Posts Tagged ‘twentieth century French literature’

Jean Giono: Regain

September 11, 2021

     Correction: I made a mistake in my last post about Jean Giono’s Le Grand Troupeau: being sent back to my school and university notes (no longer in a crate but scanned onto my laptop) by a reference in Regain, I discovered that it hadn’t in fact been one of my A Level French texts, but one from my first undergraduate year.

I really enjoyed coming back to Regain. The language is a challenge, just as it was in the previous book, because there’s so much particular vocabulary, from the Provence landscape and the agriculture of a century ago, as well as the idiom in which the characters speak… having a dictionary on your phone alongside you as you read isn’t always enough with a text like this: Le Petit Robert came down off the shelves a number of times.

Giono writes of the slowly emptying and abandoned villages in his region of France, as people moved away for an easier life, and the elderly died off. There’s a feeling of great sadness about it all; the villages are lovingly described in their decay, and the sense of loss, even of a very hard living, is palpable. There’s something important about people being connected to and rooted in their land, that Giono manages to convey with great power.

And the life is hard: there are no aspects or elements of 20th century civilisation in evidence in the villages; even money seems a curiosity. How to bring it all back to life? This novel is part of the Pan trilogy, and Panurge, the final inhabitant of his village, needs a woman to help him, to be a companion and co-worker. The old woman who has left, saying she will send him one, is almost a witch-like figure, or an earth-mother/goddess as we might probably say now. And the last man is finally joined by a woman, and they start to change things…

Arsule had been someone else’s woman, and he had used her as a beast of burden. We now see her coming into her own as a person, with ideas, an equal part of the enterprise. Primitive instincts or basic human urges may have drawn her and Panurge together initially, and this seems right, in the greater context. The transformation of home-making and the woman’s influence may strike one nowadays as very traditional, but the over-riding victory is of the return of life to the village of Aubignane. Their farming is eventually a success and there is a very real and simple joy in it; they are eventually joined by another family with children who move into the village, and at the end of the novel, Arsule is pregnant.

At one level simple and predictable, naive even? A nostalgic view of peasants’ mutual self-help? A romanticised vision of rural France? Possibly, but I’m not sure. There’s a harsh realism as well as a lyricism in the description of the landscape, the weather and the harsh life of the very poor peasants in the ruined villages, and there’s hope. If you add in the return to the simple life of the past as a reaction to the vile horrors of the Great War (read my previous post) then it makes a kind of sense. And Giono really knew the land, the area, and all this is reflected in his lovingly detailed and sensuous descriptions. It’s an excellent read.

Jean Giono: Le Grand Troupeau

August 21, 2021

     I first came across the French writer Jean Giono as a student of A Level French literature half a century ago, with his novel Regain, which was about the gradual rebirth of an abandoned rural village. Not idyllic, not hippified, but bloody hard work done by people who loved the land and understood its importance. I have made a mental note to track it down and re-read it.

This novel (translated into English as To The Slaughterhouse) is about the devastating effects of the Great War on French rural society, on villages hundreds of miles from the front lines. Who is to manage the countryside, the land and the beasts, once the men have gone off to war, many killed and many others mutilated so that even though they return, they cannot work the land? The troupeau (herd) in the French title is both the abandoned or requisitioned animals and the men gathered into battalions for the slaughter. The peasants who find themselves armed and at the front lines in short order are completely lost, disoriented, often wounded and left to die.

It’s an incredibly powerful novel, impressionistic in many ways, disjointed and at times understated, yet clear in its focus on rural life and the organic connections between people. The war is brutal and vile, yet at the same time backgrounded as alien to the positive forces Giono is interested in. Women are forced to be stronger than they can be; we see the devastating effects of the news of deaths on women and the older men back at home in the faraway villages. One truly heart-wrenching scene is the rural mourning ritual for an absent corpse. Nor does Giono ignore the sexual longings and desires of the women deprived of their menfolk, either. An account of trying to bring about an abortion a century ago was quite graphic. And when he wants to shock, Giono spares nothing: there is a truly obscene and detailed description of swarms of rats and how they start eating fresh corpses; then crows arrive and do their bit too… Some soldiers go mad, haunted by visions of their dead comrades.

I found the novel quite hard to read in French: there is much slang and rural vocabulary and idiom from over a century ago, and dictionaries were not often much help. The overall effect is quite different from English fiction about that war, with a much more powerful sense of utter waste, and the total futility of it all. The times come across as deranged, insane.

In the end, I found it rather too disjointed and hallucinatory, perhaps because it was just so utterly alien from my experience, even though I have considerable familiarity with the literature of this period. It recalled Henri Barbusse’s famous Le Feu, which was also a very challenging read a number of years ago. Giono had been there, and his vision of the solidity and solidarity of the ordinary people, the peasantry of France and its potential for renewal of society, was at least partly a reaction to those four years of mayhem: he does leave us with glimmers of hope at the end.

Reading and enjoying French literature

August 31, 2015

I really enjoyed studying French literature at university, and the year in France that was part of my course enabled me to begin to understand the country, its culture and literature, as well as firming up my knowledge of and fluency in the language. Because I was studying two literatures (three, if I count American separately) I began to see links between the histories, cultures and literatures of nations and their influences on each other, and this has stood me in good stead all through my reading life, as I’ve branched out further.

French Renaissance literature, apart from the joys of Rabelais (in the original, I might add), was unremittingly tedious, and after the free-flow of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse, the rhymed alexandrine of French drama palled very quickly. Moliere I really liked, and I began to be clearer about how coded messages and criticism might be concealed in an author’s work when open criticism was more than frowned on, but actually punishable, and I rate my introduction to Voltaire as a major life-changing moment: French literature seemed more challenging, more revolutionary, at a time when this teenage student was susceptible to, if not yearning for, such influences.

Their nineteenth century novels spoke more to me that the English ones: Stendhal, Flaubert and above all Zola were real discoveries; the freshness of the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud was welcome. And the twentieth century had even more to offer: the political novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, surrealism, so much more. I think my major discoveries during my year abroad were firstly, their school philosophy textbooks (why couldn’t we do this in England? I asked myself. Answer came there none.) and secondly the surreal writings of Boris Vian, which I still love today. Surrealism and the absurd…turning the world upside down. I’d met one of Ionesco‘s plays at A level, and found myself reading most of the rest. Here were writers I could see playing with, and doing experimental things with their language; I admired them in the same ways as I admired English writers who did such things.

Some of the magic of French literature is obviously the being able to read it in the original. This was an absolute eye-opener; it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but there was something special about realising I could speak the language, be taken for a local in the country, I could read its newspapers and books as if it were my own language. And in a sense it was, because I had mastered it, and if you, dear reader, have reached this stage in your knowledge of another tongue than your native one, you will understand the epiphany, perhaps. Then you realise at the same time, just how different France is, with its own history, regions, Paris-centredness, wars, conquests and revolutions, and also how the language gives you access to a wider world of literature from the entire Francophone world…

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