One summer evening at the turn of the millennium, by the edge of a field near Roussillon, an elderly farmer told me that after the devastation of World War I the local villagers replanted their truffle oaks, knowing they would have to wait at least twenty years for a harvest. But after the devastation of World War II, they despaired of planning and planting, and returned to foraging in the forests with their dogs.
Among those drafted into the Alpine infantry in late 1914 was the twenty-year-old bank clerk Jean Giono, son of an artisan cobbler and a laundress in the Haute-Provence village of Manosque. He emerged more than four years later, “soldat de deuxieme classe, sans croix de guerre.” He had suffered the battles of Eparges, Verdun (where he was one of only a handful of survivors from his regiment), Chemin des Dames, and Kemmel. During a brief interlude in England, where he underwent treatment for gas exposure, he rescued a fellow patient—a blinded English officer—when the hospital caught fire. He was awarded a British medal, his only decoration.
Giono’s autobiographical novel of 1932, Jean le Bleu, ends with this memory: “It was easy for me to go to war without much strong emotion, simply because I was young, and over all young men, a wind was blowing the scent of sails and pirates.” The war left him a fervent, lifelong pacifist, and in 1939 his antiwar activism led to a three-month imprisonment at Marseille. In 1945, at fifty, he was again imprisoned—this time accused of collaboration with the Vichy government because his writing had been published and his dramas produced during the Occupation. He was placed on a blacklist of writers. At the end of six months, he was acquitted and the public learned of his successful wartime efforts to shelter a number of victims of Nazi persecution.
In September and October of the following year, Giono wrote A King Alone (Un Roi sans divertissement), the story of a remote Alpine village tormented by a serial killer. The novel marks a departure from the pastoral tales of his early career, which were rooted in his love of Greek and Latin literature, and his 1941 homage to Herman Melville, Melville. A King Alone is the first of those novels Giono called his chroniques—designed not so much as histories, but as layered and unresolved narrations. These were to be “more recounted than written” and A King Alone is assembled from the words of a narrator who is recounting layers of reported speech. This is the technique of legends and of the game we call in English “telephone”: repetitions inevitably resulting in distortions that open to the wishes and fantasies of even the most certain and rational of speakers. Giono had been reading detective novels from the popular Série noire imprint, and in A King Alone he creates a disconcerting atmosphere of both suspense and retrospection. We readers, like the villagers, are listeners, on edge and searching for clues, assembling patterns, anticipating catastrophes that happened many generations ago and yet continue to hold the villagers in thrall.
The novel’s French title and closing words come from one of the most well-known pensées of Blaise Pascal: Un roi sans divertissements est un homme plein de misères. Pascal explains that a lonely king, with neither sensual nor spiritual resources, will succumb to melancholy, just as any ordinary person who grows dissatisfied with his own room, home, or neighborhood will “go to sea or to besiege a town.” Pascal’s pensée continually haunts Giono’s story, in which events that took place in 1843, ’44, ’45, and ’46 are narrated eighty years or so later against the continuing backdrop of the French colonial war in Algeria. Giono subtly notes that the principal figures here—the police captain Langlois and the café owner and retired prostitute nicknamed Saucisse, which is translated here as “Sausage”—are each in their own way veterans of that war: Langlois in combat with the Algerian tribes led by Abd-el-Kader, Sausage through barracks “service” with its soldiers. The two, who while away the hours together in the café discussing “the ways of the world,” are settlers in, not native to, the village, and they remain objects of fascination for their neighbors. Meanwhile, we follow Sausage’s total preoccupation with Langlois, yet we know very little of Langlois’s own thoughts.
As A King Alone begins, the narrator explains his place in the village and his belated detective work: “I say ‘we’; naturally I wasn’t there because all that happened in 1843, but I had to put my heart and soul into the whole thing and ask so many questions to get to the bottom of it that I ended up being part of it … ” The narrator and the village remain unnamed, though they are surrounded at no great distance by real places in Haute-Provence: the towns of Chichilianne, Clelles, Mens, Prébois, Chirouzes, and Diois, and the city of Grenoble, the seat of state authority. Yet places less than a day’s walk away might as well be another country, and the village, in its isolation, is bound by iron ties of mutual dependence and kinship. The narrator introduces us at the start to Frédéric, who took over the village sawmill from his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather (all Frédérics). He goes on to recount the genealogies of the village families and their intermarriages. Everyone is known; everyone accounted for.
The murderer, of course, must be a stranger. His initial is revealed to the reader in the opening pages: he will be known only as “Monsieur V.” throughout. The narrator mentions two of the murderer’s legendary predecessors: the eighteenth-century brigands Cartouche and Mandrin, the latter of whom had in his time been known as both “the terror of the ferme générale [the tax collecting agency of the ancien régime]” and a “king.” He tracks down some of Monsieur V.’s actual descendants. He mentions particularly a young man who is glimpsed reading Gérard de Nerval’s Sylvie in the vicinity of Diois, some thirty kilometers or so distant. If the Algerian allusions and theme of arbitrary violence recall to us the contemporaneity of Albert Camus’s 1942 The Stranger, then Nerval’s novella, published in the midnineteenth century at the time of his suicide, with its serial love affairs and strong contrasts of color, gives another example of A King Alone’s own kinships.
Marie Chazottes disappears. The Ravanel son thwarts a kidnapping attempt. And the Ravanel family’s pig is strangely mutilated by a sharp instrument that has been used to carve corkscrew and serpentine shapes into its hide, the sadistic “alphabet of some unknown, barbaric language.” Next Bergues, a skilled tracker who had tried to follow the fleeing kidnapper, disappears. The remote situation of the village means that no one wants to venture across the winter landscape to report the crimes to the regional gendarmes—“one had to travel three leagues in solitude.” Nevertheless, a posse departs and fetches six policemen, led by their captain: Langlois. The captain organizes the village to protect itself, but the murderous attacks continue. Each crime is known only by a horrific valence between appearance (blood in the snow) and disappearance (the utterly vanished victims). Langlois has the confidence of the townspeople, but it is Frédéric who will discover the corpses and the murderer. In a heart-pounding sequence of pages, he traces him through the “silence and solemnity” of the snow-covered forests and fields to his house in Chichiliane. Soon Langlois and his fellow policemen will surround the house and lead the murderer to his fate.
The novel’s initial mystery is the motivation of the murderer. The narrator, continuing to think of the family lines of the villagers, suggests that the victims carried within their very blood a certain “liveliness and fire,” and that this “blood was very beautiful … Let’s speak like a painter.” He adds a thought about the comparable value of the blood of sets of characters and says,
But then there is another way of looking that includes the first, according to which Abraham and Isaac proceed logically, one following the other, toward Mount Moriah; in which the obsidian knives of the priests of Quetzalcoatl logically drive deep into selected hearts. And it is through beauty that we come to know this. Impossible to live in a world believing that the sublime splendor of the guinea fowl’s plumage is meaningless. Just as an aside. I wanted to say it. I have.
Blood, however, is not an aside. It is everywhere in the novel: in allusions to the bloodlines of the villagers, to Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval mesmerized by three drops of goose blood in the snow, to the gory evidence of the murders, to the very nickname Sausage—a euphemism for boudin (blood sausage), the disparaging slang term for an aged whore. And yet blood also is pulsing everywhere concealed: beneath human skin and clothing, under the pelts of animals and whatever survives beneath the winter snow.
Monsieur V.’s crimes gradually fade in relation to the story of Langlois’s astonishing response to them, an act that, despite its obviously willed nature, he will claim is “an accident.” This unfathomable action will dominate the remainder of the novel. Langlois will return to the village a year later, in 1846, bearing a new title: commander of the Louveterie (the Wolf-Hunting Corps). His commission places him at the highest rank of those officers, dating back to Charlemagne, who were charged with ridding the French forests of wolves. The villagers are amazed that he has decided to settle among them permanently and suspect he has been disgraced. But his friendship with the respected royal prosecutor and his cordial ties to the officials and upper-class families of nearby towns belie that possibility. In the meantime, he will be preoccupied with the welfare of the murderer’s widow, who has retreated to Diois (where her Sylvie-reading descendant was found). And eventually, disastrously, he will enlist Sausage’s help in finding a wife.
The primary diversion of the bored aristocrat is hunting for pleasure, and in A King Alone, Giono has Langlois organize a highly ceremonial wolf hunt. The ritual aspects of hunting—the music of the hunting horns, the choreography of the parties of men, the trained animals—are starkly set against the spectacle of the kill. Sausage and her friend Madame Tim attend, perched in a sled in their party dresses under warm blankets, and the excited hunters illumine the night with their torches. At the base of a sheer cliff, a true dead end, they will witness “a short, silent, secret meeting between the giver and the receiver of sudden death.” The logic of sacrifice that the narrator had described earlier is linked explicitly to the rituals of communion; the gory serpentine and corkscrew decorations on the slain animals are evoked in the embroideries of the chasubles; and, ultimately, the blood on the snow suggests the writer’s marks on the white page. The ever mysterious Langlois, who states that no man is a monster, is himself a person of what seem to be compulsive repetitions. In the novel’s final pages, we find him literally reenacting the gaze of Perceval, transfixed by drops of goose blood in the snow: soon a third ritualized death will bring the story to a shocking, paradoxical conclusion.
As the reader closes A King Alone, many images will remain: the snow as “thick, frozen dust from a world that must haven exploded,” the silent forests, the obdurate mountains. Yet one image will linger in particular: the magisterial beech, standing next to the sawmill, which appears on the first page of the novel. Outliving generation after generation, perhaps a witness to the region’s history of atrocities from the Cathars to modern wars, the tree holds the secret of the serial deaths. Yet it endures beyond them, unharmed. The narrator tells us from the start that the beech is dedicated to Apollo Citharoedus, the lyre-carrying god of order, light, and inspiration. In the end, the great tree invites us to ask ourselves if human beings might share in its powers: “so simple … it knows itself and judges itself.”
Susan Stewart, the Avalon Foundation University Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University, is a poet, critic, and translator. A MacArthur fellow and a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she is the author of six books of poems, including Columbarium, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and, most recently, Cinder: New and Selected Poems. Her many prose works include On Longing, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, The Open Studio: Essays in Art and Aesthetics, and The Poet’s Freedom. Her forthcoming book The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture will be published by the University of Chicago Press this fall.
From the introduction to A King Alone, by Jean Giono, translated by Alyson Waters, published by New York Review Books this week. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Susan Stewart.