* all texts, except where indicated: from Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life
‘I have tried to make a story of adventure in which there should be absolutely nothing ‘timely.’ The present time disgusts me, even to describe. It is sufficient merely to endure it. I wanted to make a book with new mountains, a new river, a country, forest, snow and men all new. The most consoling thing is that I have not had to invent anything at all, not even the people. They all exist. That is what I want to say here. At this very time when Paris flourishes – and that is nothing to be proud of – there are people in the world who know nothing of the horrible mediocrity into which civilization, philosophers, public speakers and gossips have plunged the human race. They think only of adding to their comfort, heedless that one day true men will come up from the river and down from the mountain, more implacable and more bitter than the grass of the apocalypse.’ — Jean Giono, 1937
It was in one of those humble stationery stores which sell books, that I first came across Jean Giono’s work. It was the daughter of the proprietor — bless her soul! — who literally thrust upon me the book called Que majoie demeure (The Joy of Man’s Desiring). In 1939, after making a pilgrimage to Manosque with Giono’s boyhood friend, Henri Fluchre, the latter bought for me Jean le Bleu (Blue Boy), which I read on the boat going to Greece. Both these French editions I lost in my wanderings. On returning to America, however, I soon made the acquaintance of Pascal Covici, one of the editors of the Viking Press, and through him I got acquainted with all that has been translated of Giono — not very much, I sadly confess.
Between times I have maintained a random correspondence with Giono, who continues to live in the place of his birth, Manosque. How often I have regretted that I did not meet him on the occasion of my visit to his home — he was off then on a walking expedition through the countryside he describes with such deep poetic imagination in his books. But if I never meet him in the flesh I can certainly say that I have met him in the spirit. And so have many others throughout this wide world. Some, I find, know him only through the screen versions of his books — Harvest and The Baker’s Wife. No one ever leaves the theatre, after a performance of these films, with a dry eye. No one ever looks upon a loaf of bread, after seeing Harvest, in quite the same way as he used to; nor, after seeing The Baker’s Wife, does one think of the cuckold with the same raucous levity.
But these are trifling observations . . . A few moments ago, tenderly flipping the pages of his books, I was saying to myself: “Tenderize your finger tips! Make yourself ready for the great task!”
For several years now I have been preaching the gospel — of Jean Giono. I do not say that my words have fallen upon deaf ears, I merely complain that my audience has been restricted. I do not doubt that I have made myself a nuisance at the Viking Press in New York, for I keep pestering them intermittently to speed up the translations of Giono’s works. Fortunately I am able to read Giono in his own tongue and, at the risk of sounding immodest, in his own idiom. But, as ever, I continue to think of the countless thousands in England and America who must wait until his books are translated. I feel that I could convert to the ranks of his ever-growing admirers innumerable readers whom his American publishers despair of reaching. I think I could even sway the hearts of those who have never heard of him — in England, Australia, New Zealand and other places where the English language is spoken. But I seem incapable of moving those few pivotal beings who hold, in a manner of speaking, his destiny in their hands. Neither with logic nor passion, neither with statistics nor examples, can I budge the position of editors and publishers in this, my native land. I shall probably succeed in getting Giono translated into Arabic, Turkish and Chinese before I convince his American publishers to go forward with the task they so sincerely began.
A friend of mine said the other day that practically everyone he had met knew Jean Giono. “You mean his books ?” I asked. “At least some of them,” he said. “At any rate, they certainly know what he stands for.” “That’s another story,” I replied. “You’re lucky to move in such circles. I have quite another story to tell about Giono. I doubt sometimes that even his editors have read him. How to read, that’s the question.”
That evening, glancing through a book by Holbrook Jackson, I stumbled on Coleridge’s four classes of readers. Let me cite them :
1. Sponges, who absorb all they read, and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied.
2. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing, and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time.
3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.
4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.
Most of us belong in the third category, if not also in one of the first two. Rare indeed are the mogul diamonds! And now I wish to make an observation connected with the lending of Giono’s books. The few I possess — among them The Song of the World and Lovers are never Losers, which I see I have not mentioned — have been loaned over and over again to all who expressed a desire to become acquainted with Jean Giono. This means that I have not only handed them to a considerable number of visitors but that I have wrapped and mailed the books to numerous others, to some in foreign lands as well. To no author I have recommended has there been a response such as hailed the reading of Giono. The reactions have been virtually unanimous. “Magnificent! Thank you, thank you!” That is the usual return. Only one person disapproved, said flatly that he could make nothing of Giono, and that was a man dying of cancer. I had lent him The Joy of Mans Desiring. He was one of those “successful” business men who had achieved everything and found nothing to sustain him. I think we may regard his verdict as exceptional. The others, and they include men and women of all ages, all walks of Ufe, men and women of the most diverse views, the most conflicting aims and tendencies, all proclaimed their love, admiration and gratitude for Jean Giono. They do not represent a “select” audience, they were chosen at random. The one qualification which they had in common was a thirst for good books . . .
These are my private statistics, which I maintain are as valid as the publisher’s. It is the hungry and thirsty who will eventually decide the future of Giono’s works.
There is another man, a tragic figure, whose book I often thrust upon friends and acquaintances: Vaslav Nijinsky. His Diary is in some strange way connected with Jean Giono’s novel Blue Boy. It tells me something about writing. It is the writing of a man who is part lucid, part mad. It is a communication so naked, so desperate, that it breaks the mold. We are face to face with reality, and it is almost unbearable. The technique, so utterly personal, is one from which every writer can learn. Had he not gone to the asylum, had this been merely his baptismal work, we would have had in Nijinsky a writer equal to the dancer.
I mention this book because I have scanned it closely. Though it may sound presumptuous to say so, it is a book for writers. I cannot limit Giono in this way, but I must say that he, too, feeds the writer, instructs the writer, inspires the writer. In Blue Boy he gives us the genesis of a writer, telling it with the consummate art of a practiced writer. One feels that he is a ” bom writer.” One feels that he might also be a painter, a musician (despite what he says). It is the “Storyteller’s Story,” I’histoire de I’histoire. It peels away the wrappings in which we mummify writers and reveals the embryonic being. It gives us the physiology, the chemistry, the physics, the biology of that curious animal, the writer. It is a textbook dipped in the magic fluid of the medium it expouncts. It connects us with the source of all creative activity. It breathes, it palpitates, it renews the blood stream. It is the kind of book which every man who thinks he has at least one story to tell could write but which he never does, alas. It is the story which authors are telling over and over again in myriad disguises. Seldom does it come straight from the delivery room. Usually it is washed and dressed first. Usually it is given a name which is not the true name.
His sensuousness, the development of which Giono attributes to his father’s dehcate nurturing, is without question one of the cardinal features of his art. It invests his characters, his landscapes, his whole narrative. “Let us refine our finger tips, our points of contact with the world …” Giono has done just this. The result is that we detect in his music the use of an instrument which has undergone the same ripening process as the player. In Giono the music and the instrument are one. That is his special gift. If he did not become a musician because, as he says, he thought it more important to be a good listener, he has become a writer who has raised Hstening to such an art that we follow his melodies as if we had written them ourselves. We no longer know, in reading his books, whether we are listening to Giono or to ourselves. We are not even aware that we are Hstening. We Hve through his words and in them, as naturally as if we were respiring at a comfortable altitude or floating on the bosom of the deep or swooping like a hawk with the down-draught of a canyon. The actions of his narratives are cushioned in this terrestrial effluvium; the machinery never grinds because it is perpetually laved by cosmic lubricants. Giono gives us men, beasts and gods — in their molecular constituency.* He has seen no need to descend to the atomic arena. He deals in galaxies and constellations, in troupes, herds, and flocks, in biological plasm as well as primal magma and plasma. The names of his characters, as well as the hills and streams which surround them, have the tang, the aroma, the vigor and the spice of string herbs. They are autochthonous names, redolent of the Midi. When we pronounce them we revive the memory of other times ; unknowingly we inhale a whifl” of the African shore. We suspect that Atlantis was not so distant either in time or space.
“Each day,” says Miguel de Unamuno,” I believe less and less in the social question, and in the political question, and in the moral question, and in all the other questions that people have invented in order that they shall not have to face resolutely the only real question that exists — the human question. So long as we are not facing this question, all that we are now doing is simply making a noise so that we shall not hear it.”
Giono is one of the writers of our time who faces this human question squarely. It accounts for much of the disrepute in which he has found himself. Those who are active on the periphery regard him as a renegade. In their view he is not playing the game. Some refuse to take him seriously because he is ” only a poet.” Some admit that he has a marvellous gift for narrative but no sense of reality. Some believe that he is writing a legend of his region and not the story of our time. Some wish us to beheve that he is only a dreamer. He is all these things and more. He is a man who never detaches himself from the world, even when he is dreaming. Particularly the world of human beings. In his books he speaks as father, mother, brother, sister, son and daughter. He does not depict the human family against the background of nature, he makes the human family a part of nature. If there is suffering and punishment, it is because of the operation of divine law through nature. The cosmos which Giono’s figures inhabit is strictly ordered. There is room in it for all the irrational elements. It does not give, break or weaken because the fictive characters who compose it sometimes move in contradiction of or defiance to the laws which govern our everyday world. Giono’s world possesses a reality far more understandable, far more durable than the one we accept as world reality.
Giono gives us the world he lives in, a world of dream, passion and reality. It is French, yes but that would hardly suffice to describe it. It is of a certain region of France, yes, but that does not define it. It is distinaly Jean Giono’s world and none other. If you are a kindred spirit you recognize it inmiediately, no matter where you were bom or raised, what language you speak, what customs you have adopted, what tradition you follow. A man does not have to be Chinese, nor even a poet, to recognize immediately such spirits as Lao-tse and Li Po. In Giono’s work what every sensitive, full-blooded individual ought to be able to recognize at once is “the song of the world.” For me this song, of which each new book gives endless refrains and variations, is far more precious, far more stirring, far more poetic, than the “Song of Songs.” It is intimate, personal, cosmic, untrammeled — and ceaseless. It contains the notes of the lark, the nightingale, the thrush; it contains the whir of the planets and the almost inaudible wheeling of the constellations ; it contains the sobs, cries, shrieks and wails of wounded mortal souls as well as the laughter and ululations of the blessed; it contains the seraphic music of the angelic hosts and the howls of the damned. In addition to this pandemic music Giono gives the whole gamut of color, taste, smell and feel. The most inanimate objects yield their mysterious vibrations. The philosophy behind this symphonic production has no name; its function is to liberate, to keep open all the sluices of the soul, to encourage speculation, adventure and passionate worship.
“Be what thou art, only be it to the utmost!” That is what it whispers.
Is this French?
Jean Giono : Le hussard sur le toit (1953 / France Culture)
La Provence de Jean Giono
Frederic Back’s 1985 film based on Giono’s ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’
Maison de Jean Giono
The Man Who Planted Trees
For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled ge- nerosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.
About forty years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights quite unknown to tourists, in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence. All this, at the time I embarked upon my long walk through these deserted regions, was barren and colorless land. Nothing grew there but wild lavender.
I was crossing the area at its widest point, and after three days’ walking, found myself in the midst of unparalleled desolation. I camped near the vestiges of an abandoned village. I had run out of water the day before, and had to find some. These clustered houses, although in ruins, like an old wasps’ nest, suggested that there must once have been a spring or well here. There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. The five or six houses, roofless, gnawed by wind and rain, the tiny chapel with its crumbling steeple, stood about like the houses and chapels in living villages, but all life had vanished.
It was a fine June day, brilliant with sunlight, but over this unsheltered land high in the sky, the wind blew with unendurable ferocity. It growled over the carcasses of the houses like a lion disturbed at its meal. I had to move my camp.
After five hours’ walking I had still not found water and there was nothing to give me any hope of finding any. All about me was the same dryness, the same coarse grasses. I thought I glimpsed in the distance a small black silhouette, upright, and took it for the trunk of a solitary tree. In any case I started toward it. It was a shepherd. Thirty sheep were lying about him on the baking earth.
He gave me a drink from his water gourd and, a little later, took me to his cottage in a fold of the plain. He drew his water–excellent water–from a very deep natural well above which he had constructed a primitive winch.
The man spoke little. This is the way of those who live alone, but one felt that he was sure of himself, and confident in his assurance. That was unexpected in this barren country. He lived, not in a cabin, but in a real house built of stone that bore plain evidence of how his own efforts had reclaimed the ruin he had found there on his arrival. His roof was strong and sound. The wind on its tiles made the sound of the sea upon its shore.
The place was in order, the dishes washed, the floor swept, his rifle oiled; his soup was boiling over the fire. I noticed then that he was cleanly shaved, that all his buttons were firmly sewed on, that his clothing had been mended with the meticulous care that makes the mending invisible.
He shared his soup with me and afterwards, when I offered my tobacco pouch, he told me that he did not smoke. His dog, as silent as himself, was friendly without being servile.
To the Slaughterhouse
“That’s enough,” the father said, “that’s enough. Don’t make yourself hoarse. I understand, I understand only too well. The war! But me, I’m telling you no, and no it is! All right, they need men for the war, and corn, and sheep, and horses, and goats. They need everything, everything! And why do you always go looking in the same places? And you, what are you doing here? There’s a lot of flesh on you, you know.” He turned to the policeman. “What’s this fellow doing here? There must be a place for him up there. Somebody’s surely been killed today, that makes an empty place. You think it can go on like this? Our son, our horse, our corn, and now our goats. Do you intend to leave us our eyes for weeping? You better had, we’re going to need them. Anyway, who’s the madman in charge of all this? Who’s the madman who gives the orders?”
Joseph ran up the slope of the path. He held on to his right arm. With his wide open left hand he tried stuffing the hole in the other elbow. It was a mess of bone and flesh. A fountain of blood squirted through his fingers. He wanted to stuff that hole. He ran two or three steps, then he walked two or three, breathing heavily, then he started running again. He couldn’t stuff the hole. He grasped it tightly with his left hand, but the blood kept on flowing. As the blood flowed away, he felt air enter through the hole. He no longer felt that he was in one piece and insulated from the world. The broken-up ground, the fire, the powder and the blood of other men, they started flowing into him, and very soon, if it lasted, he would become part of it himself. He, Joseph, his flesh, he’d melt into it all like sugar in water. The black corpse that had its teeth planted into the bark of the willow tree was still there, crouched at the edge of the canal…
The liaison agent went out every day, turning right toward the Seventh. Then they heard the noise of his gas mask-case knocking against the logs. He had come back. “Come and take a look,” he called one evening.
They had to walk the length of the Zouaves’ trench, and follow the blue zigzagging across the quarry. The ramp had just been wrecked. Scraps of cloth were mixed with the mud. A kind of air-hole had opened as a result in the side of the quarry. A man’s arm stuck out from it. The hand was black and shaped like a hook. They drew near. There was a big ditch full of corpses; a sound of chopping water came from inside.
Joy of Man’s Desiring
The grains had been colourless when he had heaped them in the middle of the dazzling threshing floor. Now, brilliant s rice, the wheat flew in the beating of the golden wings. He remembered that a moment ago he had seen the green finch take a grain in his bill, tilt his head, swallow it. He thought no farther along that line. In reality, it was not a thought but a secret leaven in his body. He was obliged to swallow often. He was drunk. He had just lost the poorly human sense of the useful. No longer could he lean to that side. He could not yet lean toward the useless, but he heard the swelling song of the flute that sings for the lepers.
“I have always been alone,” Bobi said, “and it has always been I who have looked out for others…But you have just said some words and made a little gesture, the movement of your hands toward my hair, as if to dry it yourself. And that, no one has ever done. And here I am facing a new thing…Do you understand, Mademoiselle, that if I have asked for nothing, it is not because I have not needed it? Do you understand, too, that if I have always given, it is precisely because I was so in need myself?”
Sometimes in our morning class, when, withdrawn from the noisy world of the street and the town, we could hear the convent quiet flowing in upon us with its cooing of pigeons and the brushing of the lilacs against the walls, Sister Clementine would begin to walk. At this moment as I write, here with my strong cigarette in the corner of my mouth, my eyes smarting, my lighted lamp, and the night in the valley pressing against the window with its phosphorescent trails of peasants’ carts, I have just put down my pen to think over all my experiences as a man. Certainly, to the secret eyes of my senses, there has come the dance of almost every seductive serpent in the world.
I have never experienced a joy more pure, more musical, more complete, more surely born of equilibrium than the joy of watching Sister Clementine walk.
It began like the rising of a curving wind. The boards of the platform uttered a magnetic little cry. She was walking. She wore felt sandals, the soles of her feet made a gentle padding sound. Along the column rose an undulation that recalled waves, the neck of a swan, a moan. It was so ample and so firm, it came so directly from the depths of the earth that if the undulation had mounted to ‘Sister Clementine’s neck it would have broken it like an iris stem. But she received it on the fine springs of her hips, she transformed it into the rolling of an outbound ship, and the whole upper part of her body, breast, shoulders, neck, head, and cornet, shuddered as when a sail swells to a puff of wind.
Stretched out on the table, Paul was bleeding without touching his nose. He was as still and pale as a corpse. The blood formed a great clot on his nostril. Then it stopped flowing. Paul blew hard and the loosened clot slid down his cheek like a little flower at the end of a shining stem of fresh blood. The blood-stained handkerchiefs had been spread over the back of a chair by the window. It was like a slaughtering of the innocents. Presently the lay sister rapped and entered with her odor of herbs and onions.
“He’s been stuffing that thief-weed up his nose again,” she said. “You are a fine sight, Monsieur Paul!”
Sister Clementine picked up the invalid. He lay limply in her amis. He looked up at her with big ox eyes. Down in his throat he was mumbling some indistinct plaint.
“Yes, my sweet,” she would say as she wiped his face.
She moistened a corner of her handkerchief with her saliva and wiped Paul’s blood-stained mouth with the tips of her fingers.
“Take him away,” she said to the converse. “Go along, my dear.”
And she ran her hands through his hair.
Jean Giono @ Wikipedia
Centre Jean Giono
Jean Giono Website (in French)
Jean Giono @ IMDb
Jean Giono @ goodreads
About the Prix Jean Giono
‘Entretien avec Jean Giono un an avant sa mort’
‘Jean Giono, the literary giant who never left Manosque’
Book Report: ‘The Song of the World’ by Jean Giono
‘2012, The Year of Giono’
‘Jean Giono: War! Who’s the madman in charge of all this?’
‘Jean Giono: From Pacifism to Collaboration’
Descriptedlines: Jan Giono’s ‘Blue Boy’
‘French Literature And Jean Giono’
‘Reforesting the Soul – The Ecological Vision of Jean Giono’
Video: ‘L’album de l’écrivain : Jean Giono’
Association des amis de Jean Giono
Maison de Jean Giono
Buy Jean Giono’s books
p.s. Hey. FYI, if you a member of Kanopy, you can now watch ‘Permanent Green Light’ for absolutely free right here! ** Shane Christmass, Hi, Shane. Yeah, I’m def. gonna get/read ‘Gut Text’. No, I don’t know that Duke Haney book, but, again, sounds like I need it. Thanks a lot for the tips, man. Great, I look forward to getting the book! Thanks a lot for that too! ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Ah, the sale continues. Everyone, that big sale of cool stuff from David Ehrenstein is still in progress if you need something cool. David: ‘My Big Emergency Sale is still going on. Besides DVDs, CDs and books it includes a beautiful gold-plate framed mirror going for $100.00 (a steal!) Contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org’ ** Keatholm, Oh, man, gimme rain. Gimme so much rain. I’m scared of the new Weezer as a huge fan of early Weezer (Blue Album -> Maladroit) who stopped short after the next couple. I’ve got lots of water in my fridge so it’s not quite ice cold but it’s a necessary simulation. Brain dead. Use yours while you have it. Take it from me. ** Steve Erickson, It’s weird, just in the last few days suddenly tons of people in my FB feed are throwing ‘cancel culture’ around at everything left and right. People sure do love taking the easy way out through buzz terms. Yikes, man, about that incident. Sounds like mental disturbance, if I had a to guess. But, yeah, it’s scary out there. Our horrible heatwave is turning normally mild mannered weirdos into scenery chewers too. ** KK, Hi, Kyle. Yeah, I mean, I think maybe I was like you to some degree at university because your professor’s assessment rings an awfully familiar old bell. Sounds to me like you’re working it correctly, but I quit u. after one year, so don’t listen to me. I don’t remember CC being all that exciting, but, yeah, it was in the 60s when I was there, and I don’t think I ever even saw the ocean. Alain Tanner, how interesting. I think you’re right; I haven’t heard people talk about his films in ages, whereas he was oft discussed and respected at one point. Curious. I see that his last film was from 2004. I know I saw ‘Jonah …’, and also ‘The Salamander’ and ‘Charles, Dead or Alive’, all of which I remember liking a lot, and I probably saw others I’m not remembering. Huh. Well, now I’m definitely going to make a post about him. He’s custom made. Thanks for bringing him up. That’s so interesting. I used to really love putting together books of my poems. I remembering learning a lot about them that way. Enjoy that. Looking forward to the fruits. ** Misanthrope, ‘The Sluts’ won the Lammy, but I’ve always thought that was some kind of fluke or that they were in some weird, extremely brief ‘let’s be controversial’ moment. Yury basically has control of our TV unless it’s some random thing I feel a need to watch like, uh, the Cannes closing ceremony or Eurovision or some shit. I like suspense. Or for 24 hours anyway. So, pony up. ** Bill, Hi. Word is that Paris will be a roasting, muggy hell, increasingly so each day, at least through Saturday, so … help! Cool that you’ve gotten to see so much. The heat is hampering my doings at the moment. I did go to a VIP opening of a Tracey Emin show at the d’Orsay. The show was weak, but I did get to meet Philippe Grandrieux and talk to him, and that was worth it. Unless I wilt I’ll see the avant-premiere of this gay film from the early 90s, ‘Together Alone’ that has been restored and is being re-released here tonight ‘cos PGL’s distributor is handling it. There was something else, I don’t remember. I do not know ‘This is Not Berlin’, but you had me in a tight grip at the words ‘Lukas Haas from the Johns period’, so I will find it by hook or crook. Man, SF is really happening right now. Envy. ** _Black_Acrylic, Oh, god, torrential rain … what I wouldn’t give. I think this fucking heatwave slid over Europe straight from Spain and the UK got bypassed you lucky, lucky dogs. How totally sweet and nice about the imminent in-person reconnect with Lena. Have the biggest enjoyment! ** Okay. Today I’m spotlighting an interesting French writer who seems have almost totally fallen off the radar in recent years. I know that whenever I’ve mentioned him, everything thinks I’m just pronouncing ‘John Giorno’ weirdly. Anyway, today is your chance to check out Mr. Giono and see if his stuff’s of interest. See you tomorrow.