The Life and Legacy of French Novelist Jean Giono
Jean Giono was born in 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 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 eventually became the base for which he weaved his earthy grass-roots writing.
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
Simplicity at its Best
Giono’s honest and straightforward eloquence breathed life into his cherished settings of Provence. In his writing, it is evident that he had an arduous love affair with his homeland. Giono’s beautiful prose bears witness to the fact that he rarely strayed 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.
A Writer in the Making
Giono had a rare gift. Even though he had lacked the opportunity to take his education further, somehow he still managed to educate himself – most likely 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 in itself 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 – curiously enough 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).
A Call to Arms
It seemed that the odds stacked against Jean Giono. By the time he turned sixteen, he had dropped out of high school took on a banking job to help financially support his family due to 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 was called up to serve the entire length of the war. It was the bloody battle of Verdun and the loss of his best friend that would forever impact his views on the human conflict.
After the War, Giono went back home to Manosque. He returned to his old banking job. Even though he found employment to his satisfaction, yet 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 finally 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.
A Pacifist Incarcerated
In 1931, Giono published a highly critical work “Le Grand Trapeau” which focused much on his negative experiences with war. His ideas and thoughts about war did not go over to well with his countrymen when in 1937 he publicly asked, “What is the worst that can happen if Germany invades France?”
Two years later, at the onslaught of the World War II, Giono had been 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 due to 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 commenced 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 to understand the darker side of humankind, and in turn, his study brought him more success and less political repercussions.
A Sample of 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)
The Waning Years
In later years, Giono’s writing career continued to flourish well into his advanced years. With the war years far behind him, some of his greatest works came in a time of peace.
He truly 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 truly 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 eventually 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” 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” adapted into a full-length film starring Oliver Martinez and Juliette Binoche by Director Jean-Paul Rappeneau. Though the film derived in the French language – thanks to the availability of language captions the masterpiece became widely popular in English speaking countries, winning critical acclaim in France, and abroad.
Cited Sources & Works
- Edmund White. The Great Jean Giono (the New York Review of Book)
- Norma Lore Goodrich. Giono: Master of Fictional Modes (Princeton University Press)
- Rene Wadlow. Jean Giono and the Energies of Earth (OVI Magazine)
- BNP Paribas Website. Jean Giono, A Great Novelist Who Started in Banking (A Well of History)
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