The Solitude of Compassion

Table of Contents
from “The Books in My Life” by Henry Miller
It was in the rue d'Alésia, in one of those humble stationery stores which sell books, that I first came across Jean Giono's works. It was the daughter of the proprietor—bless her soul!—who literally thrust upon me the book called
Que ma joie demeure
! (
The Joy of Man's Desiring
). In 1939, after making a pilgrimage to Manosque with Giono's boyhood friend, Henri Fluchère, the latter bought for me
Jean le Bleu
Blue Boy
), which I read on the boat going to Greece. Both these French editions I lost in my wanderings. On returning to America, however, I soon made the acquaintance of Pascal Covici, one of the editors of the Viking Press, and through him I got acquainted with all that has been translated of Giono—not very much, I sadly confess.
Between times I have maintained a random correspondence with Giono, who continues to live in the place of his birth, Manosque. How often I have regretted that I did not meet him on the occasion of my visit to his home—he was off then on a walking expedition through the countryside he describes with such deep
poetic imagination in his books. But if I never meet him in the flesh I can certainly say that I have met him in the spirit. And so have many others throughout this wide world. Some, I find, know him only through the screen versions of his books—
The Baker's Wife
. No one ever leaves the theatre, after a performance of these films, with a dry eye. No one ever looks upon a loaf of bread, after seeing
, in quite the same way as he used to; nor, after seeing
The Baker's Wife
, does one think of the cuckold with the same raucous levity.
But these are trifling observations…
A few moments ago, tenderly flipping the pages of his books, I was saying to myself: “Tenderize your finger tips! Make yourself ready for the great task!”
For several years now I have been preaching the gospel—of Jean Giono. I do not say that my words have fallen upon deaf ears, I merely complain that my audience has been restricted. I do not doubt that I have made myself a nuisance at the Viking Press in New York, for I keep pestering them intermittently to speed up the translations of Giono's works. Fortunately I am able to read Giono in his own tongue and, at the risk of sounding immodest,
in his own idiom
. But, as ever, I continue to think of the countless thousands in England and America who must wait until his books are translated. I feel that I could convert to the ranks of his ever-growing admirers innumerable readers whom his American publishers despair of reaching. I think I could even sway the hearts of those who have never heard of him—in England, Australia, New Zealand and other places where the English language is spoken. But I seem incapable of moving those few pivotal beings who hold, in a manner of speaking, his destiny in their hands. Neither with logic nor passion, neither with statistics nor examples, can I budge
the position of editors and publishers in this, my native land. I shall probably succeed in getting Giono translated into Arabic, Turkish and Chinese before I convince his American publishers to go forward with the task they so sincerely began.
Flipping the pages of
The Joy of Man's Desiring
—I was looking for the reference to Orion “looking like Queen Anne's lace”—I noticed these words of Bobi, the chief figure in the book:
I have never been able to show people things. It's curious. I have always been reproached for it. They say: ‘No one sees what you mean.'
Nothing could better express the way I feel at times. Hesitatingly I add—Giono, too, must often experience this sense of frustration. Otherwise I am unable to account for the fact that, despite the incontrovertible logic of dollars and cents with which his publishers always silence me, his works have not spread like wildfire on this continent.
I am never convinced by the sort of logic referred to. I may be silenced, but I am not convinced. On the other hand, I must confess that I do not know the formula for “success,” as publishers use the term. I doubt if they do either. Nor do I think a man like Giono would thank me for making him a commercial success. He would like to be read more, certainly. What author does not? Like every author, he would especially like to be read by those who see what he means.
Herbert Read paid him a high tribute in a paper written during the War. He referred to him as the “peasant-anarchist.” (I am sure his publishers are not keen to advertise such a label!) I do not think of Giono, myself, either as peasant or anarchist, though I regard
neither term as pejorative. (Neither does Herbert Read, to be sure.) If Giono is an anarchist, then so were Emerson and Thoreau. If Giono is a peasant, then so was Tolstoy. But we do not begin to touch the essence of these great figures in regarding them from these aspects, these angles. Giono ennobles the peasant in his narratives; Giono enlarges the concept of anarchism in his philosophic adumbrations. When he touches a man like our own Herman Melville, in the book called
Pour Saluer Melville
(which the Viking Press refuses to bring our, though it was translated for them), we come very close to the real Giono—and, what is even more important, close to the real Melville. This Giono is a poet. His poetry is of the imagination and reveals itself just as forcibly in his prose. It is through this function that Giono reveals his power to captivate men and women everywhere, regardless of rank, class, status or pursuit. This is the legacy left him by his parents, particularly, I feel, by his father, of whom he has written so tenderly, so movingly, in
Blue Boy
. In his Corsican blood there is a strain which, like the wines of Greece when added to French vintages, lend body and tang to the Gallic tongue. As for the soil in which he is rooted, and for which his true patriotism never fails to manifest itself, only a wizard, it seems to me, could relate cause to effect. Like our own Faulkner, Giono has created his own private terrestrial domain, a mythical domain far closer to reality than books of history or geography. It is a region over which the stars and planets course with throbbing pulsations. It is a land in which things “happen” to men as aeons ago they happened to the gods. Pan still walks the earth. The soil is saturated with cosmic juices. Events “transpire.” Miracles occur. And never does the author betray the figures, the characters, whom he has conjured out of the womb of his rich imagination. His men and women have their prototypes in the legends of provincial
France, in the songs of the troubadors, in the daily doings of humble, unknown peasants, an endless line of them, from Charlemagne's day to the very present. In Giono's works we have the sombreness of Hardy's moors, the eloquence of Lawrence's flowers and lowly creatures, the enchantment and sorcery of Arthur Machen's Welsh settings, the freedom and violence of Faulkner's world, the buffoonery and licence of the medieval mystery plays. And with all this a pagan charm and sensuality which stems from the ancient Greek world.
If we look back on the ten years preceding the outbreak of the war, the years of steep incline into disaster, then the significant figures in the French scene are not the Gides and the Valérys, or any competitor for the laurels of the Académie, but Giono, the peasant-anarchist, Bernanos, the integral Christian, and Bréton, the super-realist. These are the significant figures, and they are positive figures, creative because destructive, moral in their revolt against contemporary values. Apparently they are disparate figures, working in different spheres, along different levels of human consciousness; but in the total sphere of that consciousness their orbits meet, and include within their points of contact nothing that is compromising, reactionary or decadent; but contain everything that is positive, revolutionary, and creative of a new and enduring world.
Giono's revolt against contemporary values runs through all his books. In
Refusal to Obey
, which appeared in translation only in James Cooney's little magazine,
The Phoenix
, so far as I know,
Giono spoke out manfully against war, against conscription, against bearing arms. Such diatribes do not help to make an author more popular in his native land. When the next war comes such a man is marked: whatever he says or does is reported in the papers, exaggerated, distorted, falsified. The men who have their country's interest most at heart are the very ones to be vilified, to be called “traitors,” “renegades” or worse. Here is an impassioned utterance made by Giono in
Blue Boy
. It may throw a little light on the nature of his revolt. It begins:
I don't remember how my friendship for Louis David began. At this moment, as I speak of him, I can no longer recall my pure youth, the enchantment of the magicians and of the days. I am steeped in blood. Beyond this book there is a deep wound from which all men of my age are suffering. This side of the page is soiled with pus and darkness…
If you (Louis) had only died for honorable things; if you had fought for love or in getting food for your little ones. But, no. First they deceived you and then they killed you in the war.
What do you want me to do with this France that you have helped, it seems, to preserve, as I too have done? What shall we do with it, we who have lost all our friends? Ah! If it were a question of defending rivers, hills, mountains, skies, winds, rains, I would say, ‘Willingly. That is our job. Let us fight. All our happiness in life is there.' No, we have defended the sham name of all that. When I see a river, I say ‘river'; when I see a tree, I say ‘tree'; I never say ‘France.' That does not exist.
Ah! How willingly would I give away that false name that one single one of those dead, the simplest, the most humble, might live again! Nothing can be put into the scales with the human heart. They are all the time talking about God! It is God who gave the tiny shove with His finger to the pendulum of the clock of blood at the instant the child dropped from its mother's womb. They are always talking about God, when the only product of His good workmanship, the only thing that is godlike, the life that He alone can create, in spite of all your science of bespectacled idiots, that life you destroy at will in an infamous mortar of slime and spit, with the blessing of all your churches. What logic!
There is no glory in being French. There is only one glory: in being alive.
When I read a passage like this I am inclined to make extravagant statements. Somewhere I believe I said that if I had to choose between France and Giono I would choose Giono. I have the same feeling about Whitman. For me Walt Whitman is a hundred, a thousand, times more
than America itself. It was the great Democrat himself who wrote thus about our vaunted democracy:
We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen and tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.

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