Book Report: The Song of the World by Jean Giono

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I have tried to make a story of adventure in which there should be absolutely nothing ‘timely.’ The present time disgusts me, even to describe. It is sufficient merely to endure it. I wanted to make a book with new mountains, a new river, a country, forest, snow and men all new. The most consoling thing is that I have not had to invent anything at all, not even the people. They all exist. That is what I want to say here. At this very time when Paris flourishes – and that is nothing to be proud of – there are people in the world who know nothing of the horrible mediocrity into which civilization, philosophers, public speakers and gossips have plunged the human race. They think only of adding to their comfort, heedless that one day true men will come up from the river and down from the mountain, more implacable and more bitter than the grass of the apocalypse.
– Jean Giono, 1937

This quote can be found on the back cover of the paperback version of Giono’s French adventure/pastoral novel Song of the World. Not only does it explain, in a roundabout way, the purpose of his novel, but it gives precise definition to his overall philosophy and motivation as a writer. His motivation is not unusual: the motivation of most writers is to create a world that is parallel to ours, but molded in the authors own image. The author wishes to play god in his own little world, so to speak. What strikes me in Giono’s statement is the ferocity with which he expresses his motivation, and the anger he throws at the “modern world.”

From one writer to another, this is inspiring stuff. Now I’ll be honest. If you asked me for my own vision of my future, it would probably look like this: a good chunk of acreage (some forest, some open land), a small home, a creek, preferably on the side of a mountain in view of the ocean, where I would live out a good portion of my life happy with a good family. In this way my vision of life falls in line fairly nicely with Giono’s, and I have drawn much inspiration, both in writing and in life, from his words. But it probably goes without saying that I don’t fully agree with my friend Mr. Giono here, brilliant genius and visionary that he is. Goes without saying since I am writing to you about him on my blog, on the internet, from a machine that sits on my lap, and which you may even be reading from a miniature computer you’re holding in the palm of your hand. Despite the ills that technology and the modern world have brought upon us (reduced attention spans, obsession with status, constant hunger for information, increased isolation and physical separation, etc.) I think it’s pretty safe to say that the same innovations have improved our lives in myriad ways, and will continue to do so until the robots become sentient and we’re all enslaved. Just kidding, maybe.

I’m a child of the 80s, a “millennial” as the generation name-givers call me, and lets face it, I’m a nerd. I like being connected, I like exploring the world from my laptop (though going out into the world itself from time to time is essential), I like Star Wars/Trek and all that, and dammit I love my gadgets. This is where I break with Giono. That cabin of mine in the woods? It’s got a laptop, an iPod, a little digital camera to snap pictures of the deer down by the creek, excellent speakers to listen to music, it definitely has broadband internet, and the mailman brings Netflix movies every few days. Is that sad? Phony? No, I don’t think so, I think it just means that, although I want that something of my own, which is an ancient and natural feeling, I’m no Luddite. More of a…nerddite (copyright 2010). I want to go out alone and look at the beautiful shimmering ocean in the morning, take a picture, write something about it…and then blog about it, so my friends and other people can enjoy and be a part of it too. Even though it’s making us all goofy, it does enrich society too. I don’t fear the modern world, but I do look for some sort of balance – a balance that books like Giono’s can provide.

So I’m glad, so damn glad, that Jean Giono feels the way he does about capital-c Civilization. Because my god it makes for some beautiful writing. Some of the most beautiful, transcendent writing in the world. And I think of other writers like him, the David James Duncans and Tom Robbinses and Jack Kerouacs of the world, and it occurs to me – these people are my favorite writers. These are the people I turn to again and again for a specific vision of the world and humanity. And I think it is out of refuge from modernity – not because of fear, but simply to get centered again. A book like The Song of the World pulls you deeply into a narrative of primitive man, a world of farmers and shepherds and fishermen, drunks, singers, rabble-rousers, big talkers, beautiful women, and rough men. Violence, lust, charity, happiness, melancholy – and freedom. It pulls you into a landscape that almost seems like Eden in its untouched beauty, its grandeur. The people in the book, even when harvesting or grazing that landscape, treat it as a holy gift – they treat it with respect, for they know their lives depend on it.

And most importantly for the novel’s poetics, the people reflect the landscape and vice versa. In his writing Giono is constantly pulling off this amazing trick of having the landscape speak for the people, of grafting their emotions onto the land and the elements. By the same accord, the people are responsive to, and understanding of the environment in a way that is barely known today. But we do get glimpses of that understanding, that connection, every once in awhile. It’s the spark you get when you wake up in the morning and open your window to see it’s foggy outside. Or you pull in a fish from a quiet lake before sunrise. Or you listen to the hollow wind blow leaves down the street. I think, this is exactly what poetry is. My favorite books and poems are by writers who live for those moments, who define their lives by them, who chase them down. Giono goes one step further: he creates a world of his own, loosely based on his real world of French Provence, a world with “new mountains, a new river, a country, forest, snow and men all new” where the connection between human and nature is the rule not the exception.

Some people like spy novels, others like romances or picareques, but this is the literary escape I long for. For me, reading Giono is like canoeing in the Boundary Waters or summiting a mountain – it has a centering and calming effect that is irreplaceable. And until I get that cabin in the woods, reading Giono is absolutely necessary – to my sanity and humanity. His hidden meaning in the quote above is that all the beauty he describes in his books is available to us all the time, if only we search for it and embrace it.

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Jack Kerouac said…

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