The Land Empty, the World Empty

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Arts & Culture

In the following excerpt from Jean Giono’s Occupation Journal, the prolific and fiercely imaginative novelist documents his life in Provence during the Nazi occupation of France. He writes of the weather, his family, the desire to flee, the rumors he hears from the surrounding villages, and his struggles to create “incontestably beautiful work” in the midst of crisis.

Paul Cézanne, Landscape in Provence, 1895–1900, pencil and watercolor on paper, 12″ x 19″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, June 4, 1944

Ten o’clock in the morning, the alert sounds. Immediately followed by violent rumbling at the far end of town, then silence. We’re listening. The most beautiful possible weather. Sun, powder blue sky, a little cool, light wind. Since the other day when ten bombs fell a hundred meters from Margotte, the hens have laid only small eggs, hardly bigger than quail eggs; they have no yolks. Imagine the panic there must be in Marseille now. All is quiet for the moment.

*

Tuesday, June 6, 1944

Charles returns from town with news. First, the Germans are said to have arrived. He didn’t see a single one, but someone told him that they had commandeered a villa on Boulevard Saint-Lazare. Then, the landing has supposedly begun. Where, when, how, no one knows. There’s no trace of it, no indication, but it has begun, no doubt about it. A collective hallucination? Anyone declaring in the empty city today that the Germans haven’t arrived and the landing hasn’t taken place would be torn to pieces.

Cool weather, clouds, overcast sky, crosswinds, still no rain.

Yesterday Mme. X. arrived. For at least three months she’s left me in perfect peace. “If I don’t come anymore,” she said, “it’s because I’m afraid of becoming attached to you.” She makes stupid faces. I answer dryly, “There’s no danger of that.” She protests. I move on and consider how to drive her away.

Began working on Deux cavaliers again.

Serious money worries. Still nothing from Paris, no letters. Wrote to Dambournet, L’Argus du Livre, to propose selling three manuscripts to him, Batailles dans la montagne, Le Poids du ciel, Les Vraies richesses.

A difficult period to get through morally. What I would need is to succeed at some incontestably beautiful work. What I’m writing doesn’t satisfy me. Not enough real work even though I stay shut up in my office the whole day. Irritated by difficulties that I can’t seem to overcome. I’ve hardly written more than a few pages for weeks. And even those aren’t as good as the ones I was writing three months ago.

Decided to give up tobacco, I smoked my last bag of it. I won’t buy anymore on the black market. Totally eliminating personal expenses.

Noon. So, it’s true. The landing at least. Fighting southwest of Le Havre, we learn from a badly broken up radio broadcast.

Camoin came to see me this evening at about seven o’clock. I told him about all the mistakes that Vigroux made in his translation of Joseph Andrews. Camoin told me they killed Ach. Pétain and Laval speaking on the radio about the landing. The bad days have come. According to Camoin, 11,000 (eleven thousand) planes supposedly participated in the attack. Insane times! What’s going to become of us? That’s what they keep asking below, my mother, my wife, my mother-in-law, shelling peas for canning.

It’s what I’m asking myself as I write this note.

The wind has turned to the north and is blowing in gusts. Sick today. Even the light is agonizing.

*

Wednesday, June 7, 1944

A crystal clear day. The mistral has swept away all the fog. From here the hills on the far side of the valley look close enough to touch. I can make out juniper bushes on the Mirabeau hills and, more than fifty kilometers away, the details of the rock face at Sainte-Victoire. I didn’t listen to the radio at seven o’clock. It was on very loud below but I wasn’t up, and only got up later when the telephone rang. It was Mme. Meyssonnier leaving for Mison for the funeral of a cousin who was crushed by the train, to tell us she would probably return this evening by train, if there was one. We are looking after her daughter in the meantime and will be for quite some time, I imagine. We also have André with us whose wife left for her son’s first communion in Banassac, hasn’t been heard from since, and must have broken down somewhere. There are no more trains, no more letters, no more telephone. In addition to the family, I’m now responsible for little Marguerite, André, and Guy. We’re considering the possibility of having to take refuge at the Criquet farm. Aline, Guy, and I would leave on bicycle, the women in the cart, and André and Charles on foot. For the moment, I calm them down and make them stay here. There’s absolutely no reason to rush off madly on adventures, as if to a picnic. The idea that we’ll have to learn to be nomads again fills the children with joy, and the adults as well. As long as the danger is far away. It is still far away. Apparently the fighting is furious and the outcome is far from decided. Those at the head of the Anglo-American front near Saint-Vaast were thrown into the sea. The other front, on the contrary, seems to be growing.

Getting to work. And being careful about knowing too much or going too deeply into the science of things. Martel’s example. Retaining a freshness of heart and hands. That’s difficult.

Ten o’clock. The siren is sounding. Even so, the wind is terrible.

*

Thursday, June 8, 1944

Yesterday afternoon I went to Margotte by bicycle. The land empty, the world empty; it seemed like an empty Sunday. I passed households fleeing, one after another, belongings heaped precariously in trucks, heading for Marseille. At Bois d’Asson, the mine wasn’t operating. I learned at Margotte that the terrorists had forced the workers to close it. At the crossroads, groups of young men idly swinging their arms. The sweet smell of linden trees in full blossom tossed by the wind. When I arrived at Margotte, Mme. Salomé told me immediately that the Anglo-Americans had taken Paris. It turns out she had mixed up what she heard on the radio, that they were in Boulogne, but: -sur-Mer. As for Salomé, he went to look at his automobile, out of gas now for four years. He told me that he was going to go have it serviced immediately. He’s expecting the return of 1936 before long. The return to before the war. It would be useless to try to make him understand first of all, that wouldn’t be enough, and secondly, it probably won’t happen, and finally, that what will happen will only happen after horrible catastrophes. He caresses his auto, jubilant, and all ready to dive back into any postwar whatsoever, so long as he has gasoline and can rev up his engine and go backfiring down the roads.

Returned home about seven o’clock. On the dissident radio station, they’re giving orders for civil war to the gendarmes, the jailers, and even the resistance fighters. They’re ordering them to take to the maquis with weapons and supplies and to open the prison doors.

As I’m writing this down this morning, Ch. arrives from town with news. The reports are strange and contradictory. Groups of maquis fighters have supposedly seized the town hall, the post office, and the police station. But he saw armed Germans at the town hall, the post office is functioning, and the police chief, whom I know to be a Francist, is still there. More news from Charles: fighting in Sainte-Tulle. Now from my window I can see Sainte-Tulle which, at six kilometers away, is in clear sight. It’s calm, peaceful, not a sound coming from it. Third piece of news: the Anglo-Americans are supposed to have landed at Cette. Élise is nervous and asks me if we shouldn’t leave for Criquet. I don’t think so. Why do that? Let’s wait. It’s through obeying last evening’s orders that the game will be played. To what extent and in what fashion will the country obey? And on the other hand, what is there to fear?

In any case and as a precaution, I told Guy, who was heading to Criquet by bike to get milk, not to leave. And I advised Ch. simply to return to town to get enough bread for a small supply for us.

I’m doing my best to continue working on Deux cavaliers.

After leaving again for town, Charles returns. Now he’s saying that the dissidents didn’t take the town hall last night, but they came to arm those who were members of the organizations (that seems true, or at least plausible). On the other hand, the prefecture’s office in Digne was supposedly stormed. But then I wonder why there aren’t new administrators already. I just had a calm telephone call from Blavette who asked me to meet him this afternoon, so the post office is alright. Real news: a German was killed tonight at the public house and a police officer killed himself while loading his gun badly. Waiting.

I destroyed three bad pages of Deux cavaliers written over the past few days.

Mme. Meyssonier returned from Mison last evening. She had to go fifteen or twenty kilometers on foot, just this side of Sisteron, before meeting a truck that left her not far from here, where she was able to find help again.

*

Friday, June 9, 1944

After a day of true madness yesterday, today promises to be calmer. It seems someone was pulling the wool over our eyes. Last night everyone in town left their houses and went to camp in the hills. The rumors circulating predicted terrible, mysterious events for the night. André and Angèle came to spend the night with us. There were huge numbers of false reports, each more outrageous than the last. By the end of last evening there was not a single cool head among us. I had to reprimand Guy, calmly and sensibly, for wanting to take extreme measures. Today everything is back to square one. In my opinion, a premature attempt, one of those terrible blunders that’s enough to destroy the best of causes. A lack of cool heads in the command. It seems the real leaders were very displeased that these initiatives were taken. It seems to be confirmed as well that all this unrest was only regional. So I was seeing things clearly when I advised caution. Why can’t we be more English in the good sense: “Wait and see.”

Guy is determined despite what I said to him, and I told him that if he had been too quick to accept my reasons, I wouldn’t respect him as I do. One must lose one’s illusions as quickly as possible, so, yes, go where you can lose them the fastest. That’s the law of war. For the moment, all they see is a big country outing. In place of the old “unfolding of things,” now there’s the appeal of cowboy and gangster movies. Big House, Zorro, sports. Obeying the rush of blood. Permission to play a grand version of cops and robbers. A big playground. What an idiot I was to write Le Grand troupeau. The simplest solution is to calmly accept that butcher shops exist, and even to go there to buy good meat.

Yesterday, thirteen dead in Forcalquier, according to rumors. Those who went to occupy the town hall, or I don’t know what, clashed with, I don’t know, either the Germans or the militia who killed thirteen of them.

“What I want most of all,” says Guy, “is equipment.” The desire for a parachute harness. Not once, it must be acknowledged, do they speak sentimentally, as in 93, 48, or 70. They are thrilled with (laugh at) the idea of jumping. Not one speaks of grandeur or country. Oh, no. Never of country. These are political armies built on the misconceptions of youth who want to practice piano in china shops.

It’s a beautiful day, clear, full of color, a little wind.

I understand all that very well. I just don’t like it, that’s all. Behind them are others who want to be brought armchairs so they can die sitting down, from old age, cancer, their prostate.

Still no real news about the landing. Neither the English nor the Germans.

*

Saturday, June 10, 1944

Finally it’s cloudy and overcast. It hasn’t rained yet but the humid air already offers relief to the body, relaxes it. Peace, and the songs of birds. Nightingales are calling in the tall chestnut trees.

My neighbor Maurel, a miner at the coal mine in Gaude, hasn’t returned. He’s been dragooned, surely against his own wishes. He’s peace-loving, a gardener, family man, conformist, easily astounded by the tiny flash of a lighter. What purpose does it serve to make a man like this into a soldier? If this picnic lasts a few days he’ll hold out, but all the time thinking of his daughter, wife, rabbits, hens, his garden, and his new potatoes. But this is certainly not the man to fire the last shots. If the country holiday lasts too long, he’ll end up saying to himself, “Now let’s move on to serious things.” And he’ll return to the bosom of his family.

The young men, like Guy, don’t talk about battles, combat, fighting, they talk about “scuffles.” “There are terrific scuffles.” They don’t want to fight but to “scuffle.” In one sense, that’s to see clearly, already.

It’s raining hard, a beautiful heavy rain. My limbs feel light and well-oiled. My head feels at ease in the humidity. Despite new troubles, my eyes take great physical pleasure in looking at the dark blue day. The sound of rain is pleasing to my ears like music and suddenly, having taken up a book, I see magical seeds bursting forth from all sides.

In addition to the thirteen young men killed on the square in front of the church in Forcalquier, there was a drama at the police station. Captain Faucon killed the son of the police captain who wanted to arrest him and the police captain killed Captain Faucon. As for the young men, they were from the Bois d’Asson mine and still following that insane plan, they were occupying the town hall, pure and simple. A truckload of Germans arrived. The young miners advanced, naively thinking that, at the sight of their friendly faces, it would all be settled, pure and simple (which was stupid!). They were massacred. Two minutes later, absolute calm “reigned at Varsovie.” What madness! Who organized all this stupidity? Who pulled the wool over our eyes in the first place? Salomé, who told me all this, has backed off from his revolutionary declarations. He’s already recanting them.

It’s been clearly confirmed that this unrest was strictly regional and hasn’t spread beyond the district.

Four o’clock in the afternoon. The sun’s out again.

—Translated from the French by Jody Gladding

Jean Giono (1895–1970) was one of the most prolific and respected French writers of the twentieth century. Born to a modest family in Provence, he was conscripted to the French Army in World War I, and the horrors he experienced cemented his lifelong commitment to pacifism. His first major literary success came with Colline (1929), which won him the Prix Brentano. He continued to publish novels and political writings during the thirties, and his strict pacifism led him to be briefly imprisoned for collaboration before and after the Nazi occupation of France. After World War II, Giono continued to gain success as a novelist, and many of his books were adapted into films. He received the Prince Rainier of Monaco Prize for lifetime achievement in 1953, was elected to the Academie Goncourt in 1954, and became a member of the Literary Council of Monaco in 1963.

Jody Gladding is a translator and poet. She has published several poetry collections, including Translations from Bark Beetle, Rooms and Their Airs, and Stone Crop, which was the winner of the 1992 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. Her translations from the French include Jean Giono’s Serpent of Stars and Pierre Michon’s The Eleven.

From Jean Giono’s Occupation Journal, translated from the French by Jody Gladding, published by Archipelago Books.

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