his hometown of Manosque.

Posthumously Renowned World Wide

After his death, two of Giono’s works found their way to the motion pictures and worldwide acclaim. In 1987, the French short story “L’homme qui plantait des arbres” or in English "The Man Who Planted Trees" was adapted into a short animated film by Canadian Director Frederic Back and won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short.

If you’re an avid book reader or collector like myself, this timeless classic short comes available in English format under the translated title "The Man Who Planted Trees."

In 1995, the historical romance novel The Horseman on the Roof was adapted into a full-length film starring Oliver Martinez and Juliette Binoche by Director Jean-Paul Rappeneau. Though the film was derived in the French language–thanks to language captions, the masterpiece became popular in English-speaking countries, winning critical acclaim in France and abroad.

Cited Sources & Works

© 2019 Kate Hemsworth