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Jean Giono: Un roi sans divertissement (A King Alone)

Jean Giono had a difficult war. He was a pacifist and, at the start of the war, he was imprisoned for a while. When freed, he lived in Vichy France. Because he published nothing and was not openly critical of the Vichy regime and collaboration with the Germans, he was suspected of being a Vichy/Nazi sympathiser. That his books promoted the idea of a return to the land, something that the Vichy government itself supported, further condemned him. He had also been involved with magazine called Gerbe, which was pro-Vichy. Accordingly, he was interned after liberation. He was also placed on a black list, which meant that his books could not be published. He had already, before the war, thought about writing a series of what he called chronicles, set both in the past and present and taking place generally in an imaginary South of France. These books would be less lyrical and darker in tone, using humour (and mockery). There would be, in some case, multiple narrators. All of them would deal with the French idea of the human condition. He ended up writing some twenty of these, though quite a few were very short and quite a few were never published. This is the first, his first post-war book, published in 1947.

The book is set in the winters of 1843-1848 in the Trièves region (in the French Alps), Initially, the main character seems to be a beech tree, a magnificent one growing just near to the sawmill of Frédéric II. He is so-called, because his father was called Frédéric (Frédéric I, of course) and his son and grandson will also be called Frédéric. The narrator (writing from a much later date) tells us about the V. family, though it is not till later that we discover their relevance. However, the key event is one winter’s evening, when there has been a heavy snowfall, Marie Chazottes has disappeared.

Marie Chazottes was twenty years old and described as beautiful. (Beautiful for them meant having large calves, large thighs, a large chest and being able to move quickly.). An extensive search revealed nothing and was, of course, hindered by the snow. The next victim is Georges Ravanel (also aged twenty). Someone shoots him (but does not kill him). The narrator catches a glimpses of the man but he escapes. Bergues, a local poacher, who lived alone, follows the footsteps in the snow (there are also traces of blood) but, as he says, the man disappeared into the clouds and must be a god.

The villagers start taking more precautions – barricades, no-one to go out alone. Then Bergues disappears. The gendarmes are called in and see that Bergues must have been interrupted as his unfinished meal is still there. Delphin is the next. He goes out to the privy and never returns.

Sometime after, Frédéric II notices a man climbing down from the beech. He is suspicious and wonders what he was doing. He is even more suspicious when he sees nails in the beech, acting as a sort of ladder. He climbs up the nails and finds the body of Dorothée, another local young woman. Frédéric sets out to track the man and we follow his efforts. He finds where the man lives and returns to get help, with the party led by Langlois, a local gendarme.

After this event, Langlois disappears for a while but returns as Commander of the Wolf Catchers. Though the wolf catchers catch wolves (of which there were quite a few in that part of France at that time), they also go after other harmful animals such as foxes, boar, badgers and martens. Langlois has changed. He is now more self-important but keeps himself to himself, at least with the men, though he does seem to be interested in the ladies. He chases after Martoune, who is seventy and hunch-backed, and lodges with the local café owner, known as Saucisse (the French for sausage – no-one knows her real name). In this episode we follow an actual wolf hunt, led by Langlois, which seems to involve much revelry and a certain amount of mockery particularly of Urbain Timothée, the Wolf Catcher Captain, and his wife, known only as Mme Tim.

A while later, we continue to follow Langlois and his activities. He meets a seamstress, who we guess is the widow of the man who killed the villagers earlier. He goes to Mme Tim’s château which he likes but Saucisse, who is narrating this part, likens him to a wolf. Indeed, it is Saucisse who is asked to find him a wife and he builds a bungalow in which they can live but things do not work out. The work ends with a quote from Pascal that gives the novel its title – A king without distraction is a man full of misery.

Yes, this novel is very different from his pre-war ones. He uses humour and mockery a lot. It is somewhat darker. It is somewhat bitty, in that there is not a single plot thread that we follow. Though it is still set in the South and the villagers come from a remote village, far from civilisation, there is not the lyrical joy of the land that we find in his earlier novels. Indeed, it is set entirely in winter and the landscape, all too often, is seen as threatening, rather than joyous. For example, the men tracking the wolf get caught by nightfall and are worried till Langlois and others arrive with flares. Bergues, tracking the killer, sees him disappearing into the clouds and dares not follow. While still a fine book, I cannot say that I enjoyed it as much as his earlier ones.

Publishing history

First published in French 1947 by Table ronde
First published in English by New York Review of Booksin 2019