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Jean Giono, the literary giant who never left Manosque

Robert Arnoux

One of the last pictures of Jean Giono, who died in Manosque in 1970. (© Jean Dieuzaide) (Click to view larger version...)
One of the last pictures of Jean Giono, who died in Manosque in 1970. (© Jean Dieuzaide)
Blue Boy, Giono's fictionalized autobiography, was reissued by Counterpoint in 1999. (Click to view larger version...)
Blue Boy, Giono's fictionalized autobiography, was reissued by Counterpoint in 1999.
When CEA-Cadarache was established fifty years ago, a man in Manosque got very upset. He was one of France's most illustrious writers, a celebrant of peasant civilization and of nature's mysteries; an explorer of the darkest reaches of the human soul.

Jean Giono was always at odds with his time. He never liked the "modern world" and its "mechanic madness"; he loathed the automobile ("A machine which uses men to ride around"), lamented the disappearance of windmills and plough horses and, of course, hated the notion of an "atomic plant" being built "ten kilometres from [his] house as the crow flies." As CEA-Cadarache was coming out of the ground, he wrote: "Since it is supposed to be such a blessing, why don't they build it in the Elysée Palace gardens?"

Giono was born in Manosque in 1895, the only son of a cobbler and a laundress. He began writing in the late 20s, while working as a clerk in a local bank. His first novels Colline (Hill of Destiny), Regain (Harvest) and Un de Baumugnes (Lovers are Never Losers) brought to literature a pagan, almost magical approach to an otherwise familiar environment. In his novels and short stories, reality is rarely what it seems. And sunny Provence is a land of obscure dealings and deadly passions. Reading Giono, wrote Henry Miller, one of his fervent admirers, is a "cosmic delight".

Save for the years he spent in the trenches in World War I, and an occasional trip to Marseilles or Paris, Giono almost never left his hometown. At the time of his bickering with CEA-Cadarache, although long acknowledged as a literary giant, he was still living in the same modest house he had acquired in 1930 with the royalties from his first published books.

Most of Giono's novels have been translated into English. A good way to get acquainted with his work is to read Jean le Bleu (Blue Boy), a fictionalized autobiography published in 1932.

In Manosque, the Centre Jean Giono, near the entrance to the old town, has a rich library of manuscripts, rare editions and videos, and organizes regular exhibitions on Giono's life and work.


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