As part of Project 24, I’ve been browsing through bookshops and then high-tailing it to the library. This won’t help Waterstones stay afloat, but it’ll stop be exceeding my book allowance… Anyway, today I was looking at the table of Books in Translation and was rather intrigued by The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. Oxford Central Library didn’t have it, but the Bodleian did, so I read it today… (and incidentally, although Giono was French, as far as I can tell the story was originally published in English.)
It’s more or less a short story – the copy I read had 50 pages, but the font was large and their are lots of woodcuts by Michael McCurdy. In fact, it’s these woodcuts which make the book really special – the edition I saw in Waterstones had a different illustrator, who was quite good, but make sure you find the edition with McCurdy’s work if you’re tracking down a copy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – The Man Who Planted Trees was originally written when Giono was asked to contribute to the Reader’s Digest on ‘a memorable person’, or something like that. His contribution was, however, rejected – when they found out what he had never tried to conceal: that it was fictional. And instead it was published in Vogue in 1953. Don’t stop reading there – Virginia Woolf contributed to Vogue back in the day, so it can be a credible publication.
The Man Who Planted Trees tells of a narrator who hikes to a place of ‘unparalleled desolation’ – a village where the few inhabitants quietly loathe one another, and where nature has more or less given up. But he encounters Elzèard Bouffier, a shepherd who rarely speaks, but is kind and offers him somewhere to stay.
The shepherd went to fetch a small sack and poured out a heap of acorns on the table. He began to inspect them, one by one, with great concentration, separating the good from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I did offer to help him. He told me that it was his job. And, in fact, seeing the care he devoted to the task, I did not insist. That was the whole of our conversation. When he had set aside a large enough pile of acorns, he counted them out by tens, meanwhile eliminating the small ones or those which were slightly cracked, for now he examined them more closely. When he had thus selected one hundred perfect acorns he stopped and we went to bed.
Elzéard, as the title to the book suggests, is planting trees. Thousands and thousands of them. At this stage, he estimates that of the hundred thousand acorns he has planted, ten thousand will grow successfully. And he carries on and carries on, with many varieties of tree – quietly transforming the area.
The narrator fights in World War One (off the page) and returns to find Elzéard’s life unaffected by such matters – the trees abound, and the countryside is being changed in more ways than one. Streams which had been dry flow once more; people move to the village and it becomes vibrant again. The narrator leaves and returns a couple of times, and is astonished by what the unassuming shepherd has achieved.
The Man Who Planted Trees is a beautiful book, both visually and in every other way. McCurdy’s woodcuts have such energy and really enhance Giono’s simple and elegant story. It is described as an allegory – I’m not entirely sure what the allegory is, other than of creation, but that doesn’t diminish it being a delicately-told and affecting story. Giono doesn’t pluck at the heartstrings or delve into the characters’ psychology – instead he lays before us the simplicity of their acts, and allows the reader to engage and respond. And he has entirely succeeded in creating his original brief: a memorable character.
Books to get Stuck into:
The Runaway – Elizabeth Anna Hart : this is a similarly enchanting story, with beautiful woodcuts by Gwen Raverat. One of my favourite Persephones, it is more whimsical than Giono’s story, but equally engaging.