I rarely make New Year’s Resolutions. This year I did – along with ‘eat less cake’ and ‘feed the pots in the garden regularly’ was ‘write a post for the website every two weeks’. Two weeks seems to have become three and a half months. The less said about cake consumption the better. At least I still have the chance to keep the pots in tip-top condition.
My excuse is that I have been writing a catalogue for Hatchards Bookshop. Our Favourite Novellas of the Past Two Hundred Years was published this week and it, together with Berries: Growing and Cooking (published in May), seems to have taken up all my time.
Interestingly, in Britain there is no exact definition of a novella; the Oxford English Dictionary description is splendidly vague specifying ‘a long short story or a short novel’. The word comes from the Italian ‘novella’ meaning new. In Germany it is a different matter; the story can be any length but must centre round a particular event. Stefan Zweig’s A Chess Story is an example, one of the few included in the final selection. Our criteria were that it should be able to be slipped into a pocket and devoured at a single sitting: on a train, relaxing in a deckchair in the sun or curled up by a roaring fire.
While I didn’t have total control over the choice of titles, the Hatchards catalogue could equally be called Shortish Books which Jane Mostly Really Likes. Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day was included – not strictly a novella but one of my best-loved books and certainly a quick read. The Blotting Book by E. F. Benson (the author of the Mapp and Lucia stories turns his hand to crime) and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (not really a story at all but rather a series of descriptions of cities Marco Polo has supposedly visited, each more fantastical than the last) were also included, which slightly stretched the limits but are short books I wouldn’t want to be without.
As well as rereading some of my favourites I made some wonderful discoveries. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather is a genuine novella and tells the story of an unusual Victorian heroine making her life in the harsh Nebraskan Plains of the American West. It is wonderful and I fully intend (soon) to read the other two titles in the trilogy: The Song of the Lark and My Antonia.
However the book which stands head and shoulders above all the others in the catalogue is The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. Written in 1954, it tells the story of Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who reforests the high plateau of Provence where he lives. He gradually transforms the harsh and barren landscape by planting seeds and saplings as he follows his flock. Undisturbed by the horrors of two World Wars the trees continue to grow, creating a ‘natural’ forest which baffles the authorities. With the trees comes life; springs begin to flow again.
‘As the water reappeared, so there reappeared willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers and a certain purpose in being alive. But the transformation took place so gradually that it became part of the pattern without causing any astonishment.’
For many years I thought this was a true story and it was originally written in response to a request by an American editor for a piece on an unforgettable character. The publishers had wanted an actual person but Jean Giono had chosen to write about a character that would be unforgettable. The story was rejected and published not long after by Vogue. It should be a true story. Many people are wary of planting trees because ‘they take so long to grow’. Few would think of trying to alter an entire region by planting seeds and saplings. This book shows what is possible. It was written to make people ‘love planting trees’ and Jean Giono says ‘It is one of my stories of which I am the proudest’.
I went to RHS Wisley intending to take some photos of trees to accompany this piece. There was lots of beautiful fluffy pink and white blossom, delicate pale green new leaves and dark, solid evergreens but it was all extraordinarily hard to photograph. I now have a new respect for the photographers of tree books. The blossom stood out clearly for me but the camera included a lot of background plants that my eyes had blocked out. The sky couldn’t make up its mind whether to be blue or grey and did not failed to create a suitable backdrop. Here, instead is a host of goldenish daffodils.
The Man Who Planted Trees is published in paperback by Peter Owen, with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, a loose print of one of his engravings and an afterword by Norma L. Goodrich or in hardback by Harvill Secker, with wood engravings by Harry Brockway, a foreword by Richard Mabey and an afterword by Aline Giono. I have both editions and each has its own merits; either way it is the text itself which really matters.
Do read this book. If you buy it, please do so from your local bookshop, or indeed any bookshop. If people don’t use them, bookshops, like so many other things on this planet, will become extinct and, too late, we shall be sorry.