Jean Giono: Que ma joie demeure (Joy of Man’s Desiring)
Let’s start with the title. The French title translates literally as May My Joy Remain. I accept that that does not sound quite right in English. However, the English title is taken from Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, an obviously religious song. Giono has been accused of being pagan in is work. His characters certainly have a close bond with nature, no more so than in this book. Moreover, god and religion barely appear in his books. His characters generally do not go to church, do not pray and do not mention religion. It is not that they are opposed to religion. it is simply that, on the whole, it is totally irrelevant to their life. Therefore, to give the book an overtly religious title is very misleading.
The story opens with Jourdan. He is a man in his fifties, married to Marthe. The couple have no children. He owns a farm. While there is no village, there are other farms nearby and they seem to get on with one another. Five years ago he visited Roume, the nearby town and observed the people. He noticed that the other people had seemed to have lots of cares or, even worse, fears, like a sort of sickness. He likens this sickness to the sickness of other professions, such as miners and tanners (he gives a long list). Walking home, he thought to himself Joy can remain. Thinking further, he thought that what was needed was a man who could come and heal this sickness, a man with what he called a verdant heart. (Many of his metaphors, for example when he describes the night sky, uses examples from the natural world.)
The book opens with him getting up very early one morning as the sky seems bright, not from the moon, but from the stars. He starts ploughing but, as he is ploughing, he feels that the moment he has been waiting for – the arrival of this special man – is about to happen. As he is ploughing in one direction, he is sure the man is behind him and, sure enough, as he turns, he sees a man on the other side of the field. He goes up to speak to the man, who is called Bobi.
Bobi is very knowledgeable about the land and is soon giving Jourdan advice about hedges and planting hawthorns. He stays with Jourdan and Marthe. The next day, they are off visiting the neighbours and a young man who is in agony, seemingly from a dislocated shoulder, is easily cured by Bobi. Jourdan and the others are impressed with what he says and does. The next day, for example, when it is bitterly cold, Bobi asks Jourdan about his grain supplies. He tells him that he keeps some spare to sell. Bobi tells him that he does not need the money and proceeds to spread a sack of grain on the ground. A host of birds of different varieties come to eat it.
He comes out with pithy sayings such as A man who knows is worth ten men who seek. Sometimes his views approach the fanciful as he tells one farm owner that one day his horse will spout wings and fly. Often, the people say that they do not understand him or, at least, do not understand his specific words but do get his general gist.
One day he suggests to Jourdan that, instead of growing crops which he can use for his food or to sell, he should grow flowers. Jourdan agrees and flowers – narcissi and periwinkles – appear, giving pleasure not just to Jourdan and Marthe but to all the neighbours as well. One day he asks Jourdan for money, which he gives him without hesitation and Bobi reappears several days later with a stag. The stag is, as Bobi says, almost a man. In other words, it is tame and it lives around the area, sometimes visiting Jourdan and Marthe and sometimes going into the wood, but always coming back. Again, the neighbours are fascinated by this and the flowers and the stag bring all the neighbours together.
This sad sickness, which has resulted in old Silve killing himself, and which only affects humans – In all the world, only men are sad, says Bobi – is something Bobi is determined to cure. As well as the joys of nature and companionship, sex and love are important and Bobi is determined to find a couple of does for the stag.
Much of the rest of the book is about how a certain amount of joy does come to the community, as it gets more in touch with nature and appreciates the natural world and the joy of community more than earning money. However, it is inevitably not all plain sailing, as not everyone buys into Bobi’s plan and, also inevitably, things go wrong.
This is a strange book for Giono, delving into the realms of fantasy, an area where he does not normally go and despite or, perhaps, because of what what has happening in Europe at that time, with the rise of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy (and, to a certain degree, in France, as well), a book that is not in keeping with its time. Giono, of course, with one or two obvious exceptions, did not generally bother about what was happening in the outside world and certainly does not here. Whether you enjoy this book will depend on whether you do not mind a bit of fantasy. There is no doubt that its message – that humans are better off when they are close to nature and come together – is a worthy one. However particularly in the late 1930s, how realistic it was at that time we know now only too well.
First published in French 1936 by Grasset
First English translation 1940 by Viking Press