BORN: 1895, Manosque, Basses-Alpes (now Alpes-de-Haute Provence), France
DIED: 1970, Manosque, Alpes-de-Haute Provence, France
GENRE: Fiction, drama
Hill of Destiny (1929)
Blue Boy (1946)
“The Man Who Planted Trees” (1953)
The Horseman on the Roof (1954)
The Straw Man (1957)
French author Jean Giono is best known as a novelist and playwright who rejected the modern, industrialized world and advocated a return to a simple existence in harmony with nature. His characters are often peasants who love the earth and artisans who find their satisfaction in work well done. He is remembered today as one of the most original and visionary writers of postwar France.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Provençal Childhood Antoine Jean Giono was born on March 30, 1895, to an anarchist shoemaker and his wife in the small town of Manosque in Provence, France. While at school in Manosque, Giono read the Greek and Latin classics—they were cheaper to buy than books by modern authors—and began writing at an early age. The harsh, sunlit landscapes of his native Provence fed his fantasy that ancient Greece had magically been overlaid on southern France.
Served in World War I At the end of 1914, Giono was drafted into service in the French army in World War I. After the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Serbia by a Bosnian terrorist, what could have been a local skirmish turned into an all-encompassing conflict because of entangling diplomatic alliances. France was allied with Great Britain, Russia, and later the United States against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey.
From 1916 to 1918, Giono participated in the war as an infantry soldier in trench warfare. The Western Front of the war was primarily fought in this grueling type of warfare, with trench lines zigzagging across France. During the battle in Flanders in 1918, he was gassed. World War I was the first conflict to use poison gas as a weapon. Gases used in combat included chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas. The war ended in 1918 with a victory by the
French, British, and Americans, and the Treaty of Versailles was ratified in 1919.
Published First Poems After demobilization in 1919, he began working in various banks until 1929, when he decided to try to make his living by writing. Giono pursued his writing throughout the early 1920s and published his first work, a series of prose poems, in 1924 under the title Accompanied by the Flute. Giono's literary career began to blossom as he won a long series of literary prizes. He practiced many genres with steady success, including novels, poetry, drama, literary criticism, historical narrative, and some unclassifiable hybrids of his own creation. He expanded his interests to include painting, music, and filmmaking, making many friends with influential artists and critics in all genres across France.
War-Influenced Novels By the 1930s, Giono was publishing important novels such as To the Slaughterhouse (1931). It is the first of Giono's works in which the modern age, in the form of World War I, bursts into his private world of the peaceful countryside. There is one section of horrible beauty, describing how rats and crows feast on dead soldiers. In Giono's hands, the forces of life and bitterness take contrary and alternating forms. This bitter evocation of war is replaced by affectionate memories of childhood and family in the semiautobiographical Blue Boy (1932).
Although still considered works anchored in a specific region, the novels Song of the World (1934), Joy of Man's Desiring (1935), and Battles on the Mountain (1937) represent a move away from the realistic presentation of the countryside toward a symbolic expression of the issues that were currently preoccupying the author. It was only a small step from these three novels to the more political writings of the late 1930s and early 1940s. With war imminent, Giono argues in Refusal to Obey (1937) and Letter to the Peasants on Poverty and Peace (1938) that if the peasants were to stop providing the towns and battle zones with food, then war would grind to a halt. In True Riches, The Weight of the Sky, and Triumph of Life, he sees contemporary society threatened by increasing mechanization and urban life, and urges a return to the natural order of the world together with a renunciation of materialistic values.
Move to the Left Giono's writings have been profoundly influenced by his political beliefs. His controversial position throughout the period of just prior to and including World War II was resolutely in favor of peace. Giono founded a movement in 1935 to promote pacifism, collective living, and ecological concerns. He also made speeches, circulated petitions, and contributed to leftist journals.
During the highly politicized period of the 1930s, Giono moved away from the left when the official Communist line began emphasizing national defense rather than pacifism. Not that Giono's antiwar feelings were always pacifist. Giono's politics were not so much driven by partisan beliefs as a dream of a peasant's paradise that would combine destruction of the machine-mad modern world with the rejuvenation of older societies.
Imprisoned during World War II Giono did consent to military service briefly when war broke out in September 1939, primarily because he did not want to bring trouble to his friends running the local authorities. World War II began in earnest at that time when Nazi Germany acted on its intense territorial ambitions by invading Poland. Abandoning their hitherto policy of appeasement, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Germany soon invaded and conquered many continental European countries in 1940. France became occupied by Germany that June, and remained under Nazi control until 1944. There was a French government in exile, however, as well as an active organized French resistance to the Germans.
After Giono refused to cooperate further with local authorities, he was imprisoned for two months, then freed partly on the intervention of his many admirers. Near the end of the war, he was again imprisoned, this time for five months. He was accused of being a collaborator with the Germans, although he had not actively cooperated. Although some people turned away from him because of his refusal to participate in the French war effort, he was immensely popular as a writer after the war.
Giono continued to write prolifically after the war, despite being ostracized by some of his former followers. His post–World War II works are marked by a shift away from the poetic celebration of peasant life, however, to a series of novels with a historical background. The best known of these later novels is The Horseman on the Roof (1951), which received much public acclaim. His plays also often took on historical subject matter, including the radio play Domitien (1964) about the last days of the Roman emperor. His later output also included travel books and screenplays for such films as Crésus. Giono died of a heart attack on October 9, 1970, in Manosque.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Giono's famous contemporaries include:
Pierre Jean Jouve (1887–1976): French poet, novelist, and critic. Religion and sexuality merge powerfully in his works. His books include Dance of the Dead (1917).
Paul Valéry (1871–1945): This French poet and critic believed that the creative mind always worked in similar ways, no matter if the subject was science or poetry. His poetry collections include Charmed (1922).
Samuel Beckett (1906–1989): This Irish dramatist, novelist, and poet was remarkably consistent in his darkly comic portrayals of human futility. He helped to define two different literary movements—modernism and postmodernism—through such plays as Waiting for Godot (1952).
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963): German composer and violinist. In an era of experimental classical music that emphasized atonality, Hindemith's music was harmonically advanced but always melodic.
Grigory Yevseyevich Zinovyev (1883–1936): This Russian Communist leader shared power with Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev after the death of Vladimir Lenin. During Stalin's move for absolute power, Zinovyev and Kamenev were removed from power, and Stalin had Zinovyev executed.
Works in Literary Context
Giono's influences are extensive and come from many different directions. First and foremost, his works are grounded in his experience with the people and textures of rural communities and the rugged French countryside. Giono was also very well read, and he drew heavily from
classical literature, often superimposing Greek and Roman themes and literary structures on the contemporary French setting. He believed that nature is in a constant state of change—as is history, so in this way, nature and man are always bound together. A related theme is the danger of the increasing materialism and impersonality of modern life.
Man's Unity with Nature Giono was writing during a period of modernism (a literary movement that represented a self-conscious break with traditional forms and subject matter while searching for a distinctly contemporary mode of expression) when writers usually found bleakness and despair in their reaction to the increasing alienation and violence of life marked by two world wars. Whereas writers such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound found modern consciousness to be fragmented in an uncaring urban environment, Giono looked in a different direction and tended to find certainty and resolution in man's unity with nature. He rejected entirely the two things that modernists used to border their worldview: urban life and warfare.
Pacifism Giono's pacifism during World War II got him arrested twice, but this was to become one of his lasting influences on later writers who would write similarly about World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq war. In novels such as To the Slaughterhouse, Giono shifted between scenes of village life and warfare, mixing the modes of narrative the way Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would later do in his antiwar novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969). Giono finds a kind of natural beauty in human and animal carnage, describing it in sensual detail—the effect is disturbing, as seen in the work of other lyrically graphic war writers such as the poet Wilfred Owen and the novelist Dalton Trumbo (Johnny Got His Gun, 1939).
Works in Critical Context
Giono's reputation has, if anything, increased in the years since his death. He was recognized initially as a great poet in prose and a regional novelist, but his main appeal today lies in his handling of such themes as the struggle for survival against elemental forces, the strength of love and hatred, the destructive power of jealousy, and the creative power of friendship.
The Novels Literary scholars often praise Giono's sense of wonder and delight in the unity of man and nature. According to Henri Peyre, Giono “rejected much of our urban and analytical civilization; but he held out hope for despairing moderns. He aimed at rebuilding a new unity in man and endeavored to instill in him the sweet, or bitter, ‘love that nature brings.’” Norma L. Goodrich expresses a similar view in Giono: Master of Fictional Modes. She found that Giono's novels “afford shelter and comfort by reminding the modern reader, with whom the world is much too much, that beyond his routine and narrow horizons lies a vast, adventure-some universe of freedom and pure delight.”
Giono is considered one of the most important French novelists of the century. “Giono [was] first of all a great poet in prose,” according to critic Maxwell Smith. “It is now generally recognized that he … brought … a new freshness, warmth, and color to the French language.” In writing of Giono's earlier novels, Peyre asserts: “They [ignore] academic subtleties and the fashion of the day. Their heroes [are] not poisoned by complexities…. In them the tone of a psychological dissector [has] given way to that of a poetical master of suggestive language and an epic storyteller.” And, finally, in discussing the profusion of Giono's work, Smith comments: “What will remain will in all likelihood be only a handful of his novels—but enough to assure him a permanent and distinguished rank among the great novelists of France.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Giono's “The Man Who Planted Trees,” presents an idealized version of a simple man finding happiness by living a simple life in harmony with nature. Despite their poverty, peasants and rural folks are often idealized by writers. Their closeness to nature and their detachments from the corruptions of consumerist urban life often make them heroic, not pitiable, characters. Here are some other works that feature peasants as idealized characters or that exhort readers to adopt a peasantlike lifestyle:
Émile; or, On Education (1762), a philosophical treatise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau details here what he considers the perfect education and upbringing for a “natural man” who can live untainted by the corruption of modern society.
Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798), a poetry collection by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This collection marked the beginning of the Romantic period in English literature. The poems in the collection frequently focus on rustic settings and plain folk.
Walden (1854), a nonfiction work by Henry David Thoreau. Perhaps the most famous nonfiction work in American literature, this book details Thoreau's experiment in self-reliance living near a pond in Walden, Massachusetts.
Quotations from Chairman Mao (1964), nonfiction by Mao Tse-tung. This collection of excerpts from the famous Chinese leader, praising the virtues of peasant life as the guiding principles of the Communist Party, has had almost one billion copies in print.
Responses to Literature
- Research Giono's career as a writer and film director. Are his films much like his novels in their structure and content, or does Giono make alterations to his art when he uses this different form? What has the critical response been to his films, compared to his
novels? (Note: You can also answer these questions using Giono's art and music as topics.) Write a paper outlining your findings.
- Giono liked to combine genres and invent new hybrid forms. He sometimes mixes prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction. What are the pros and cons of this technique? Does Giono's way of writing fit in with the content of what he's saying? Create a presentation in which you outline your theories.
- Giono was a pacifist, but good storytelling depends upon a vivid sense of conflict. In a paper, explain the ways Giono portrays conflict in his films and novels.
- Perhaps the best-loved work by Giono is “The Man Who Planted Trees,” a short story about the noble deeds of a simple peasant in harmony with the land. Giono gave up his rights to the story so it could be reprinted widely. In 1987, an animated version won the Academy Award, and it is often cited as one of the best animated shorts ever made. Do some research into the history of this remarkable story and its many adaptations, accounting for its extraordinary popularity and mythic appeal. Create a presentation of your findings.
Knowles, Dorothy. French Drama of the Inter-War Years, 1918–1939. London: Harrap, 1967.
Peyre, Henri. Contemporary French Literature: A Critical Anthology. New York: Evanston, 1964.
Redfern, Walter. The Private World of Jean Giono. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1967.
Smith, Maxwell A. Jean Giono. New York: Twayne, 1966.
Ullmann, Stephen. Style in the French Novel. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957.
“The Man Who Planted Trees.” Retrieved March 30, 2008, from http://www.pinetum.org/GionoUK.htm. Last updated on December 10, 2007.