Posts Tagged ‘Jean Giono’

Melville

September 22, 2017

My introduction to Jean Giono last year, when New York Review of Books published Hill, was one of those moments when a half-known name exceeds all expectations, when an old voice sounds fresh and new, and when those first few pages suggest a long-term relationship. Impatiently moving onto another of his early novels, Second Harvest, I was delighted to discover that NYRB have a similarly enduring commitment to Giono, and have now released Paul Eprile’s translation of Melville (which will in turn be followed by his 1951 novel, The Open Road). As Edmund White points put in his introduction, Melville comes at a turning point in Giono’s writing life, as he moved away from his “Pan Cycle…works of an almost folkloric quality that highlighted his native Provençal landscape.” While this change may be related to the failure of Giono’s pacifism, Melville’s origins are particularly unusual as the novel began as an introduction to his own translation (alongside his friend Lucien Jacques) of Moby Dick. Instead it became an imaginative recreation of the author based on his reading of the book.

Melville begins strangely enough with the lines:

“In 1849, when Melville returned to America after a short stay in England, he had a strange item in his baggage. It was an embalmed head…but it was his own.”

It continues, however, with a summary of Meville’s biography, albeit in a style full of conversational interjections and imaginative interpolations – one in which Melville’s restless energy is echoed in the narrative voice. Giono focuses on Melville’s desire to escape to the sea, but where he is (unsurprisingly) particularly good is in his portrayal of Melville as a writer:

“For fifteen months, since he went to sea, he’d been wrestling with an angel. Like Jacob, he’s plunged into darkness and no dawn comes…He hasn’t a moment’s respite from the fight… He, Herman, wrestles with this dreadful angel who, by doing battle, illuminates the impenetrable mystery of the intercourse between humans and the gods. It’s inside of this mystery that his eyes have sight.”

It’s after Melville has dropped off the manuscript of White-Jacket with his publisher in London that the novel leaves his life behind and entirely enters Giono’s fantasy. Giono portrays Melville as a man who cannot live without adventure:

“…as long as there was the possibility of getting in discussion, in argument; as long as it should have been leading into something worthwhile, London was still bearable. But now – dark, soulless, noisy – he can’t stand it. What kind of trap had he fallen into?”

Dismissing his initial instinct to rebel by wearing a white top hat, Melville instead strikes up a conversation with the stable boy, asking him, “Supposing you had ten days of freedom to do whatever you liked, what would you do?” The stable boy’s answer, that he would visit his sweetheart, Jenny, in the village of Woodcut, is all Melville needs to begin an adventure. He acquires the appropriate costume, recreating the appearance of a sailor, a process which sees him feel alive once more:

“His heart was swelling again. Big, ferocious wings were starting to fan him furiously…”

This sense of adventure is inextricably linked to his inspiration:

“The battle with the angel has resumed. He always suspected it was only a truce.”

It seems likely that Giono sees something (or even everything) of himself in Melville, his attachment to the country echoed in Melville’s relationship with the sea. As Melville wrestles with his muse, we see Giono coming to terms with a change in his own writing:

“It’s up to me to devise my own compasses and my own rigging. In this game you set out either to win it all or lose everything… He’s no more a writer ‘of the sea’ than others are writers ‘of the soil’.”

The adventure of his coach trip is, of course, the adventure of a mysterious and beautiful woman, Adelina, as well as a brush with revolutionary politics. Though the plot is hardly complicated, it still feels as if everything moves at a breathless pace (perhaps partly because we spend a lot of time in the carriage). It is this relationship which gives him the inspiration, and motivation, to write Moby Dick.

This makes Melville one of the strangest pieces of literary criticism ever written. Whether it provides much insight into Moby Dick I cannot say (having never read it) but I suspect it is more revealing regarding Giono himself. Giono’s imaginative engagement with his subject is such, however, that it is impossible to resist.

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Lost Books – Second Harvest

January 23, 2017

second-harvest-2

One of the most impressive novels I read last year was originally written in 1929. Hill (which I read in a new translation by Paul Eprile) was Jean Giono’s first novel and it left me eager for more, though up against Giono’s rather sporadic and disorganised appearance in English. Hill is the first of three novels said to comprise Giono’s ‘Pan trilogy’, the second being Un de Baumugnes (Lovers are Never Losers) and the third Regain (Second Harvest). Both were translated into English in the 1930s, but Lovers are Never Losers seems not to have been reprinted (and is therefore not the easiest book to get hold of) whereas Second Harvest (translated by Henri Fluchere and Geoffrey Myers) was (in 1999 by Harvill).

Second Harvest, like Hill, is set in a sparsely populated village in the Provence area of France. In fact the village of Aubignane is so sparsely populated that when the novel opens it has only three inhabitants left: Gaubert and Mameche, both elderly, and Panturle, the only one with much life left ahead of him:

“Panturle was a huge man. He looked like a piece of wood walking along. During the heat of the summer, when he had made himself a sort of sun-curtain out of fig leaves and held himself erect with his hands full of grass, he was just like a tree.”

That Panturle appears to be part of nature is not unexpected as Giono uses language in these novels to suggest that the landscape and the creatures (including people) which live there are inextricably linked. The wind, we are told, “waved about a little and beat its tail gently against the hard sky”; flames are “just like colts, prancing around elegantly without thinking of work”; in winter:

“The countryside shivered in silence…Every morning a russet sun rose in silence. With a few indifferent paces it strode across the whole breadth of the sky and day was over. Night heaped up the stars like grain.”

Gaubert has been convinced by his son to leave as winter approaches – “He says he’s anxious about leaving me alone this winter” – and it looks as if the village will soon be empty until Mamech asks Panturle, “If I brought you one, would you take the woman?” She does not ask this question because she has someone in mind but simply out of determination. The promise seems in vain, however, when Mamech herself disappears.

Our focus now moves to the knife-grinder, Gedemus, and the woman he travels with, Arsule. Arsule’s back-story is an indication that Giono is never sentimental about the lives he portrays. A travelling entertainer, she is abandoned by her ‘manager’ and, when found the next day by a group of farm-workers, she is repeatedly raped. Gedemus then takes her in as both servant and mistress. His treatment of her as a useful asset rather than a human being can be seen in the way that, though they set off with him pulling his knife-grinding tools in a cart, she soon takes over.

Through a series of prosaic events which Giono describes in such a way to seem almost mystical, including Gedemus and Arulse pulling Panturle from a river and saving his life, Panturle and Arsule end up living together in Abignane. Panturle’s symbolic rebirth (“He had begun to live again a few moments ago…”) is the beginning of the rebirth of the village, best seen in his decision to plant grain again having lived alone by hunting.

As with Hill, Second Harvest is a simple story told with great subtlety. Giono’s great skill is to display characters and landscape as one and in constant conflict. Even in writing of a way of life which was already dying out, there is an optimism of the will which is difficult to resist.

Hill

May 25, 2016

hill

When Scott of Seraillon and Dorian of Eiger Monch and Jungfrau, as a result of a discussion surrounding the latter’s dislike of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, suggested reading Jean Giono’s Hill, recently published by New York Review of Books in a new translation by Paul Eprile, I felt almost obliged to join in given my own hostility to Seethaler’s novel. Hill was Giono’s first novel, originally published in 1929, set in a small village, the Bastides, in Provence, an area Giono knew well. (This, of course, immediately points to one difference between the novels: Seethaler, born in 1966, is writing about a past he never experienced; Giono, who was thirty-four when Hill was published, is writing about a time and place which he knew intimately).

That the novel begins with a description of the landscape, and that the first consciousness we inhabit is that of a boar, is an indication of the importance of nature in Giono’s work. The landscape is as alive as any other character, with Giono frequently using imagery to suggest this:

“Mount Lure dominates the landscape and blocks out the west with its huge, numb, mountain body.”

Shortly after he describes night “pouring into the valley”:

“It washes over the haunch of the hill. The olive groves raise their song, under the shadow.”

While nature is given human attributes, characters are often described in terms of the nature around them:

“From his beady, chestnut coloured eyes his blank stare flits into the sky like a moth.”

Despite cramming the novel with a wheen of apt and striking similes and metaphors, Giono never strays from the world of the novel in his imagery, enhancing the sense of a closed eco-system, and the limits of his characters’ perspective.

Thirteen characters live in the village, the oldest of which is Janet, now bedridden. A deterioration in his condition has prompted a doctor’s visit, a rare intrusion from the world outside:

“I don’t believe he has much time left… Do what I told you. However, in my opinion it’s like putting a bandage on a wooden leg. If he gets any worse, come and get me if you want, but it’s a long way. It took me three hours to get up here.”

Janet’s approaching death is not the only cloud hanging over the village, both literally and metaphorically. Much of the novel has an ominous feel; the village’s dilapidated state is a reminder of the precariousness of man’s existence, and tension builds towards some sensed but unknown threat. First there is a storm (“The sky is like a swamp where patches of open water gleam between patches of slime”), and then the sighting of a black cat associated with previous misfortunes, which Gondran, Janet’s son-in-law, is happy to list to the other villagers:

“As for the earthquake back in ’07…it was on a Thursday. The Monday before that, when I was stalking partridge, I’d seen the cat.”

Soon after the fountain, the village’s only supply of water, runs dry.

A rural life is one where luck, and therefore superstition, plays a part, but Giono is making a more profound point than that. Gondran has an epiphany where he considers the way man treats nature:

“Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals?
Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder?
It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill.
And when he scythes, he slays.
So that’s the way it is – is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic runaway barrel, levelling everything in his path?”

The novel, as well as being a detailed portrait of rural life in the early part of the twentieth century, is also a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, for which, it suggests, there is a price to pay. (This can be seen, for example, in Gondron’s failure to shoot a boar at the beginning, a kill which he makes at the end). In this it is in some ways a very contemporary novel despite its description of a way of life which has largely disappeared in Europe, exploring ideas about how we should treat animals and land, a debate which is even more urgent today.

Above all, it is a joy to read. It is beautifully written, and therefore I imagine beautifully translated, with too many memorable phrases to mention. Stylistically, its short paragraphs and sections of direct speech perfectly suit both the characters and the building tension. The characters themselves, though often built in a series of brief strokes like an etching, soon come to inhabit the landscape, as does the reader.