Comedy, Pathos, and Bibliophilia Merge in Jean Giono's Wartime Journal
In addition to its literary significance, Jean Giono's newly translated Occupation Journal is also an important reminder of the value of pacifism in a world where over-eager partisanship is once more merging with the enthusiastic violence of political dogma.
How does a staunch pacifist respond when war breaks out and their country is invaded by Nazis?
For French author Jean Giono, the response was to grit his teeth, curse both sides, and try to get on with his writing as best he could.
As his newly translated Occupation Journal reveals, this was sometimes easier said than done.
Giono's literary career took off between the two world wars. A bank clerk who was conscripted into the First World War, the horrors he witnessed made him an avowed pacifist for life. Shortly after that war he published his first novel. What ensued was a flurry of publications and prizes, enabling him to relocate to his beloved rural French countryside and turn to writing full time. As the Second World War loomed, Giono became a literary sensation, a bestselling author of both fiction and nonfiction, whose work was eagerly sought for both stage and big screen adaptations.
But he remained an ardent pacifist, organizing with fellow writers against militarism right up until the outbreak of war. In fact, the declaration of war between France and Germany came right in the middle of an annual pacifist literary festival he helped to organize.
"Nothing is noble but pacifism," he writes in Occupation Journal. "[I]t requires the nerves of a toreador and the strength of an athlete. And much more courage than war."
The war was, for Giono, an intense irritation. He tried his best to ignore it, concentrating on his work and the minutiae of everyday life (arguing over advances and royalties with publishers, looking after his children's sore throats, contemplating work that needed to be done on his farmhouse). He tries to write, but keeps getting distracted by "infantile detective novels".
And yet, like those who aspire to use pandemic lockdowns as an opportunity to hone neglected skills, the keeping of a wartime journal had a particularly utilitarian side to it for Giono. Unlike our contemporaries who dream of a return to normalcy from the pandemic by midsummer, Giono had to steel himself to the fact wartime disruption was sure to last for years to come. What better way to keep up one's spirits up as best as possible than using the time to refine both skills and discipline?
"I'm trying hard to record as precisely as possible the most ordinary everyday events," he writes. "I need somewhere private, not meant to be published, where I can practice scales, exercise my fingers on tougher disciplines. I must try to express these small everyday events quickly and in the most accurate way possible. Stick close to and describe what happens; the most commonplace, invent nothing. Acquire that style, if possible. It'll at least allow me to feel my way maybe for two or three years…After nearly twenty years of work, I've still not managed to write a true book. I haven't worked hard enough. These calisthenics may build my muscles. To date, everything I've done lacks depths. I will only be able to lie well (truly invent) when I learn to be very true."
It was the disruption to his work that he most resented about the war. His diary offers a fascinating insight into Giono's creative process; he shares in ample detail the passages that he's grappling with in the various writing projects he's simultaneously working on. He experiments with method: alternating between projects; trying dictation.
At the same time, his mind wanders in delightful directions. He eagerly follows many a rabbit-hole in his journal, sharing reflections and critiques of Balzac, Sartre, Virgil, Stendhal, Malraux, and others. His literary analyses are fascinating, and often hilarious – as when he trashes Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind for its lack of sex and its obsessive "modesty" and "puritanism". He's an avid cinema-goer, and is consumed with the philosophical problems and possibilities of colour film, which he first experiences during the war.
Yet books are his solace. He's kept awake by late-night air raid sirens; hears bombs falling on nearby cities. He's haunted by village gossip telling of assassinations and Resistance bombings. Yet once he opens up one of his beloved books "all worries become secondary."
Gionos Struggle to Remain Apolitical
Giono's diary is unique and refreshing in its lack of patriotic fervour and wartime partisanship. It's the diary of someone who strove to remain apolitical during the war, and whose intense detestation of both sides comes through clearly. Of course, like anyone living in an occupied country in a state of war, he cannot avoid the conflict entirely. As a result, he struggles to balance his desire to remain outside and above the fray with a profound sense of honour and faithfulness toward his friends and community.
Upon learning that Jan Meyerowitz, a Jewish composer and pianist he knows, has been arrested and sent to a nearby prison camp, he dutifully sets out to secure the man's release. The ensuing scene would almost be comic if the context wasn't so grim. Giono's disdain of the camp's collaborationist captain, with whom he is forced to spend the afternoon drinking wine, comes through clearly:
"Over the course of the day, he told me that he had to save France, that he was a radical-socialist, that, above all, he was a patriot, that he had been a tie salesman, that he was a mathematician, that he had saved Italian officers, that he had survived 1940, that he had stashed 250,000 francs for his company in his flannel binder, that he had seen a flag burned, that everything was going to work out…Finally at four o'clock I bought M[eyerowitz]: twelve hundred francs a year in payments of a hundred francs a month, and the camp released him to me as a farm worker…"
At the same time, he's not impressed by the Resistance, either. As the anti-Nazi French Resistance fighters launch bomb attacks and assassinations, and even hold an audacious rally in a nearby town, Giono is scornful about their enthusiastic violence. He's nervous about the prominence of Communists in the Resistance, having observed Russia's post-revolutionary slide into Stalinist totalitarianism. But above all he loathes the "atmosphere of unrest and insecurity".
"The incidents created by gangs of robbers and murderers will necessitate strongholds, communities withdrawing into themselves…this is going to continue, to grow and expand, to increasingly turn away from all that might have been noble about it at the start; it's going to devolve into murder pure and simple, hotfooted armed robberies of isolated farms, busses, cars, forming gangs…Good material for novelists."
He returns to the point repeatedly, despairingly chronicles the tit-for-tat battles of Nazis and Resistance fighters, which he likens to "the Wild West".
"May God rid all our countries of patriots," he rages. "No idea will ever do as much harm as the idea of the fatherland. Men are so naturally bad that after two thousand years of Christianity all it takes is a little anarchy for them to revert to the wild dogs they are. Not lions or wolves, nothing noble, but vile dogs."
As much as he despises the combatants on both sides, a sense of obligation and honour frequently pushes him to intervene. When the son of an acquaintance is captured and at risk of being executed by the Nazis, Giono sets aside his disdain toward Resistance fighters and writes letters of support for the boy and prevails upon others to do the same. He knows this puts him at risk, yet feels that honour requires it. This despite the fact he can't stand the boy and despises those who take up arms on both sides. "I know that all this will come back to slap me in the face," he writes. "And I do it for these vain, soulless, wretched beings. These destroyers of peace and of worlds, these poor excuses for suffragettes."
Despite his determined rejection of partisan politics, it is obvious the war pulls at his conscience. He tells friends that he doesn't want to get roped into debating the plight of Jews, but rage sweeps into his Journal upon hearing stories of Nazi slave labour and its use by German farmers and industrialists. "No matter what happens, those slave markets must not be forgotten," he writes.
The Solitude of the Countryside
"More than ever I need solitude, mountains, silence, and peace," Giono writes, as he struggles to work amid falling bombs and the sweltering heat of high summer. "The whole sky this evening swept clean and bright. The western horizon sleek and clean as a sword. The rain is already over. It's cool, but it's the rain that I love, the thick, moist air and the sound of rain in the gutters and the trees. It is so peaceful."
Giono's earliest novels focused on the relationship between nature and the French peasant. His first three books – Hill (1929), Lovers Are Never Losers (1929), and Second Harvest (1930) – are collectively known as the Pan Trilogy, both for the influence of classical Greek literature on the narrative as well as their focus on exploring humans' relations with nature (Giono has enjoyed a renewed appreciation among proponents of climate change literature).
His love of nature, which assumes almost mystical overtones at points, emerges repeatedly in the journal. Fed up with the vile doings of humanity, he dreams of leaving civilization behind and retreating into the mountains to cleanse himself. These moments, evocative of his early novels, are delicious: he loses himself in lush descriptions of the French countryside, and deep-seated appreciation for "peasant civilization."
"It's raining, the sky is dark, low, soft as down, and the rain is drowning the distances in milk; it's so cool that I've put on a sweater. The leaves stand out against the dark trees. What peace! Over the course of the morning, the rain has become more and more wonderful. There's hardly any daylight here. The foliage on the chestnut trees is singing loudly. Hedges shimmering in the silver rain emerge from the distance in the valley. And above all, this delicious moist air, cool and thick, that lubricates the whole body…"
True to his commitment to focus on "small, everyday events", most of Giono's journal deals with external matters: the war, nature, literature. But occasionally he allows the reader small glimpses of his complex interior self. In a series of touching passages he reflects upon his shyness, hating himself for the fear and lack of confidence that sometimes prevents him from doing kindnesses to others.
"I can't tell if M. really considers us friends, or even likes me... And my lack of confidence no doubt makes me treat him very unjustly. It's not out of spite but for fear of being duped. I'm hard to understand until one learns that I'm very shy and all my kindnesses don't come naturally and cost me dearly. I only feel comfortable alone or with very, very simple people…My shyness, which I'm constantly suppressing, robs me of all naturalness and simplicity. And being so patient, so stubborn, so pigheaded about following through with my plans, so faithful to my family ties, I have neither patience nor fidelity for 'the ordinary' and I withdraw as soon as I'm hurt. And that's immediately. And that's why I'm unsociable."
Liberation and Prison
Giono's sarcasm and expressive powers reach their zenith toward the end of the journal, as the war nears its conclusion. German troops retreat, pushed back by American forces. Close on the Americans' heels is the so-called French Resistance, which Giono describes as comprised mostly of completely drunk young men firing off machine guns into the air at random. The 'Liberation' scenes he describes are priceless.
'Resistance fighters' who never saw combat stumbling dead drunk into their own artillery; whole villages dusting off their pre-war medals and military uniforms, strutting around and draping themselves in flags to try to appear appropriately patriotic. Former Nazi collaborators go joy-riding with self-proclaimed Resistance fighters to ingratiate themselves with the new regime. Meanwhile, behind closed doors the pro-Communist and anti-Communist cliques resume their internecine political squabbles from before the war, already vying for supremacy before the fighting is even done.
Watched by two small boys, a member of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior) poses with his Bren gun at Châteaudun. By United States Army Signal Corps photographer - This is photograph EA 33756 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. (Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)
Giono is disgusted at them all, of course. What most excites him about Liberation is the thought of being able to get back to his writing, which he's had to put on hold because of the continuous air raids interrupting his work. He deplores the chaotic violence of the war's death throes: vigilantes on both sides shooting people based on wild rumours or past grudges; armed thieves taking advantage of the chaos to roam and rob. His beloved rural farm villages are bombed to pieces by Allied aircraft, despite their lack of any military or strategic value. The bodies of neighbours – stoic old farmers, inspired young poets – are found dead in the forest, non-combatants murdered by who knows which side. Survival, he observes, has simply become a matter of luck.
"I don't distinguish between Germans and Anglo-Americans, one is the same as the other," he writes. "The Germans machine-gunned those who were fleeing; the Anglo-Americans bombed Forcalquier [a neighbouring village] for the fun of it."
The broad sweep of Giono's eclectic intellectualism positioned him well to recognize both what this modern, mechanized war shared with past conflicts; as well as the ways it marked a new, chilling deviation from traditional combat. Nowhere was this as apparent as in the antagonists' development of aerial warfare.
"The squadrons of planes don't seem to have any more military sense than the great armies of the Middle Ages," he observes, in the wake of Allied bombing raids on small and militarily insignificant peasant villages.
And yet, the lack of any tactical value to these attacks marked the emergence of a new and more sinister combat strategy, as subsequent war historians would document at length.
"[I]t's a kind of military sense but different from that of war schools, a different school of war in which everyone is considered hostile, in which the stronghold isn't distinguished from the remote farm. As this war grows old, nations rediscover their original natures."
Giono's Occupation Journal is a fascinating book. It juxtaposes the intense moral and ethical dramas of a world at war, replete with violence and surrounded by danger, with the inanity of the every day. Despite the war, grandiose dramas play out – scheming and petty neighbours trying to pull one over each other; lovesick servants and farm workers entangled in romantic triangles. All of the everyday comedy and drama of the small French village play out while bombs fall overhead and collaborationist priests are gunned down in their chapels.
As much as he tried to avoid military interactions, Giono's reputation makes him a magnet for ridiculous encounters with the literarily inclined on both sides. With the German army prepare to retreat, Gestapo officers show up unexpectedly at his door. He fears arrest, but it turns out they simply want him to autograph books before they depart. When the Allied forces arrive in hot pursuit, American officers park their columns in front of his house in order to pop in and get autographed copies for themselves. A bemused and bewildered Giono politely signs books for everyone, aware that the comings and goings of military officers to his front door only serves to make him a target for suspicious partisans on both sides.
He was right to worry. Giono's pacifism wound up putting him behind bars both before and after the war: accused of being a Nazi sympathizer before the war, and accused of collaboration mere days after liberation. His journal ends two days before his arrest; he wound up in jail for five months, and was eventually released without charges.
Giono was fortunate to survive the war he so hated. He went on to resume an illustrious literary career and died in 1970, having authored more than three dozen novels in addition to numerous articles, poems, plays and other creative output. His Occupation Journal is one of the relatively few works to be translated into English (Melville: A Novel came out in translation in 2017).
Translator Jody Gladding does a superb job of it, retaining Giono's nuanced sarcasm and sense of humour. The Journal marks an important stage in Giono's literary career, as he struggled to transition between the classical, naturalistic style for which he was known and the more ambitious psychological novels that he thought himself capable of.
Literary significance aside, it's also an important reminder of the value of pacifism in a world where over-eager partisanship is once more merging with the enthusiastic violence of political dogma. If Giono were alive today, he would shake his head in despair and retreat into his cottage in the woods, to bury himself in a good book.
"May God rid all our countries of patriots," he would say.
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