Posts Tagged ‘Jean Giono’

Best Books of 2020 Part 2

December 27, 2020

For part two of my favourite books of 2020 I’m going to focus on those books which bridge the gap between the past and the present – that is, those books which, often after many years of waiting, have finally made it into English this year

The first of these, originally published in 1948 and translated by Joyce Zonana, is Henri Bosco’s Malicroix in which the narrator, Martial, must live in the solitary residence of his newly deceased great uncle for three months in order to inherit. The house is on a remote island in a wild part of the country, complete with a looming, silent servant and an obsequious lawyer who seems less than keen that Martial should be successful. This is a novel of mood and atmosphere, from its strong sense of place to its unremitting tension – a novel the reader lives in alongside the narrator

Another French writer whose work resurfaced this year was Jean Giono, in the shape of his Occupation Journal, originally published in France in 1995 though written between 1943 and 1944, and now translated by Jody Gladding. It was particularly interesting reading this during lockdown as Giono was experiencing much the same at the time – unable to travel and faced with an uncertain level of risk: “More and more I am immersed in a very great solitude,” he tells us. By its very nature, there is no great structure to the journal, but it is full of insights into both the occupation and Giono’s life as a writer

Also set during wartime – in this case the Spanish Civil War – Ana Maria Matute’s The Island appeared in a new translation from Laura Lonsdale. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Matia, who is staying with her grandmother as her mother is dead and her father is fighting, it is a coming-of-age story steeped in the oppressive sunlight of the island. Matute uses the setting to show the civil war in microcosm as it becomes an excuse for age-old prejudices to resurface. Matia’s attempts to understand and negotiate these make for a gripping picture of growing up

In Magda Szabo’s Abigail, originally published in 1970 and now translated by Len Rix, we also find a young girl, Gina, caught up in a conflict she does not understand. Set in Hungary during the Second World War, Gina finds herself sent away by her father, a General, to a boarding school where he cannot visit her and only rarely makes contact. Instead she must rely on the mysterious ‘Abigail’ to protect her – a statue to which pupils traditionally confide their problems. What begins as a typical boarding school novel soon becomes a thrilling story of wartime resistance

Finally, set in Germany in the 1930s and also featuring a child narrator, Gert Hofmann’s Veilchenfeld, originally published in 1986, was translated this year by Eric Mace-Tessler. Here the title character is an elderly Jewish philosopher who is increasingly persecuted in the course of the novel, much to the bewilderment of the young narrator. Hofmann brilliantly demonstrates the small cruelties which will ultimately lead to genocide by keeping a tight focus on one small town. A moving individual story, as well as a warning.

Almost Lost in Translation Part 3

June 25, 2020

The Truce by Mario Benedetti (1960, translated by Harry Morales 2015)

The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti is generally regarded as one of Latin America’s most important authors, yet, up until recently, was virtually unknown in English, with only some poetry and short stories translated. This changed in 2015 with Harry Morales’ translation of his 1960 novel The Truce, published in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic. The Truce is written in the form of a diary of an ordinary man, Santome, who is described as “a sad person with a calling for happiness.” Form is clearly important to Benedetti as the two novels to appear since, Springtime in a Broken Mirror (translated by Nick Caistor in 2018) and Who Among Us? (Morales again in 2019) both feature a number of different narrative viewpoints – in the latter this includes the viewpoint of a writer told via the mechanism of a short story he has written. You can read my review of The Truce here.


The Evenings by Gerard Reve (1947, translated by Sam Garnett in 2016)

Gerard Reve (alongside Harry Mulisch and the already mentioned W F Hermans) was one of the three great Dutch writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Like Hermans, he was still largely unavailable in English by the twenty-first century, despite at one point moving to England and writing only in English. A later novel, Parents Worry, had been translated by Richard Huijing in 1990, but that was as far as it went. Then, in 2016, Sam Garret translated his first novel, The Evenings, a Dutch Catcher in the Rye, described by Philip Huff in the New York Review of Books as “either a deeply cynical or a very funny description of the last ten days of 1946, as seen through the eyes of the young office clerk Frits van Egters.” This was followed by the translation of two early novellas under the title Childhood in 2018. You can read Philip Huff’s review of The Evenings and Childhood here.


Hill by Jean Giono (1929, translated by Paul Eprile in 2016)

Of all the writers included here, Jean Giono probably least deserves his place. Giono has been regularly translated into English, at times only a year or two after the original publication, translations kept available by publishers such as Peter Owen and the Harvill Press. (His novella The Man Who Planted Trees seems to be permanently in print). Yet, despite this, Giono has not always seemed particularly recognised or respected. In 2016 the New York Review of Books published a new translation by Paul Eprile of his first novel, Hill, a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, with its vivid description of landscape and rural life. This was followed by a translation of his Herman Melville novel (Melville – also by Eprile), and A King Alone (translated by Alyson Waters), which reads like a detective story. The three together show Giono’s versatility and range, and they have recently been joined by his Occupation Diary from Archipelago Books. You can read my review of Hill here.


The Kites by Romain Gary (1980, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot in 2017)

Like Gerard Reve, Romain Gary also wrote in English at times but this does not mean his work is easily available. Born in Lithuania, he immigrated with his mother to France as a teenager, and wrote mainly in French. He remains the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (technically it can only be awarded to a writer once), the second time under his pseudonym Emile Ajar. In 2017 his previously untranslated final novel, The Kites, was translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot and published by New Directions in the US and Penguin Classics in the UK. The Kites tells the story of a small village in Normandy during the German occupation. In 2018 Penguin brought Gary’s wonderful autobiography, Promise at Dawn, back into print, and the same year Verba Mundi reissued The Roots of Heaven with a new introduction by David Bellos. The rest of his work remains out of print but there is, at least, now hope. You can read a review of The Kites by Adam Gopnik here.


Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1979-78, translated by Geraldine Harcourt 2017)

Yuko Tsishima was a Japanese writer who had won numerous prizes in her own country but had only sporadically appeared in English (in the UK her only appearances had come thanks to the Women’s Press in the late 1980s). In 2017 Penguin Classics published Territory of Light translated by Geraldine Harcourt, who had long translated and advocated Tsishima’s work. A deceptively simple novel, it’s the story of a single mother and her young child. It was followed by a reprinting of Child of Fortune (this seems an admirable tactic of Penguin) and the inclusion of Of Dogs and Walls among the fifty mini-books which celebrated Penguin Modern Classics in 2018. Sadly Geraldine Harcourt died in 2019 and we can only hope someone else will take up the baton for Tsishima’s work. You can read my review of Territory of Light here.

 


The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevson (1967-1971, translated by translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman in 1985 / 2019)

Tove Ditlevson was a Danish writer whose troubled life included four marriages, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and several stays in a psychiatric hospital. The first two volumes of her autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy were translated in 1985 by Tiina Nunnally and published as Early Spring, but only in 2019 was the project completed. Originally published by Penguin Classics in three volumes (Childhood, Youth and Dependency – though in Danish the title of the final volume, Gift, apparently means both marriage and poison), a one volume edition is due in September. Penguin are also reissuing her novel The Faces next year. You can read a review of the Copenhagen Trilogy by Liz Jensen here.

Occupation Journal

May 14, 2020

Jean Giono’s Occupation Journal, covering the year between September 1943 and September 1944, (published in French in 1995 and only now translated into English by Jody Gladding) becomes a far more recognisable text under our own current lockdown conditions. “More and more I am immersed in a very great solitude,” Giono tells us, though he also declares, “I have never been so happy as now.”

“I believe I am deeply grateful for everything that forcefully cuts me off from the world.”

In 1943 Giono was forty-eight years old, living, as he did for most of his life, in Manosque in Provence and famous for his portrayal of Provencal peasant life in novels such as Hill and Second Harvest. His writing would begin to change with the publication of Melville in 1941, a novel he continued to have affection for (“I don’t consider anything I’ve done to be valuable,” he says, “Possibly Colline (Hill) and Pour saluer Melville, but just barely if at all”). His pacifism had already brought him into conflict with the state with a brief arrest in 1939, and shortly after the final journal entry he was arrested again, accused of being a Nazi sympathiser, and imprisoned for five months without charge. (Giono’s pacifism originated from his experience in the First World War: at Verdun he was one of eleven survivors in his company. He wrote about his experience in To the Slaughterhouse).

Despite the title, a direct translation, Giono states:

“This is not a journal. It’s simply a tool of the trade. My life is not completely depicted. Nor would I want it to be. As I’ve said here, I practice scales, I break up my sentences, I try to stick as closely as possible to the truth.”

This does not, however, mean that its publication is undeserved. In fact, although by its nature the insights it contains are scattered, it covers a lot of ground. Not only do we get a sense of conditions in France during the year before liberation, but we also have a window into the daily life of a writer, as well as Giono’s musings on art and politics. Less vital, but still interesting, we see the practical problems he faces: illness is common place, and two members of his family, an aunt and uncle who both stay with him, die in the course of the year. Money is another frequently mentioned challenge. “I can’t wait to be less strapped for money,” he tells us, and:

“I work precisely to make a living.”

In June he tells us, “I now have the same money worries as in January,” and, in the course of the year he resorts to selling two of his manuscripts:

“I’m mad at myself for all my generosities that now force me to part with these manuscripts.”

It doesn’t hep that he is widely regarded as rich – “the legend of my ‘immense’ fortune” as he describes it. (I couldn’t help but feel that many writers would sympathise with these problems!).

The journal also contains some thoughts on what he is reading. Of Nicholas Nickleby he says:

“…the story doesn’t escape ‘Punch’: caricature, sentimentality. It’s very engaging, despite some long passages that seem to drag on, but it remains a sketch, witty, exceptionally well constructed, but constructed.”

He is much more complementary when it comes to Stendhal and Balzac, and saves his most scathing remarks for Gone with the Wind:

“The women are cardboard cutouts. How do they have children?… Does Scarlett even have sex organs?”

Throughout, the war forms a background to Giono’s work and thoughts:

“This morning gunfire can be heard very distinctly from the south.”

As the possibility of the Allies freeing France from German occupation increases, different groups compete for power and influence. “The country is all abuzz with conspiracies,” Giono tells us, and “…it’s going to devolve into murder, pure and simple.” This is indeed what happens in May:

“The attack in Voiron a sign of the times. A whole family shot dead from the eighty-year-old grandmother to a child, three years old, killed in its crib by three bullets to the neck and one in the belly. The murderers (what other word to use?) are students and teachers at the vocational school in the town!”

As a pacifist, Giono deplores all violence, but he also feels “War and revolution never killed the right people” and doesn’t trust the Communists not to collaborate with the bourgeoisie they find useful to them. (He also sees them as anti-peasant). When France is finally liberated he is not:

“I’m not leaving the house and not going into town.”

Even before his arrest he is preparing his defence:

“I tell him I wish everyone had done as much as I did for the poor wretches hunted down by the Gestapo.”

Above all, Occupation Journal demonstrates that, in war, it is not good against evil, but, in fact, life becomes even more morally murky than before.

Occupation Journal is not just for Giono completists – it’s a fascinating historical document as well as an interesting insight into the life of a writer. It would probably have benefitted from an introduction and notes, both to provide the historical background, and to clarify the many references Giono makes to his work, particularly what he is writing at the time, but that does not prevent it from being eminently readable, particularly at today:

“The mental vicissitudes that all the contradictory passions of the present moment make us go through destroy any equilibrium.”

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.

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.