This “journal” of Jean Giorno a leading French writer and intellectual covers a short period from September 1943 until September 1944 when he is arrested for “collaboration”. At this time he lived in his house close to the village of Manossque in Provence – his nearest town is Marseilles and as the war comes towards its end he supports a household of a minimum of eight with income from his writing. Having served in the army in the First World War he is, by the time of the Second, profoundly unhappy with the state of Europe. Occasionally described as a pacifist, by the time of the diary he feels a lack of sympathy for the difficulties of anybody directly involved in the fighting. It becomes obvious that he carries his journal with him and writes it when he is not able to settle to his “paying work”. But as the fighting comes closer stresses mean there are times he cannot regularly write either, although journaling might calm him sufficiently to settle again to other projects.
His journal texts reflect the range of his interests – he says that it was started as an exercise to improve the quality of his writing style. But it is so much more than that, the range makes it hard to ascertain whether it is intended as a private journal or one (if only in part) for publication. How much you know of his writing, contemporary writers or creatives, will no doubt impact on your view of the significance of this book. Not having read any of his books or translations, or seen his plays I still l found it an interesting read. He uses the journals to map out his future writing projects – those for more immediate income, others for the longer term. He is shown writing more than one at the time and how this aids his creative process. In places we are also given his reading (or re-reading) and how this sparks ideas for new writing. As a creature of his time his scope is largely directed to male writers, females apparently lie outside his sphere of interest. Occasionally descriptions of his landscape around him and weather are vividly given.
But for non literary readers the key impact of these journals must lie in the depiction of their times. He lives a semi rural life-style (with access to farms and supplies) but the impact of war is becoming more immediate both localised and violent. “Italy” joins the allies and in spring the British and American invasion begins. The area will be subject to increasing bombardments by planes of all sides. These events will create ripples as the resistance will choose to react and as peace seems more likely vicious party political infighting will break out. The atmosphere is toxic and violent and people will start to settle scores. Giono’s journals give an increasing detailed picture of the stresses of living in a country that has been invaded and then more seriously involved in war. He might refer to personal difficulties this incurs in a practical sense – but be aware that other than odd reference to the physical struggles of the women around him – basic things like the difficulties of provisioning (no doubt regarded as a woman’s responsibility) are largely overlooked.
Reading through this volume one can start to see the nature of this man and at a time when life is extra complicated and positively dangerous. We are shown a suite of kindnesses, but nevertheless he is not perhaps a man who many people nowadays would find comfortable to be around. But then the importance of this volume is the depiction of the time with difficulties, unpleasantness and compromises often shown in minute detail. It speaks to how people reacted to war and indeed how Giono continued to produce a substantial genre of diverse work in spite of it all. But because it is so visceral and personal it will raise questions in the readers’ minds as to how they would or could react in similar circumstances – and whether they could be so generous, stoical, or able to quietly maintain “normal” peacetime activities.
Occupation Journal by Jean Giono
9780349011462 Penguin Archipelago pbk 31st March 2020