The Open Road by Jean Giono, trans. Paul Eprile. NYRB Classics, 224 pages.
Ennemonde by Jean Giono, trans. Bill Johnston. Archipelago Books, 150 pages.
The great anti-modernist Jean Giono was born and died in the Provencal village of Manosque, a small market town in the south of France. He barely survived the First World War, was imprisoned twice during the Second, and in 1970 died a bitter, strange, acidic man who refused to leave Provence. And yet in that time, Giono had also become the best-selling author of more than thirty books and an elected member of the elite French literary society the Académie Goncourt.
Giono wrote novel after novel about the places and people right around him. His fictional Provence has all the mythic sweep of Melville and the closely observed grotesquery of Faulkner. He deliberately rejected the urbane literature of inter- and post-war Paris—of the High Country, he writes that “Monsieur Sartre would not be of much use here”—in favor of something so low to the ground it takes on mythic, even cosmic implications, like the moon seen in a dewdrop. His many decades in Provence generated respect for the region but not reverence: his is a capricious landscape, full of violence and cataclysm, and only those who make themselves equal to the place deserve to remain within it.
Modernity, with all its upheaval, becomes a flash flood, tearing out society by the roots.
Giono did his best to earn that right himself, devoting himself to writing, to Provence, and to an affair with his neighbor that lasted over thirty-five years. His novels often center around dramas of commitment, between those who pledge themselves to the local and those who cannot be trusted to remain. In Harvest (1930), an abandoned village is brought back to life by a man who lives so near to nature that he is described as something vegetal, like a tree or the wheat he chooses to plant. “The Man Who Planted Trees” (1953), arguably Giono’s most famous story in English, tells in its parable fashion of a shepherd who, over decades of slow, careful cultivation, transforms the high desert into, if not Eden, then a life-sustaining orchard all the same.
Whenever characters stray too far from home, higher forces punish them: wildfires threaten villages; celebrations are perverted by satyrs; those hoping to strike it rich end up with their fingers broken and heads blown open. In A King Alone (1947), a gendarme is brought in to kill first a serial killer and then a wolf, but in the end finds no one to exterminate but himself. To the Slaughterhouse (1931) depicts the First World War as a society-wide cataclysm, every battlefield brutality multiplied by its distorted effects on the home front. Modernity, with all its upheaval, becomes a flash flood, tearing out society by the roots.
While Giono’s first novel, Colline, was first (poorly) translated into English all the way back in 1929 (Paul Eprile has since provided his own, superior version of Hill), his works remain only intermittently translated and are largely out of print. But recent years have seen translation campaigns by Archipelago and New York Review Books to bring much of his catalog into English. Two novels, newly published in English, provide interesting variations on Giono’s perennial themes.
The Open Road, also translated by Eprile, is narrated across three seasons by a drifter who takes on odd jobs, engages himself in all manner of little episodes, and falls in and out of touch with a guitar-slinging cardsharp he only refers to as “the artist.” Giono wrote the novel over two months during a break from The Horseman on the Roof, the second novel of his Hussar Cycle—a series of grandly Stendhalian novels that follow young Italian hussar Angelo Pardi in his journeys across the nineteenth century—and published it in the spring of 1951. While his interwar novels were typically pastoral, his postwar work alternated between historical adventures and the short, fragmented novels he called his chroniques.
These chroniques, of which The Open Road is the fourth, allowed Giono to explore new literary forms, and, in a break from his often historical or out-of-time subjects, some quite contemporary material. While usually narrated in linear time, they possess little structure beyond incident, which is often violent. Glancing references are made to the war and occupation, but rarely are these events their subject. The chroniques allowed Giono to deal with the aftermath of the Occupation without confronting it directly—which, considering his nebulous political allegiances under the Vichy government, probably allowed him to continue as a writer in the post-war period.
The Open Road seems largely to be set during the months of its composition, full of references to the new Republic and France’s disastrous defeats in Indochina, which only a few years later would result in decolonization and independence for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Its nameless narrator unfurls the story in the present tense, without chapter breaks, deluging his reader with aphorism, cliché, and commentary as he strolls, hikes, and hitches from the Alps to the south of Provence.
We never learn much about our narrator beyond that he seems to be educated, wears eyeglasses, loves his beard, is irresistible to women, and is probably a bit too old to be vagabonding about. He makes glancing reference to his past, but withholds detail. Early in the novel, he comes upon a young man repairing a guitar beside an Alpine stream. The stranger has keen hands, a mean look; “he looks like a girl,” our narrator relates, “and he’s strong.” From his first glance, the narrator feels at once repulsed and attracted by this young man, whom he soon terms “the artist.” “His gaze was so off-putting, I want to see it again,” he remarks, a tension that binds the two men together over the following months.
The effect is intentional, of course, but does it have to be so irritating?
While he learns little about the artist’s past—only in the final pages does he even gather the man’s name—the narrator falls deeply and protectively into an only-somewhat brotherly love for his companion. He saves the man’s life twice, gives him too much money, buys him food and cards, and promises him, but never delivers, another guitar. Does his attraction come from the loneliness of the road, or somewhere deeper? Giono hints, but never says. When the artist is around, the narrator is in rapture; whenever his “buddy” disappears, he falls into a kind of unarticulated melancholy. You could call it homoeroticism, but the narrator never would. He seems scarcely aware of his own impulses, and seems resistant to—perhaps incapable of—explaining himself. And yet this fast-talking, sly-eyed, ultimately shiftless drifter seems to provoke a kind of loathing in our narrator; I wasn’t surprised when he pumps two shotgun shells into the artist’s face.
Cypher-like characters work perfectly well in many of Giono’s novels. His narrators are almost never so interesting as whatever they happen to be thinking about or looking at. They typically take great pains to describe a region with which they are deeply familiar, as if after enough observation, they have become a kind of kin to every grove and every pass, so that when a great fire passes over it, they might as well be aflame. But, rare for Giono, The Open Road’s vagabond seems largely unfamiliar with the landscapes he passes through. All he can detect are familiar sensations—the “scent of sawmills,” the way a distant stream can sound like the sigh of a sleeping man. He recognizes what he’s looking at, but he doesn’t know it.
And alas, little of great interest is seen in The Open Road. In his introduction, Jacques Le Gall compares the novel to Kerouac, and he is unfortunately correct: Eprile’s translation turns the narrator into a hep cat who goes on and on about broads, thingamabobs, java. His every aside comes to feel less profound than pompous. The effect is intentional, of course, but does it have to be so irritating? All our time together on the road wore me down. No wonder his friend wanted out.
Far more intriguing is Ennemonde. Originally published in 1968, the penultimate novel of Giono’s lifetime was recently issued by Archipelago in a translation by Bill Johnston. This sharp little book marks a return to his naturalistic themes, but with a bitter bite. The novel is set throughout an area which Giono calls the High Country, a wild plateau populated only by flocks of sheep and, on occasion, a shepherd.
But these are not the wise herdsmen of his prior novels. Ennemonde is concerned above all with what Giono’s narrator describes as “the voluptuous antics of stupidity.” Life in the High Country is dominated by violence and deceit. The women “have no shape” and their husbands maintain a hold on the family only so long as their other hand grips a gun. “Around here,” Giono’s narrator declares, “the life people lead doesn’t allow them to treat others with kid gloves.” That includes their author. A man’s corpse is dragged around by the dogs chained to his belt; another is kicked to death by a mule; a Fellini-esque strongman is shot by a Nazi airplane.
Where The Open Road is terse to the point of parody, Ennemonde hurtles onward, clause piled on descriptive clause, as if in every great arabesque of a sentence Giono were trying to encompass the whole of Provence. But he isn’t aiming for grace; no, it’s all spiteful glee in these lines. High Country women are “bundles of low-quality fabrics.” Valleys are analogized to sin: “shadowy, fragrant, and covered with scrub.” A den of iniquity becomes an “altar of repose.” And so on. In a book of less than two hundred abbreviated pages, he also spends a good many describing various mountain views, discoursing on the cosmic significance of various snakes, and describing in great detail the civilization of bees who produce “black sulfur-scented honey” and lay siege to a sheepfold.
For all their beaming pastoralism, Giono’s fictions were never idyllic, never seeking to return to a lost paradise. Droughts choke the land, fires rage, unloosed animals stampede through villages. His landscape is always violent and full of upheaval; no matter how deeply he peers into the past, he always paints a picture of places in flux. Still, there is something idealistic in the almost karmic structure of his earlier work: humans sin against nature, and nature strikes back. The proper price paid, people can return, can prosper—and can once more fall out of harmony. Nature is always ready to provide a correction.
Such a reckoning requires a relationship, however oppositional, and there are no relationships in Ennemonde. The landscape is denuded, and the inhabitants fundamentally alienated from both it and each other. Exploitation and destruction are all that remain, and no one even knows to hope for regeneration. Our title character neither conquers nor cultivates the High Country, only carves out her little manse and spends her final days gazing out the windows, mired in memory. Seated in her wheelchair, Ennemonde follows the wind on its journey from Dalmatia to her windowsill, picking up scents from Turin, the Alps, Cézane, Gondran: places she can never go.
Ennemonde’s original French title includes the subtitle et autres caractères, and the novel concludes with a section of about forty pages whose setting and characters seem totally unconnected to what precedes them. It begins as a lush, metaphysical portrait of the flora and fauna of the Camargue Delta, where the Rhône empties into the Mediterranean. After much diversion, it becomes the story of four generations of a Camarguais family, “all bachelors,” who must first survive the wilds, and eventually the encroaching world of commerce and exploitation, which had once seemed as distant from them as the moon.
Commerce chews up everything, even the mythic.
All of their activities, from herding cows to weaving baskets to vaulting cattle at the fair, return to them in a weakened, commoditized form, until the distinctions that Giono’s narrator initially draws between authentic inhabitants and those artificial ones who “make money from everything, even (and especially) from appearances,” seem pointless. Even the delta over which Giono has gone into such raptures is “no longer used for anything but scenery.” As the final bachelor rides his horse out over the sands, he envisions the sea as something which will one day become only an image of itself, so fragile that even the delta might shatter like the seashells beneath his horse’s hooves.
It’s an unexpectedly muted ending to such a riotous book. As a great fan of Giono’s early career, I’ve always wondered what developments lurked in his later work: What did this great anti-modernist have to say about the years in which modernity’s encroachments became unavoidable? In both of these novels, he increasingly seems at a loss. No amount of stoic commitment can overcome the convenience offered by capitalism. Commerce chews up everything, even the mythic. Giono laments that people have “grown [so] used to having the wool pulled over their eyes,” they can no longer tell the difference between a real tradition and its counterfeit, a wild landscape and a park. Authentic relationships between men and women, people and nature, have lost their basis, not to mention their appeal. Stuck in a terrible stasis, we can’t go back, can’t go forward, can’t begin again.
Perhaps it is precisely this false, transactional existence that pushes the vagabond narrator onto The Open Road. Best just to cut ties, to pull up stakes and head out into the unknown. “I’ll forget [the artist] like I’ve forgotten others before him,” he asserts. If you can find no place in the world, leave it behind.