Thursday, June 29, 2017

He saw a countryside without cholera or revolution, but he found it sad - how, Giono asks, should a man live?

But did they know what he had turned to in the meantime?  Victor Hugo – no more, no less.  (Ch. 13, 396)

It had been niggling at me, as I read The Horseman on the Roof, that original as the novel was it did, in places, sound a lot like someone.  Its imagery was a blend of a long French tradition, from Flaubert through the Surrealists, and its hero was straight out of The Charterhouse of Parma, but – well, see above.  In the penultimate chapter, Angelo and Pauline, on the edge of the cholera outbreak, are caught in a rain storm, and accept the hospitality of a doctor, a theorizing loudmouth.  Our hero and heroine, stupefied by a fire, and wine, and good food, are stupefied – “[Angelo] could well imagine how with a little stew at the right moment all the heroes and heroines of Ariosto could be brought down to earth and reality” (394) – and just let the doctor talk, on and on.  Artistically, the chapter seems like the novels one dud.

But it confirmed my idea that Giono had been thinking about Hugo.

In short, it was a depressing meal for both of them, but not for their host, who kept quoting Victor Hugo on the slightest pretext.  (398)

It is in effect the only digressive chapter in the novel, the only time Giono allows a detached voice to take over, even if the voice is nominally that of a character.  I wonder what the character has been reading.  If the time of the story is 1832, Hugo is famous enough as the author of Notre-Dame de Paris, Hernani, and several books of poems, but for Giono’s readers the name must invoke later novels directly relevant to this novel, like the man-against-nature Toilers of the Sea or Les Misérables.  Cholera-stricken Provence is full of miserables, and Angelo is something of a Jean Valjean figure, trying to find a way to turn his impulse for heroism, his ethics of heroism, into something that is actually useful.

The Hugo-spouting doctor is the last of a series of role models that Angelo encounters.  The first was also a doctor, the “little Frenchman” who sacrifices himself in a hopeless search for the one victim who can be saved.  The most dramatic is a gigantic nun who wanders Manosque, cleaning corpses, restoring dignity.  Angelo joins her, unsure if there is any value at all to the activity, but at least it is action.  (The most charming role model is the cat who joins Angelo during his exile on the roofs of Manosque).

It is as if Giono needs a role model of his own, for his fiction, a writer for whom Angelo’s struggles with heroism would make sense, even if the non-naturalistic way that Angelo debates himself often sounds more – surely is – the product of Giono’s time.

“Does the freedom of one’s country,” he asked himself, “count less than honor, for example, or all the trouble I’ve taken to keep alive?”

He saw a countryside without cholera or revolution, but he found it sad.  (Ch. 11, 300)

The Horseman on the Roof is an easy book to recommend, artful and exciting, and probably not just for tourists going to Provence, although they need it more than anyone.


  1. Apparently there is a sequel following Angelo in the 1848 revolutions! I must read these books.

    The wikipedia article on the author is quite odd. He's repeatedly arrested as a Nazi sympathizer and repeatedly released without charge, but it never explains exactly what he was suspected of or why he was finally blacklisted from publication.

  2. Okay, the French article explains that he published articles in a collaborationist journal and explores his attitude toward the resistance ("murderers" in his view) and the Vichy regime. That certainly explains the odd lacunae in the English article. Regardless, the books sound fascinating.

  3. Yes! The Straw Man, in English. It looks plenty interesting. There is also a kind of semi-prequel, Angelo.

    Giono was a dedicated pacifist, which led him into a kind of ideological trap during the Occupation. In my understanding, he was not remotely a Nazi sympathizer, but he did some things that made him look like one.

    Some aspects of the cholera epidemic in Horseman may well be allegorically related to the war, but I don't know how to pursue that idea.