Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Jean Giono’s An Italian Journey - “…an ideal exercise of your ability to enjoy the world”

Since finishing, along with a handful of other bloggers, Jean Giono’s Hill, I have not been ready to let go of this enthralling French writer. And since I’m still centered on Italy and Italian literature, I was delighted to find the perfect intersection of these interests: Giono’s 1953 An Italian Journey  (Voyage en Italie). “Giono,” after all, is not exactly a French name. The writer’s father hailed from a small Piedmontese village, and Giono himself, in some late works, turned to Italy for source and inspiration.

An Italian Journey (the evocation of Goethe’s title is perhaps intentional) traces a 1951 journey by car Giono took with his family through the north of Italy. Though a biography would shed some light on Giono’s other experiences with Italy, the account conveys the feeling of a first visit, at least to the region.

Peculiarly, it also conveys the feeling of a reluctant visit. The initial pages suggest Giono’s hesitation in quitting his beloved Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, and offer a first, noteworthy bit of self-revelation: his intense dislike of the sea. He and his family take an inland route, coming down first into Turin. Milan, Brescia, Peschiera, Verona, Venice, Padua, Ferrera and Bologna follow until the trip’s apparent terminus in Florence – that’s where the writing comes to a halt anyway.

Once Giono gets over his initial anxieties, he settles into a rhythm, packing into his account enchanting and piquant observations on a plethora of subjects. He incorporates amusing anecdotes as well as a few passages borrowed from his voracious reading, which appears to have ranged from the Georgics to Ariosto to Dante, from Homer to Stendhal, from Machiavelli to the serialized Don Camillo stories of Giovannino Guaraschi, and from memoirs of Italian military officers to an “amazing” history of an 1838 revolution in Italy’s north, written by a personal friend who mapped out every village and pathway involved and spent thirty years wandering the region to mine the local archives. There are commentaries on painting (Giotto’s Scrovini Chapel frescoes look to him “like an aquarium”); on aesthetics (an oil refinery in Mestre is appreciated as something Don Quixote “would have included…straightaway in his repertoire of lyrical tropes”); on finding illumination just about anywhere (“…you can find traces of sublimity even in a grocer’s shop”); on history (a people’s history appears to be of chief interest); and on war, and the historical shift in the notion of battle from a means of acquiring property to a Napoleonic pursuit of ideas. Giono appears to have little truck with political parties and theorists: “I don’t like it when some other person comes along and decides to do my work for me. I want to see to it myself.”

Among things Giono does like is food, and this evident gourmand catalogs several miraculous food preparations, from a paste made of fennel leaves macerated in brandy to a Venetian recipe for cuttlefish spaghetti with tomatoes and raw mullet liver. What easily counts as among the most particularly French observations I’ve ever read about cuisine must be quoted in its entirety to be believed, and is written in response to an “atrocious” meal of fried fish at Lake Garda:

Fish always taste of the water they live in. Each river has its own particular qualities. These can scarcely survive a process akin to cooking salsify almost rigid in castor oil. I have known people to reject some freshwater fish because they tasted of sewage. They were quite right to do so when they had been served up something out of a chamber pot seasoned with boiled peanut oil. But even a tincture of sewage is delicious if you wash the fish so thoroughly first that you leave it with only the least trace of pee odor, especially if the juice of the fish is mixed in, and there’s the additional aroma of a slightly fruity olive oil. Eat it in the open air that smells as the fish tastes, alongside the water it came from, and the pleasure will be indescribable. You should try everything. Happiness demands effort.

Giono’s language, after the lyric intensity of Hill, here can be surprisingly witty. We are in Brescia, his first major stop:

When you arrive in any city at night, to be sure, it can easily seem mysterious. This was the same, but in a different way. The street where we looked for somewhere to eat, for instance, stretched out like any normal big street with shops and even a lawyer’s nameplate, but finished up as a dark, narrow byway from which a trolley bus emerged, all but scraping the walls. The bus was decorated with flickering red and green lights, and was quite empty: it was like an ambulating pickle jar.

Here he is in Venice, observing the widespread use of black both in dress and ornament:

That black, however, was very soothing in the Venetian light. I have already said how pure it was because of the absence of any dust. It was also the only color that added something new to the intense clarity. In the long run other colors became tedious because they repeated what the sun had already said, which was quite enough to deal with anyway.

In another instance in Venice, he cannot tear his eyes away from a beautiful woman, who in turn “all but feather-dusted me with her long eyelashes for the space of a generous instant.”

I worried a bit about this Venice chapter, since, like many people, I have my own obsessions about this grand, realized dream, yet Giono’s first sensation in relation to the city is dread. He associates it with Wagner and D’Annunzio and, of course, the pernicious sea; had his family not rebelled, he might well have skipped it altogether. Moreover, he arrives in the worst possible manner: at night, in darkness, into the depressing autopark at Piazzale Roma, and in the company of a dwarf tourist tout who quickly latches onto the group and maligns every place of interest. But the section on Venice proves miraculous. Despite my having read nearly everything I’ve run into about the city, I’ve seldom seen it depicted with such a conjuring of atmosphere or with as much attentiveness to the Venetian modus operandi. His selective details aim at elucidating Venetian character, and through them, one glimpses pockets of the city’s mysteries, such a waiter’s promise to show Giono “vast rooms where the windows were now all closed up and where beds with all four posters infested with beetles and devoured by rot had become as fragile as sand castles,” or tales of young women tucked away “in total seclusion in immense palaces.” The pockets are even literal; Giono notes the vertical pocket sewn into workers’ clothing just by the liver, and where the wearer could insert a small figurine of Saint Anthony of Padua. This 45-page section on the Serene Republic would be worth publication on its own; one only wishes it were longer.

Giono’s observations about Italy and Italians can appear as sweeping generalizations, but they’re so original, effusive and seductively idiosyncratic that one can hardly help but indulge and trust. Quite often they’re buttressed by Giono’s sense of responsibility to provide evidence to support his claims, but at other times one must simply accept on faith. One I particularly liked, the kind of assertion that appears to reveal something vitally important yet omits the instruction manual, is an observation of the people of Turin: “Here it was simply a matter of being happy and of reaching that state by very skilled procedures.”

The book also provides some welcome insight into Giono the person and writer. For instance, he notes having been transfixed by both his father and his Italian grandfather, who together “constructed a vast oral novel,” adding new “picaresque details” every evening. He recognizes how much novels invariably leave out. He muses about writing “a lively narrative” in which fictional characters meet real people and are “embellished” by them. His deep affection for nature, so evident in Hill, comes across in a celebration (no lesser word will do) of the trees planted along roads in Piedmont. In Giono’s appreciation of “resounding empty spaces,” unpeopled streets, the silence he finds in Venice, one might detect a tinge of misanthropy, but this is likely a bit of a put on. “You cannot think of people without thinking of happiness. What else do they strive for?” he writes at one point, and his early mornings and late nights in cafés and restaurants, engaged in observing and learning about those he encounters, reveal someone who wants to know people. Sitting in a café in Brescia, he finds “that capacity for spontaneous, almost totally uninhibited enjoyment, with absolutely no reference to any kind of deity, irresistibly infectious,” and later he counts himself among those who possess a “rare form of courage: people who dared to enjoy things.” Giono takes measurements of this enjoyment everywhere he goes, revealing its distinct regional gradations, and also making his journey an inquiry into human happiness – a pretty nifty subject for an exploration of Italy. The word appears repeatedly in the book, and many of Giono’s meditations probe the myriad manifestations of happiness. One such passage echoes the stark elements of Hill, and that novel’s concerns with violence and the importance of being-in-the-world:

The carrot of ultimate happiness has been held out to us since humanity left the Garden of Eden. It is an advantageous tool for all and sundry, for the mere promise of its eventual reign is enough. There is no difference between the happiness guaranteed by the Church and that which materialists assure us will be ours. It always lies in the future and we have to run after it, killing, killing, killing all the way, running amok in helpless, murderous frenzy like (so they say) the Malays. A tragic fate is reserved for those who want to remain free or who hold on to their own ideas: they are thrown to the Christians.

But more often Giono’s references to happiness come in less abstracted, philosophical forms, rising directly from experience. Recognizing his own contradictions, he finds hope in the gripping sight of a woman and her two daughters supplicating, in deepest devotion, at a church altar.  “If I want to be happy,” he asserts near the end of his journey, “I have to be sure that I am among people whose faces plainly declare that there will be a tomorrow.” This might be the rapturous impression of one merely traveling through – surely faith in the future is not possessed by everyone in Italy, not even in 1951. But An Italian Journey has made me ache to extend, though the north of Italy, those aspirations to travel through Provence that Hill inspired. I should only be so fortunate to have for company a mind as agile, inquiring and generous as Giono’s, and a spirit as attuned to the infinite possibilities of joy. One only need look at the portrait above to place some trust in the declarations that face makes.

Image: "Portrait de Jean Giono" by Jean Dieuzaide, from Autour de Giono, Actes Sud, 2002


  1. This sounds very good.

    Stories of travel and journeys can be the basis for so much in good literature.

    Among the many things that sound appealing about this work is the attention to food. That is something that I can relate to :)

    I love the quote about the woman's eyelashes.

    Superb review as always Scott.

    1. Thanks, Brian. I clearly liked the line about the eyelashes too, and also liked that Giono didn't just leave it at that. Afterwards he briefly but subtly sums up the whole complexity of such a passing exchange.

  2. What a lucky find for you, this intersection of your recent reading and your love of Italian literature in general! Like Brian, I find myself drawn to descriptions of food and travel - it's a great combination for any book.

    Terrific review as ever, Scott. I love those quotes about Brescia and Venice, they're so evocative.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. It's quite an evocative little book. I don't think I'd ever even given a thought to Brescia, but now it's high on my list of places I'd like to visit.

    2. Brescia is where Kafka first saw airplanes, and was duly impressed.

    3. Giono was duly impressed there by the operation of a new espresso machine.