by Jean Giono, translated by Bill Johnston.
Archipelago, 171 pp., £12.99, September 2021, 978 1 953861 12 2
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The Open Road 
by Jean Giono, translated by Paul Eprile.
NYRB, 212 pp., £13.99, October 2021, 978 1 68137 510 6
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A King Alone 
by Jean Giono, translated by Alyson Waters.
NYRB, 155 pp., £14.99, June 2021, 978 1 68137 309 6
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Jean Giono​ was closely associated with Provence. He lived there his whole life (1895-1970), scarcely travelling anywhere else. It was the setting of his many novels, and he wrote regularly of local geography and weather. And yet Walter Redfern could say, in 2010, that Giono was ‘not a regional novelist’. It’s an interesting claim and alerts us to all kinds of criss-crossing puzzles.

Giono himself wrote: ‘There is a classical Provence. I have never seen it.’ He also said he never spoke of France: ‘That doesn’t exist.’ Still, he was willing to admit that he lived in Manosque and that he knew ‘un pays sauvage’, which he called the High Country. ‘Sauvage’ here is an acknowledgment of underdevelopment and an assertion of pride. He also invites us to think that solitude can shape the mind or the temperament in such a way that we might be able to recognise the inhabitants of unclassical Provence in Mongolia or the deserts of New Mexico. This idea is perhaps regional in its way, but we don’t usually associate the term with such global travel. The whole of Ennemonde is addressed to this topic, which also creeps into much of the rest of Giono’s work. To get ahead of my own argument a little, Giono the writer is not interested in reality, regional or otherwise, until it becomes mythological.

There has been something of a flurry of translations of Giono into English recently; along with the ones under review here, we have had Hill (NYRB, 2016), Melville (NYRB, 2017) and Occupation Journal (Archipelago, 2020). I’m not sure what this means, but I hope it suggests a new attention to a once famous writer, and all of the books are well worth a first read or a return. The Open Road and Ennemonde are tours de force in their own fashion, and A King Alone is a classic by any standard.

A King Alone is the earliest of these three books, first published in France (the place that doesn’t exist) in 1947. The psychological climate of the recent war is everywhere in it, though the explicit setting is the mid-19th century, followed by a shift into the 20th. There is a series of killings in a remote village. At first no bodies are found, so the people are simply missing. Giono uses careful language to mark this mystery (‘must have gone’, ‘disappeared from the face of the earth’) as if it were impolitic to assume or speak of direct violence. Then the bodies are discovered hanging in a tree, and the killer, a certain Monsieur V., is tracked down. The emphasis changes radically, insisting on the very action it seemed to be avoiding. Frédéric, a local whom we hear about on the first page, informs police lieutenant Langlois of his discovery, and leads him to the killer’s village. Langlois promptly kills the killer.

Writing in a notebook in 1948 about this double mood, Giono said that ‘the Hitler movement has a merit. It let loose on the world monsters of cruelty. And we were able to see that these monsters were not exotic, or even German, but that they also belonged to our country, our village, our street, and even our house … This is why I wrote A King Alone.’ Is Langlois a monster of cruelty? Or just insufficiently different from the killer? Why didn’t he wait for the process of the law? Should he judge himself as he judges another? These are the questions the later part of the novel asks in subtle detail but doesn’t answer. As Susan Stewart says in her introduction, the initial crimes ‘gradually fade in relation to the story of Langlois’s astonishing response to them’. The locals worry about what has happened. ‘Aren’t there courts and an executioner in Paris?’ But they talk themselves into keeping silent. ‘Let’s agree that he didn’t have to explain anything to anyone about the way in which he rid us (rid the world) of Monsieur V.’ Langlois doesn’t talk much either, but we follow his discreetly disturbed life all the way to the end.

The French text has an epigraph from Walter Scott at the beginning and ends with a quotation from Pascal: ‘Who is it who said, “A king without diversion is a man full of wretchedness”?’ Alyson Waters’s translation provides a longer passage from Pascal, which gives us a context for the quotation. This is a good move, since the rhetorical question isn’t going to lead all that many English speakers directly to the right place. The fuller quotation is: ‘Let us leave a king all alone to reflect on himself quite at leisure, without any gratification of the senses, without any care in his mind, without society; and we will see that a king without diversion is a man full of wretchedness.’ The French title of the book is Un roi sans divertissement.

Is the suggestion that Langlois doesn’t have enough distractions to take his mind away from his penal performance? That he wouldn’t feel bad if he had more to do? I think it is, and I think Giono wants us to be tempted by the suggestion. But he doesn’t tell us what to do with the temptation. A lot will depend on the way we feel about capital punishment and our confidence or lack of confidence in the process of the law.

Giono added to the conversation in a book he wrote a few years later about the Dominici Affair, a lurid instance of what can happen in the wild country. Some local person or persons killed a family (father, mother and ten-year-old daughter) of English tourists. Gaston Dominici was sentenced to death, a decision later commuted to life imprisonment, still later converted to a release on grounds of illness. There was no pardon or retrial. Roland Barthes wrote one of his brilliant mythology columns about the case, suggesting that since Dominici didn’t understand either the language or the logic of the French educated classes, he was tried according to a metropolitan fantasy of justice. Or, as Barthes more evocatively put it, ‘Literature has just condemned a man to the guillotine.’

Giono’s position is similar. He says he doesn’t know whether Dominici is guilty or not but asserts, in a rather cruel pun, that ‘the intimate conviction’ of the judges and other members of the court ‘did not convince me’. He also says he could ‘subject the attorney general to a “trial of details” where he would certainly not be acquitted’ and remarks that the president of the court confused ‘with a diabolical skill’ the crime and the reconstruction of the crime.

The Open Road, published in 1951 in French, could be seen as another riff on the Pascal quotation. What if a king had only diversions, was relieved of all royal duties, and could do what he liked with his time? This is the situation of the narrator of the novel, not a king but an educated tramp/ occasional worker who insists on his liberty. The epigraph here is very witty in its placing: ‘Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet;/I pray thee stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.’ That is, don’t go to university, don’t become the lawyer or doctor all parents are supposed to want their son to become. We don’t know anything about our narrator’s parents, but he has certainly, knowingly or not, taken the play’s advice.

He looks for a temporary job, takes it so he can eat and have somewhere to sleep, and then looks for another, or perhaps has a break without looking. ‘I have nothing on my mind,’ he says in the first pages. ‘The morning moves along.’ When he is in touch with the road (more often a rural lane or mountainous path), he feels safe. ‘A road generally knows what it’s about. You just have to follow it.’ ‘An open road calms everybody’s nerves.’ He likes to philosophise. ‘There aren’t a hundred different ways of passing our time here on earth – two or three, that’s the max.’ He talks about his relaxed relation to the truth (‘I say what I think. Well, not exactly’) and admires the same in others. Of a character he calls ‘the artist’, he says:

He lies. He sticks firmly to his lie. He dresses up his lie. I’m used to this sort of thing, and I’m still astounded. He lies honestly, if you can put it that way … He doesn’t hide the fact. And I know once I’ve heard his lie, I’ll never know the truth … I have too much at stake in believing what he says. And what he says fits so neatly together.

The artist plays the guitar and has an amazing gift for shuffling playing cards and cheating. ‘Naturally I cheat,’ the artist says. ‘You want me to play like everybody else?’ The narrator falls in love, we might say, not so much with the artist as with the idea of friendship, of this friendship. ‘His look is more ugly than vicious’ – not a very promising appreciation. Still, the two men can ‘go and get into hot water’ together, and the narrator matches his friend’s cheating with his own lying: ‘I explain things to the artist in confidence. What I tell him is quite wonderful, quite complicated, and altogether untrue. I lay it on thick, and he believes me.’

When the artist is all but killed by his card-playing companions, the narrator becomes his saviour and caregiver, and perhaps this is the role he unknowingly wanted: friendship as a form of unreturned devotion. Even a king with diversions may need something else. ‘What is friendship?’ the narrator asks. ‘I do feel some for him, and where does it get me? I don’t know what I want, but I’ve had it up to here with what I’ve got.’ ‘Friendship’ is among the last words of the book, as a violent end to violence is reached.

Ennemonde is a late work, published in 1968. Giono (or Gallimard) calls it a novel but it feels more like a collection of legends, a discursive anthology of the stories told in and about the real and imaginary place called the High Country, and another, distinctly low place called the Camargue. Giono’s own blurb for the French text is appropriately cryptic:

This is a simple narrative that develops certain characters surrounded by their landscapes … Ennemonde will know pleasure, after a perfect crime. She is still alive, old, enormous, but very clean and she listens to the rain. Other characters arrange their lives (and also their loves) with trees, wild bees, sand, cattle, secretary birds (or if you prefer, hoopoes). Only the lover of pieces of gold is taken away by two dogs.

Ennemonde is mentioned early in the book, but we don’t get her story until a third of the way through. She is 41, has no teeth, weighs ‘over two hundred and eighty pounds’, and has probably murdered her old-fashioned, tyrannical husband. Her great love is a man called Clef-des-coeurs, where the spelling – could be clé – suggests a musical as well as a manual locking or opening of hearts. Her son drives her on long, hilly roads to see this man, accepting her impatience with any idea of difficulty or danger. The killing of her husband did not give her a new life, it gave her life itself, as distinct from suffocation:

Since Honoré’s death, Ennemonde had grown more beautiful. Happiness became her. Her hugeness had settled in itself … And her eyes! Such purity! Nothing was as pure as those eyes, their gaze encircled all the way around by lashes three-quarters of an inch long.

This description catches her on the way to see a man who hopes to blackmail her. She has a document that persuades him to back off, and he thinks this is ‘the end of it’. The narrator knows better. ‘He was wrong. Ennemonde did not want to run the slightest risk.’ Within a page the man is dead. The narrator uses the same sort of hint-laden language about the husband’s death (‘Honoré was killed … by a kick from a mule. At least that’s what people surmised, and very likely it was true’) and, speculating on Ennemonde’s late-in-life reflections, he adds other possibilities to the count:

She still has the memory of her deeds, of course; she tries to forget them, not because she regrets anything at all … but … out of a kind of humility. It seems to her that … it’s important that she free herself of all pride, and render unto God that which is God’s. Because without Him she could have been caught red-handed at least three times.

The second, shorter part of Ennemonde is set south of Arles, in the flatlands where Provence meets the sea. The mythology is quite different, but the mythographer has the same quiet, amused voice:

When mysteries are very crafty, they hide in the light; shadows are merely a decoy. The Camargue is a delta, the dumping ground of a large river, a recess. Up to this point it’s been flowing, swiftly, without having the time to indulge in abstractions; it has lived. In this delta … it grows languid, it dawdles, it divides … it examines everything that it carried along up till now, mixes it together, makes it rot, glories in it.

This is a place where the sun offers a ‘theatre … at every crossroads of the senses’. ‘An immediate theatre, based on blood – and on violence, since that is the most direct way to obtain blood.’ The inhabitants aren’t always aware of this drama and treat their scary lives as if they were the only normality. Giono tells us the story of a family that rose and fell this way.

It’s not incidental that the two parts of Ennemonde started out as companion pieces to works of art by others, a selection of photographs and an assembly of lithographs. In this context Giono is willing to talk about ‘regional products’, though we may be a little surprised when we hear what they are: hatred, suspicion, jealousy. He is writing about the High Country at this point, but it’s hard to imagine that the Camargue (or anywhere else) doesn’t have its share of these properties. Giono describes differences to make us, among other reactions, wonder how different these regions are. ‘Unwilling to waste time on love, people polish up the other passions … I love you: that’s never sure; proof is needed. I hate you: that’s solid as gold bullion.’ Even so, these wild places are not all that wild. ‘Here hatred does not kill: it plays billiards.’

Yet all three of the books are crowned, in their different ways, by killings, done by the hero or heroine and not against them or for them to tackle. An intriguing choice for a pacifist, and a choice that underlines an important strain in Giono’s work. He invites us to pause over phrases such as ‘larger than life’ and ‘getting away with murder’, and early in Ennemonde offers an elegant theory of the need for such attention: ‘Reality pushed to an extreme meets back up again with unreality. To face things full on is to accept their magic; in any case, not to argue with it.’

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