Jean Giono

First published in 1954 by Vogue magazine, Jean Giono’s story has been translated into at least a dozen languages. It has since inspired reforestation efforts, worldwide.
Giono was a self-taught man. He lived virtually his entire life in the little city of Manosque in France. His elderly father was a cobbler and his mother, he tells us in his early novel jean le bleu [Blue Boy], ran a hand laundry. This family of three resided in the poorest of tenements where the child had only a blue view down into the well, or courtyard. At age sixteen, becoming sole support of the family, Giono left school and went to clerk in a bank. Eighteen years later, in 1929, he published his first two novels, Colline [Hill of Destiny] and Un de Baumugnes [Lovers Are Never Losers], both rave success, in part thanks to the instant sponsorship of Andre Gide.

Years afterward Giono recalled the turning point in his life, to a moment in the afternoon of December 20, 1911, when he could spare enough pennies to purchase the cheapest book he could find. It turned out to be a copy of Virgil’s poems. He never forgot that first flush of his own creative energy: ‘My heart soared’.

Giono ran into difficulties with the American editors who in 1953 asked him to write a few pages about an unforgettable character. Apparently the publishers required a story about an actual unforgettable character, while Giono chose to write some pages about that character which to him would be most unforgettable. When what he wrote met with the objection that no ‘Bouffier’ had died in the shelter at Banon, a tiny mountain hamlet, Giono donated his pages to all and sundry. Not long after the story was rejected, it was accepted by Vogue and published in March 1954 as ‘The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness’. Giono later wrote an American admirer of the tale that his purpose in creating Bouffier ‘was to make people love the tree, or more precisely, to make them love planting trees’.

Giono interpreted the ‘character’, as an individually unforgettable if unselfish, generous beyond measure, leaving on earth its mark without thought of reward. Giono believed he left his mark on earth when he wrote Elzeard Bouffier’s story because he gave it away for the good of others, heedless of payment: ‘It is one of my stories of which I am the proudest. It does not bring me in one single penny and that is why it has accomplished what it was written for’.

In The Man Who Planted Trees, the author’s adventure commenced in June 1913, during a walking tour through Julius Caesar’s ancient Roman province, still so called: Provence. As Giono trudged along the wild, deserted high plateau, he heard the wind growl like a lion over the ruins which lay like black carcasses and rush like ocean waves over the high country. Fearful and exposed, he saw mirages like the gaunt, black silhoutte of a grieving woman he mistook for a dead tree. He met a shepherd, a pastor ministering to sheep, one of those solitary men associated from all time with congregations and Providence. By the end of World War I this same shepherd had become a beekeeper who already resembled God more narrowly by his power to create a new earth. He was planting oaks, beeches, and briches. Miraculously, water was conserved, dry stream beds filled again, and seeds germinated into gardens, meadows, and flowers. In 1993 this planter of trees of seventy-five years of age was clearly one of God’s athletes. After World War II in 1913 all had lain waste. The shepherd had performed his solitary work, which Giono hoped he also had done. Both hoped to be worthy of God.

The name Elezeard calls to mind some unforgotten Hebrew prophet, wise man, or Oriental king. The last name means in both French and English some thing grandoise: bouffi, bouff’e, that is puffed up [like a great man], puffed out [like wind, or a cloud in the sky]. Such an old hero appears remarkably in most of Giono’s early fiction, often a shepherd, or else some venerable alcoholic, storyteller, old hired man, or knife sharphener, but usually escorted by beasts: sheep, bees, a bull, a stag, a toad, or a serpent. Such lonely old men in their delirium directly hear the voice of God, or that of some ageless Greek such as the great Pan. One must think of these variously gifted old men as embodying the creative gods themselves, as native survivals in this ancient Provence to which they continuously brought their wisdom, their knowledge of agriculture, their message of life indestructible, all of them teaching, like the titanic Dionysus, the precious secret of humanity’s ancient kinship with the earth.

When we express pity, Giono used to say, as for a living river cut off by dams, or pity for the helpless suffering beast killed by cruel humankind, then we ourselves resemble the ancient yellow gods who still look down on us from Olympus. Should we not extend our compassion to the forest before it is felled by the woodcutters? This was not original in French literature, of course, but could have come to the child Giono as he read the Fables of La Fontaine in school. His thinking was reinforced by his favorite American “apostles of Nature,” Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.

In his wonderful story of Elezeard Bouffier, Giono seems to have intended to inspire a reforestation program that would renew the whole earth. His history of this imaginary shepherd, which is a compliment to Americans because of its relationship to the real Johnny Appleseed, calmly veers away from past and present time towards the future of newer and better generations. Giono termed his confidence in the future esp’erance, or hopefulness, not espoir, which is the masculine word for hope, but esp’erance, the feminine word designating the permanent state or condition of living one’s life hopeful tranquility. Whence springs this well of esp’erance, Giono wondered?

Hopefulness must spring, he decided, from literature and the profession of poetry. Authors only write. So, to be fair about it, they have an obligation to profess hopefulness, in return for their right to live and write. The poet must know the magical effect of certain words: hay, grass, meadows, willows, rivers, firs, mountains, hills. People have suffered so long inside walls that they have forgotten to be free, Giono thought. Human beings were not created to live forever in subways and tenements, for their feet long to stride through all grass, or slide through running water. The poet’s mission is to remind us of beauty, of trees swaying in the breeze, or pines groaning under snow in the mountain passes, of wild white horses galloping across the surf.

During his lifetime Jean Giono, who considered himself to be Italian and Provencal, in addition to French, was judged one of the greatest writers of our age by such authorities as Henri Peyre and Andre Malraux. Both Peyre and Malraux ranked Giono first or second in French twentieth century literature: Giono, Montherlant, and Malraux [who included himself]. Longevity counts most for an author, and Giono’s works are still being edited and published after fifty-six years. Giono wrote over thirty novels, numerous essays, scores of stories, many of which were published as collections, plays, and film scripts. In 1953 he was awarded the Prix Mon’egasque for his collective work, and in 1954 he was elected to the Acad’emie Goncourt, whose ten members award the annual Prix Goncourt.

Giono laughingly said people in Paris sent him questionnaries because they did not want to read his books. But if we look at one of these documents he answered, we can hear him speak in his usual teasing voice and mood: My ideal happiness? Peace. My favourite fictional hero? Don Quixote. My favourite historical character? Machiavelli. My heroines in real life? There are no heroines in real life. My painter? Goya. My musician? Mazarat. My Poet? Villon. Baudelaire. My color? Red. My flower? The narcissus. My chief character trait? Generosity. Faithfulness. My chief fault? The generous lie. What I want to be? Lenient. My preferred occupation? Writing.

In recent years some of Giono’s most highly regarded novels have been reprinted by North Point Press and are once again available to English-speaking readers. These are: Harvest [1930], Blue Boy [1932], Song of the World [1934], Joy of Man’s Desiring [1935], Horseman on the Roof [1951], and The Straw Man [1958]. Jean Giono died, midway through his seventy-fifth year.

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