“Petty King of the High Country” by Ben Libman

Petty King of the High Country 

by Ben Libman

 

At 3:30 PM on August 25, 1944, Wehrmacht General Dietrich Hugo Hermann von Choltitz surrendered the last German garrison in Paris to Captain Raymond Dronne, who, the day prior, had become the second uniformed Allied officer to enter Paris in the attempts to liberate it, and who now commanded the infamous 9th Company of the Régiment de marche du Tchad, comprising 160 men, 146 of whom were in fact not even Frenchman, but Spanish Republicans. The men of the 9th Company, having secured that morning the Chamber of Deputies, the Hôtel Majestic, and the Place de la Concorde, received von Choltitz as prisoner, thereby securing the liberation of the city.

The rest is history. And, importantly for those who would be caught up in the chaotic upheaval that dictated the rapid accretion of a new cultural order, the rest is literary history. Between the liberation of Paris in August and the full liberation of France in the spring of the following year, a frenzy rode the breath of freedom then sweeping the nation, sparking what would become known as the épuration sauvage (or “wild purge”), which saw the extrajudicial execution of suspected collaborators and the shaving of the heads of women known or presumed to have had romantic liaisons with German soldiers. The wild purge would be followed by a “legal” one, this time overseen by the French Provisional Government, targeting those who had collaborated with the enemy, participated in German propaganda, or profited from the wartime black market. Under De Gaulle’s authority, the provisional state executed 791 people and sentenced 49,723 people to “national degradation,” thereby stripping them of their civil rights.

Not many of those felled by the purges were writers. But, given the prominence of artist-intellectuals in the cultural discourse of France, the opposite might well have seemed the case. For Jean Giono, a Provençal novelist who had gained prominence in the thirties for his regionalist, meandering tales of peasant life, his pacifism, and his denunciation of industrial modernity, the purification of France seemed entirely a matter of literary consequence. In lockstep with the wild and legal purges, there was a factious and highly mediatized cultural purge of writers and artists, carried out by those whose fortunes had flipped on the dime of liberation, and who now found themselves in possession of what sociologist Gisèle Sapiro calls “moral capital”—and the lust to spend it.1 The cadre of writers who had been more or less underground throughout the war—including Vercors (more), Aragon (quite a bit), and Sartre and Beauvoir (less)—and who had already banded together under the auspices of the Comité national des écrivains, devoted to promoting the “responsibility” of the writer, now found themselves in possession of the megaphones and the traffic batons. With the help of the CNE, the new Contrôle militaire des Informations drew up a “black list” of literary works to be banned for sale, a move designed to echo and counterbalance the infamous “Otto List” (named for the wartime German Ambassador to Paris, Otto Abetz), the definitive catalogue of works censored by the Occupation Administration.

The CNE thus “claimed the power of excommunication,” as Sapiro has put it, taking upon itself the duty to purge writers considered to have produced “works of a collaborationist nature.2 For dozens of writers caught in the crosshairs, particularly those associated with the version of the Nouvelle revue française spearheaded, under the Occupation, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, this meant the end of a professional vocation that had begun, in many cases, after the First World War, and whose path had often been strewn with laurels.3 For others, like Giono, the purge was less a full stop than a semicolon, a break that would force both themselves and their readers to resolve the ambiguous relationship between what they had meant before the war, and what they might mean after it.

***

“How short the way from cowardice to treason!” So wrote Claude Morgan in a 1943 article, entitled “The Giono Case.” Morgan, unwilling to grant that Giono might have started somewhere more admirable than cowardice before migrating to treason, makes efficient use of his column inches by arguing, quite simply, that Giono let his early success as a provincial novelist get to his head. Painted as the petty king of the Prealps luxuriating in the supplications of his misled acolytes, Giono is exposed as a craven tautologist. “The main use of life is to live!” he is quoted as preaching, and by such banalities he is said to have turned his back on the long history of Frenchmen—the peasants who populate his novels included—who have made use of their lives to resist, to fight for a freer, more democratic France.4

Morgan’s attack is part and parcel of the general reordering of literary value that the résistants sought to institute after liberation. The live debate between political art and art for art’s sake had, of course, begun to animate the French literary field long before, in the mid-nineteenth century.5 Indeed, before the war, within a vanguard commanded by the Surrealists, the question of how the “revolution of the mind,” as André Breton put it, might merge with that of the proletariat, as demanded by the French Communist Party, was the central issue of the day. But under the Occupation such theories of political art and their practical excursions were the first to go. In their place the Germans installed propagandists, and all that remained of the prewar literary field’s original cast (that is, alongside those charlatans who were happy to switch camps and sell out their countrymen) were those members who had never made political art in the first place—whose art was “pure,” and whose didacticisms were merely moral.

Of course, many such writers refused to participate. But an even greater number, some not in a position to refuse and others simply unwilling to see their income or position diminish, found themselves publishing in collaborationist periodicals, such as La Gerbe and Drieu’s NRF, and lending their voices to the nefarious Radio Paris. Giono was one such person. He even had the bad luck of being profiled by Signal, the Wehrmacht propaganda periodical, during the height of Nazi power. The Germans, wanting to appropriate some of the long-accumulated cultural capital of French art for themselves, publicly admired him for his “neoprimitivism” and his “Tarzanism,” viewing his works as a series of epic idylls or, at their most tense, of something reminiscent of Virgil’s Eclogues. That Giono did not reject such labels is its own failure of resistance.

Whether or not such valuations of his work were accurate, the luminaries of the CNE took the bait, and Giono became a base example of “pure literature,” which Sartre would oppose to the preferable (because more courageous) “engaged literature” of the résistants, and which was particularly amenable to Nazi co-optation. Louis Aragon would put his denunciation of Giono more bluntly by marking his opposition to the novelist’s “vivre à plat ventre” (“living prostrate”). The violations of the man were tied up with the violations of the art: the inferiority of pure literature was not merely moral, in Sartre’s eyes, but aesthetic. Giono would not be executed for these literary crimes, but he would be imprisoned, tried, and then quietly released, in January 1945, with a publishing ban slapped on his languishing manuscripts and a very uncertain future.

***

Giono’s life and career up to the Occupation were marked equally by two formative experiences. The first, as it is for most writers, was his childhood. Giono was born at Manosque, Provence, in 1895. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a laundress, and young Jean would spend his boyhood days moving between the cobbler’s shop, where he’d watch his father work the awl and leather and engage in thoughtful conversation with his friends, and the laundry, where the smell of clean linen and perspiring women would overwhelm him. The region of Giono’s youth was not one wrapped up in the industrial logic of economic ambition or mobility, as his late novel, Ennemonde (1968), makes clear. In those pages, we learn of a world still content with turn-of-the-century mannerisms, one in which the hôte of the local inn welcomes you to his actual table d’hôte and serves you the only thing on offer: a stew kept continuously on boil and added to each morning, all year round.

As Henri Peyre, the French-American literary critic and one-time dissertation advisor to Fredric Jameson, put it in The Contemporary French Novel (1955), Giono was free from the sickness of class ambition. “Unlike other writers born in humble condition, who hasten to become members of the middle class or to knock at the doors of salons and academies, Giono always took pride in his humble origins.” Every single one of his novels and plays is, indeed, a testament to this fact. A student of both the fields and a few cherished volumes of the classics, Giono saw in the land of his birth the world and personages of Greek epics and Roman idylls. “Giono had not learned Greek, but he grew up in a land where peasants to this day winnow their grain, pluck their olives, and milk their goats much as their Mediterranean forefathers did in the time of Ulysses or Theocritus,” Peyre writes.

The other formative experience of Giono’s life was his service in the First World War. He served as a private in an infantry regiment, and he witnessed first-hand the “sordidness of mud and carrion.” His comrades fell in combat all around him, and when he returned home on leave or, for good, at war’s end, he listened to the wailing of the widows and disconsolate mothers of his village. He hated war, and he came to hate Christianity, which seemed to lead men not out of but, in fact, into conflict. And so in his writing life he would persist in calling himself a pagan.

If, for Peyre, Giono was a humble artist anchored to his people, and for Morgan he was a charlatan whose work could not pass muster in the capital, and who therefore was condemned to linger within the tight perimeter of his regional fame, the truth of the matter was somewhere in the middle. His upbringing and his wartime experience emboldened him to reject modernity tout court. His disdain for industry, for science, and for the culture of the cities was so heavy-handed as to blind him to the fact that there—in Paris, Lyon, and Marseille—one could find “real people,” too. In this way, Morgan can rightly charge him with neglecting the plight of working people, with papering over the material realities of his time with Golden Age thinking.

But Giono was not simply a romantic for the sylvan days of yore. His fictions are permeated with a land whose primary characteristic is its sheer, often murky sensuousness. This is not the land of sing-song peasants nor of the swinging scythes of Tolstoy’s muzhiks; when we talk of its seasons, “we are not talking about the spring of poets,” as he writes in Ennemonde. Rather, this is a spring “heralded by an inky blackness that stops up all the notches in the Alps. These are not clouds, it’s the color of a sky wounded by the violence of the wind.” And so instead of finding strong, handsome farmers and beautiful, ruddy women, we are greeted with toothless widows, who are only as beautiful as they are obese, and stubby men whose greatest virtue is their silence and their lack of a neck. Giono, in other words, is keen on showing us a hidden world out of all proportion, literally, to the one we unthinkingly consecrate in our agrarian mythologies.

The land, rough and wet and unparsable, is what dominates his novels, dictating the movement of the plot and the development of the characters. Sitting somewhere between the psychologism of Proust or Gide and the realism of Zola, Giono’s dramas unfold as if the inanimate world were itself the primordial life-breath of the animate one—as if all that lives comprised the gestalt emanating from the many fragments of all that does not. In this way, as we are guided along the defile of a mountain pass, we come upon “a sort of fortified town curled up like a snail shell.” Characters think like the sky, and they breathe “the way a rock or a block of iron might breathe.” Every being in Giono’s world, every event and place, is pushed by a great thumb from the land into life, into “the air” which “has all at once become edible.”

One can understand why such apolitical artistry was so assimilable into the Occupation-era literary culture. The German censors, tasteless as they were, had good reason to suspect that Giono was a great artist, just as the NRF had good reason to suspect the same: the Southerner was granted enormous amounts of respect and reverence in the interwar period, being viewed by some as a French Shakespeare whose neologisms and unparalleled metaphors threatened to enter the common discourse.6 Amidst a national culture still traumatized by the Great War, the “sage of Manosque” (as Peyre calls him) was lauded for his record of pacifism, prompting a sizable flock of “rebels against modern civilization” to gather around him and hang on his every word.

One therefore has reason to be wary of the claims, promoted by the CNE after liberation, that Giono was never a good artist to begin with. His real failings were not novelistic but personal. His commitment to passive resistance, a non-opportunistic political stance that he had developed during the previous war, became, under the Occupation, an occupational hazard. In 1937, well before the fall of France, he wrote: “I prefer to be a living German than a dead Frenchman,” which phrase would become the primary weapon used by résistants to indict him. That he chose to continue opposing violence and to promote peaceful dialogue while his comrades were being rounded up, deported, and killed was a result precisely of his failure to understand that this war was unlike the last one, and that pacifism might be its own kind of banalized evil. Moreover, he let the outdatedness of his morals develop into a stubborn rigidity, prompting him to pen two small wartime pamphlets addressed to “his peasants,” per Morgan, on the subject of pacifism and the superiority of living in nature, apart from modern society.

The embargo on Giono’s work would be lifted in 1947 with the publication of Un roi sans divertissement (published as A King Alone in English). His return to fiction evinced a clear break with his earlier, successful style. The exuberance of his descriptions and the leisurely pace of his tour-guide-like narration disappeared. In their place, a concise, bare, Hemingwayian prose emerged to carry stories centered more on their personages than on the lands out of which they were drawn. Remarkably, over the next decade, Giono would once again find success (though on a less enthusiastic register), garnering a handful of literary prizes and a movie deal for A King Alone.

***

Ennemonde, published two years before Giono’s death, was reissued last month in a superb English translation by Bill Johnston with Archipelago Books. It is the artist’s late attempt to synthesize the two movements of his œuvre, to bring the lands of his youth to bear upon the relative austerity of his postwar writings. A lot had happened in the interim. Most important of all, as so often happens in the literary field, the constellation of values were shifting once more. Sartre, whose “engaged literature” had so dominated the scene into the late fifties, was being challenged by an insurgent if loosely collected group of writers labelled under the Nouveau Roman. These latter, buoyed by their unofficial head theorists, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, rejected the notion that political or engaged art could be good art (or art at all), and renewed the call for an art for its own sake.

As if riding this momentum, Ennemonde is a novel about peasantry and the old Gionian world, but it is also one about art and writing themselves—about the acts of observing, of developing a scale. The original French title of the work is Ennemonde et autres caractères, and this is a better description of what the reader confronts in this volume: two tales, one the length of a novella and the other the length of a short story, following unrelated characters but connected by the idea that the mysteries of art and of the very soul of France are to be found and resolved in—where else?—Provence.

“Journeys are not undertaken lightly in the High Country.” So begins Part I, with good justification. The world brought to us here is once again that of the early Giono: a land of swollen rivers and steep ubacs where everyone, despite knowing everyone else, keeps to himself, shotgun in hand, and where the wanderers are not tourists but “slaughtermen” who follow the scent of animals carried along the valleys by the undulations of the wind. Ennemonde—an enormous, toothless matriarch who, with the help of her children, carries out a coup against her weakling husband in order to seize control of their farm—is one of these people.

There is no real plot here. Ennemonde’s coup is the concern of only a handful of pages. At another point, a tidy sum of one million francs goes missing in the region, but this thread is destined for obscurity. The only element of the story that matters is Ennemonde herself, her relation to the High Country. And both she and the country assume sublime proportions. In fact, the narrator’s obsession with Ennemonde’s size is a rumination upon their relationship. Against a world—and, importantly, a novelistic realism—that would set Ennemonde in proper proportion to the things and others around her, Giono exalts in her disproportionate immensity, her body bearing “only the most distant relation to the human form.” He is reminding us, in an era exhausted with Balzacian realism and Sartrean engagement alike, of the little-explored Gionian alternative: a realistic unreality. “Reality pushed to an extreme meets back up again with unreality,” he writes. “To face things full on is to accept their magic.”

Thus, when Ennemonde meets her lover, the wrestler Clef-des-Coeurs, we are treated to an image of “a mass of fat and muscle five feet three tall and five feet wide; he had no neck.” It is this couple, along with Ennemonde’s children (one of whom is named Alithea, Heidegger’s preferred term for “truth” or “unconcealment”), which form the aperture by which Giono would like us to view the world. Late in the tale, their lives are interrupted by the war: one son dies, and Clef-des-Coeurs goes up into the mountains with the other in order to help the Resistance; Ennemonde, for her part, starts operating a butcher shop on the black market. An understanding of Giono’s life and career upto this point allows us to see his partial self-insertion into this moment. Like Ennemonde, he witnessed those close to him go off and fight the Germans, in bravery but also, often, in futility. And perhaps like Ennemonde, he saw himself as nourishing a hungry people—not with black market meat, but with epics, idylls, and magical tales. In both cases, for a time, the people are happy to eat in silence.

We should equally see Giono’s metabolization of his wartime experiences in the fact that, when the war ends for Ennemonde, the scales literally fall from her eyes. She is honored for being the wife of a résistant, but when she meets the modern people of the cities, she tries and fails to “weigh” them, to size them up, and becomes disillusioned by their world. When she is given new teeth by the government, suddenly her size becomes a fatness, a different kind of enormity—a conversion of her dimensions to a more sober, realistic scale, setting her completely out of place. With the new world comes, in other words, the silent vitiation of the old scale, the erasure of a realm that once enchanted France.

Through Ennemonde’s story and the brief one that follows—about a cowherd named Louis and the tales of his ancestry, going back to the July Monarchy—one does not get the sense that Giono has reconsidered his values. Perhaps he might have done things differently—by simply refusing to publish in venues like La Gerbe, for instance.7 But it appears, in this late venture, that he has not relinquished his disdain for the modern world, nor his commitment to pacifism. Rather, he seems to want to recast his choices, to mitigate their severity by contextualizing them.

Early in Louis’s narrative, we are told of an ancestor who, rather ridiculously, comes across a butcher’s boy wrapped in the tricolor flag, lying unconscious on a riverbank. It is 1851 and the boy, a republican, was injured while fleeing the reactionary forces supporting Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état. The peasant nurses the little résistant back to health. And what is the point? That the history of France is a dialectic: of oppression and resistance, of resistors becoming oppressors—and of the peasants who keep all of them alive, who form the fabric of their mythologies, and who are themselves the beating heart of the nation.

At the very end of her life, Ennemonde is wheeled to a window at the eastern side of her home so that she may reflect upon her deeds, some good and many bad. “She tries to forget them, not because she regrets anything at all—on the contrary, she’s proud as can be of what she’s done and would do it again if needed—but she wants to forget it out of a kind of humility.” Is this Giono himself, reasserting his pride? We cannot help but ask, even as we cannot know. And if it is, then where exactly is he looking, out East? To Germany? ♦


Ben Libman is a writer in Montréal and the Bay Area. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and elsewhere. He is currently a PhD candidate in English at Stanford University, where he researches the Nouveau Roman and Oulipo.

Footnotes

  1. In her wide-ranging study of the period, The French Writers’ War, Sapiro demonstrates that the logic governing the reconfiguration of the literary field—which had, through the war years, been whittled down to a small republic of collaborationist and inoffensive presses and periodicals staffed by writers deserving of the same adjectives—was the same as that governing the restructuring of the political order: “The establishment of the generation of the Resistance and the hegemony of the Communist Party were its two most characteristic traits. Their corollary was the affirmation of new values: patriotism, the ‘responsibility’ of the intellectual, engagement, and the delegitimization of the ideological right, which the résistants could now fight for the monopoly of national moralism.”
  2. It should be emphasized, as Sapiro herself makes clear, that there are points of both overlap and distinction between the parallel purges of the Provisional French Government and those of the CNE. For most writers caught in the snare, the purge only had professional—thus social and economic—ramifications. But for some, like the anti-Gaullist and anti-Semite Charles Maurras, the consequences included imprisonment and even death.
  3. Drieu, understanding well the bouleversement that was about to overtake the literary field over which he presided like a duke, went into hiding after the liberation of Paris and committed suicide in March 1945. He had taken over the NRF from Jean Paulhan, who became a leading résistant. After the war, Paulhan would criticize what he took to be the excesses of the CNE, calling in 1946 for the removal of a handful of authors from its ongoing blacklist—including his friend, Jean Giono.
  4. Morgan actually seems to misquote Giono, here. He is probably referring to a line from the latter’s 1936 essay collection, Les Vraies richesses: “We have forgotten that our only purpose is to live, and this is a thing we must do every day, and at each hour of the day we fulfill our true Destiny if we live.”
  5. The definitive account of this development is given by Pierre Bourdieu in The Rules of Art. Bourdieu points to Baudelaire and Flaubert as the field-founding artists who made possible a new kind of literary game and novel positions within it, to wit, that of the professional or “pure” artist, devoted to his art as such and unwilling to subordinate it to ulterior purposes, such as politics.
  6. Peyre, in a torrent of admiration for Giono’s gift of image-making, quotes this memorable passage: “The lizards sleep in the sun; then they jump, snap up and slowly chew bees which taste of honey. And they shed golden tears which sizzle on the burning hot stone.”
  7. It is said that Giono actually helped a number of people hide from the Germans during the war. Perhaps he might have leaned into this vocation, instead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *