Monday, July 10, 2017

soup plates like crow's nests - Jean Giono's Blue Boy

The Horseman on the Roof (1951) was so unusually good that I tried another Jean Giono novel, Blue Boy (1932, tr. Katherine A. Clarke), one of those autobiographical numbers, only barely a novel in form or content.  Little Jean is let’s say ten or so when the novel starts, which would put it in 1905.  Giono is exactly the same age, within two days, of his fellow Provencal writer Marcel Pagnol, so the autobiographical stories of his Provence childhood are contemporary.

Giono lives up in the hills, and his father is an anarchist cobbler, and his Provence is not as tourist-friendly as Pagnol’s.  Lots of death, especially, from disease, accident, suicide.  Jean is sent to a village for his health just in time to witness a kind of suicide epidemic, an infectious melancholia.  Not that Pagnol’s Provence is all sunshine and lavender.

Blue Boy is full of the bold, even over-written descriptive imagery that so impressed me in Horseman:

A maze of little streets twisted in a net about the church, just beneath the campanile.  It seethed like the veins in an ash leaf: it was blacker than the night, it smelled of stink and the stable.  There were odors of bread and dried fagots.  The dull sounds of stamping could be heard behind the walls.  A small window bled great globs of light that splotched the pools of liquid dung.

“The oven,” said my father.  “They are making the bread.”  (Ch. 3, p. 41)

Now that is some vigorous translation.  Globs, splotched, dung.  And it turns out to be bread.  Life over here; filth and disease and death over there – but almost right here – is perhaps the argument of the novel.

Jean is at the animal fair, where

… the inns cooked great cauldrons of beef stew, and when it was one of those dry winter days with open sky, hard and round beneath the sun like granite stones in the river bed, the stew was served outdoors on long trestle tables.  All the animal dealers lined up by class or by villages and they began to mop up the gravy with hunks of bread.  They stood before the bench, they took the dipper and poured dippersful of stew into deep dishes.  For they were given soup plates, broad and deep, like crows’ nests.  And so, from the very beginning of the afternoon, when they all settled down, in the sun, to digesting and belching in their moustaches, an odor more terrible than that of the penned-in creatures rose to terrify the fleeing birds, and then the sky became still as death.  (VI, 94)

There, that has many of the novels motifs in one place.  Bread, death, bad smells, birds.  Perfect.  This stew is not the food for which tourists visit Provence, but I am not exactly kidding about Giono’s novels, even with their cholera and suicides, being tourist books.  It is a place that gets astounding numbers of visitors; here are books that show aspect of it that cannot be seen now.  They are hidden to outsiders, or they are gone forever, except in books.  Good books, luckily.

If some other book blogger would systematically work through the available Giono in English, that would be quite useful – thanks in advance.


  1. Damn! Another French author whose books I'll have to read!

  2. Horseman, at least, but it seems likely that several more would be worthwhile. Possible many more.

  3. I've read both Hill and Second Harvest - both excellent. I'd happily read through his work - time and finances permitting!

  4. This would be a "university library" kind of project, which still does not solve the time problem.