Jean Giono is one of those authors that I heard about years ago from Henry Miller’s writings; I am only just getting round to actually reading his works. I read the short story, The Man Who Planted Trees, earlier in the year and though I liked it, many of his other books appeal to me more. Second Harvest is one of those books; it was Giono’s third novel, published in 1930 (of course) as Regain. My copy is a beautiful Harvill Press edition from 1999 which makes use of a 1939 translation by Henri Fluchère and Geoffrey Myers as well as a series of lovely woodcut images by Louis William Graux—I always love books that have illustrations; it is something that should be encouraged.
Second Harvest is one of those books where the whole story is essentially revealed in the blurb but it is enough to draw the reader in to find out how the story unfolds. The story centres around Panturle who lives in a small Provençal village, Aubignane; a village that is on the decline and near to extinction as it only has three inhabitants. We initially find out about the inhabitants of Aubignane from some members of a nearby town, one of whom used to live in Aubignane. One of its inhabitants is Panturle (Panturle was a huge man. He looked like a piece of wood walking along.) He is in his forties and, since his mother died, lives alone . He relies on hunting for his food by setting traps and snares. He often talks to himself. Gaubert (Gaubert was a little man and all moustache) is a retired cartwright who used to make the finest ploughs but now, in his eighties, he is all skin and bone. When he gets bored he strikes his anvil to relive better days.
Whenever Gaubert felt bored, he took hold of the hammer with both hands, raised it, and struck the anvil. He went on like that, for no purpose, just for the sound, to hear the sound. His life was in each of those strokes. The sound of the anvil echoed through the countryside and sometimes came upon Panturle while he was hunting.
The third inhabitant is Mamèche, ‘the Piedmontese’ (She used to sit and sing at the edge of a bank. Then her husband died. Then her child died.). Her story is, indeed, sad; her husband was a well-digger and he died when a well collapsed in on him. Her little boy died from eating hemlock. But it’s not long before Gaubert decides to leave, taking his anvil with him, to live with his son in a nearby village. Panturle and Mamèche help each other out but Mamèche begins to act strangely—he would often find her outside standing still and talking to herself. One day Mamèche offers to find Panturle a wife and bring her to him. Then one day Panturle discovers that Mamèche has left. He is now alone in the village. Has Mamèche gone to find him a wife? He does not know.
The story now switches to two other characters: Gédémus, a travelling knife-grinder, and his young wife, Arsule, whom he treats as his servant. Gédémus is not brutal, he loves Arsule, but in a limited way. Before long Gédémus and Arsule arrive at Aubignane to find it apparently abandoned. When they stop outside Panturle’s house no-one answers.
Giono’s style of writing is beguiling, with its tales of peasants and farmers. He often anthropomorphises the natural world, where trees sing, streams grumble and the sun jumps; he also compares humans to non-human entities, such as comparing Panturle to a piece of wood (see above), or when Arsule’s body is described as ‘fermenting like new wine’. The Wikipedia page on Giono describes this period of his writing as displaying a pantheistic view of nature. It is a charming way of writing but Giono does not ignore the brutal side of nature as well.
The story has reached a pivotal moment with Gédémus and Arsule outside Panturle’s house. Rather than describe much more of the plot I wish to quote rather a long piece at this point which perfectly displays Giono’s style.
Soft green grass grew in front of the house. There stood the cypress too, and, as if on purpose, it was singing with its tree-voice, its sweet-sounding voice, inviting to the ear. Then there were bees which had lived under a tile and were humming in the air. And then, like a miracle, so unexpected that it made them rub their eyes, there was a small lilac tree in full blossom.
“Let’s rest, Arsule, let’s rest.”
Gédémus, lying on the ground, stretched himself out like a dog. “One could almost sleep.”
No, she would not be able to sleep with that longing within her, like water carrying everything away. Her heart was like a crumbling clod of earth. She sat in the grass, with daisies between her legs. She was only an empty bag of skin; she listened to that bitter water, like fire, singing deep down within her.
She opened her bodice and took out her breasts. They were hard and hot and she had one in either hand…
Just at that moment she saw a pool of blood, thick as a peony, on the white threshold of the door.
Ok, I’m not quite sure why Arsule takes her breasts out when she’s having a rest, but maybe it was a common thing then. The blood is coming from Panturle butchering a fox he had hunted earlier. If you wish to find out more then you will have to read the book. Second Harvest is the third part in a trilogy called the ‘Pan Trilogy’: the first part is Hill of Destiny (Colline) and the second part is Lovers Are Never Losers (Un de Baumugnes). My understanding is that they can be read as stand alone novels as it is the style or theme of the novels that is the connection. I am certainly looking forward to reading the others.