by Jean Giono
Most Americans become familiar with Provence through the artwork of Cezanne or Van Gogh, leaving an impression of small hillside towns skirted by lavender and fields of sunflowers below low mountains. Jean Giono was the poet of these regions. And while the literary giants of France are well-known to those who are interested; Gide, Breton, Baudelaire, Camus, Rousseau, among quite a list of others, a great majority of Americans do not read French. Therefore we rely on translations, and the discretion of academics to choose who and what become available in our language. So Giono, and I'm sure scores of others, go unfortunately relatively unnoticed in our country. But like most great revelations, obscurity can not keep them a secret for long.
10 / 10
If anyone has compared two translated texts of, say, a poem by Rimbaud, one can quickly identify difficulties faced in interpretation. However, in literature, it is not necessarily the literal translation of the words that creates an impression, but the flow, the feel, and the song of the language. One can understand an author as well, if not better, in translation than someone reading in the original language if one is better tuned to the author's pitch. So it is wonderful when you come across a writer with as palpable a soul as Jean Giono, and a text so imbibed with image and life as that of Katherine A. Clarke's interpretation of "Jean le Bleu", or Blue Boy. You need not worry about the problems of translation when you are presented with a book so rejuvenating and alive, so sad and brilliant. Giono has been called the forefather of magical realism, but it must be remembered that he had no pretext of "genre" when he began writing in the early twentieth century. The fantastic and dream-like imagery that he conjures is not contrived, rather it is a direct extension of the sensual nature of his observation of the world. And while there are aspects of myth and the supernatural in his prose, it is in the cause of ultra-realism, and not fantasy. It is the language of someone who seems as finely aware of his relationship with nature as the first men, an ancient observer cast into the modern age.
He was born in Manosque in 1895 and rarely left that little village in the south of France, which became the frequent subject of his writings. He worked as a bank clerk to support his family while writing, and was called to fight in the first World War. Seemingly traumatized by his experiences, Giono returned a political pacifist who professed a longing for a return to simplicity and scorned the abuses and corruption of the industrialized world. After his first publication, Colline, Giono caught the attention of Andre Gide, who came to visit him at his home and convinced him to devote his life to his art.
On the surface, Blue Boy deals with his childhood in Provence, before the war, and focuses on his relationship with his father and the odd characters in his hometown. This seems to be a ridiculous oversimplification, however. It is a book told in such a gentle tone, in such magnificent observation and mystery, that one feels one is witnessing the processes of the world coming alive. Reading Blue Boy is immersing yourself in a reality where every object is saturated with life and has the potential to initiate a personal revelation. The words flow forth like a misty cataract of the senses, yet are told with the control of a master painter. That is one of the most striking aspects of reading Giono. You literally feel his refinement, his work is an act of listening. The commonplace is readily transformed into the ethereal. And this is so appropriate in Blue Boy, where the story is told through the eyes of a child, eyes which so easily return to the wonderment of youth and discovery that is quickly forgotten with age.
I am inclined to quote at length from the book, but I shall leave that. Let it just be said that Giono faces the problems of humanity head on, and confronts them with compassion, tenderness, and sympathy. The portrait of his father in Blue Boy is as moving a picture as I have encountered. The sad and ecstatic characters that color the book are also dealt with in fullness and light of understanding. Giono's world is France, but it is also the heart. And like Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus, which is used startlingly at the end of the book, it is a world that is tragic and full of life, ready to touch anyone who possesses an open mind.