Jean Giono: Regain (Harvest; later: Second Harvest)
One of the great joys in reading the novels of Giono are his wonderful set pieces, with colourful descriptions and his lively accounts. I have not read him in English but in French, this is aided by his use of archaic and regional words and phrases, not too many to put you off, but enough to give local colour and a sense of place. Take the opening scene, as we accompany the mail coach, as it winds its way through the countryside. Michel (Miche) is the driver and he stops to chat, is offered some food (andouillette, a type of sausage) and we learn how he handles the horses on different parts of the route. We learn who his passengers are and see the church bell tower which is painted blue (and we learn why it is painted blue and what the locals think of it). Finally, we learn about Aubignane, where his going and where this novel is mainly set. The weather turns worse as they approach and we learn about Aubignane.
Aubignane used to be a thriving village but now it is almost completely abandoned. There are only three residents. Mamèche is Italian. She had come to the village with her husband, a well digger, and while she was pregnant. The husband was a good well digger and found a deep well. Unfortunately the ground collapsed and her husband with it, and he was drowned. Two months later her son, Rolando, was born. She collected small branches to make wickerwork and baskets and Rolando went with her. One day he ate some plants. The plants were hemlock and he died. She was naturally devastated but she has remained in the village, catching small birds, growing potatoes.
Gaubert is the cart maker and he is getting old. Indeed, he is so old that his son suggests that he come and lives with them in another village and he gratefully though somewhat reluctantly accepts. And then there were two. The youngest inhabitant is Panturle and, like Mamèche, he is sad at Gaubert’s departure. However, he is an enterprising man and lives quite well by hunting game, some of which he gives to Mamèche and some of which he trades in a nearby village.
Mamèche meanwhile is struggling. She has a love-hate relationship with the Virgin Mary. She has even taken a statue of the Virgin from the abandoned church, which is now in her house. She criticises her for letting hr lose her husband and son and for the departure of Gaubert while, at the same time, praising her as her only friend.
One day, while talking to Panturle, she suggests that what he needs is a woman. She offers to find one for him and asks him whether, if she does find one for him, he will accept the woman. Panturle readily agrees. A few days later, however, she disappears and Panturle feels that he is the only one left.
Meanwhile, in another wonderful set-piece, Panturle finally meets a woman. We have followed the journey of Gédémus, the knife sharpener, and his assistant Arsule. Arsule had arrived in Gédémus’ village with Tony, a travelling player. He was accompanied by Mademoiselle Irène, a singer. When she made a mess of her singing, Tony struck her but the villagers defended her, kicked Tony out and let her stay. She took the name Arsule and has worked for Gédémus since. When they arrive in Aubignane, Panturle takes fright, hides and then runs away. He falls and knocks himself out, falling into a stream. When he awakes, Arsule is looking after him.
Arsule looks after him and he takes her back to his house. As well as being a companion and sex partner for him, she is above all what we could best describe as a civilising influence on him. From sleeping in a bed with a decent mattress to using matches instead of rubbing sticks, his behaviour changes. He stops relying on meat and sows grain. However, Gédémus has not disappeared and, one day, he turns up at the door, demanding his rights.
This is a beautiful book and rightly considered a classic of French literature. Giono’s descriptions of the villages and countryside and of Aubignane are masterful, as is his telling of the story. It goes from the depressing gloom of an almost abandoned village, with two lonely inhabitants who struggle to survive and, in fact, just surviving and not much more, to a village which looks as though it is going to revive and recover. All of this is caused by the arrival of a young woman who has had a troubled history but, as a woman, is more civilised than the men and, of course, brings with her a sense of purpose and life which Panturle lacks.
First published in French 1930 by Grasset
First English translation 1930 by Harvill Press