Do the names Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas or Gustave Flaubert sound familiar? All four of these French novelists have earned their place in the pantheon of literary greats and their books continue to inspire legions of readers nearly two centuries after they were written.
What about Marcel Pagnol? Doesn’t ring a bell? Pagnol has not yet achieved international literary stardom like Hugo, Verne, Dumas or Flaubert but I wouldn’t be surprised if you hear more of this 20th century French écrivain (writer), cinéaste (filmmaker) and dramaturge (dramatist) in the decades to come.
Né à Aubagne le 28 Février, 1895 (Born in Aubagne on February 28, 1895), Marcel Pagnol grew up with a passion for writing and books. In his own words: “Je suis né dans la ville d’Aubagne, sous le Garlaban couronné de chèvres, au temps des derniers chevriers” (I was born in the city of Aubagne, beneath the Garlaban crowned with goats, in the time of the last goatherds). The Garlaban is a rocky hill in Provence, a geographical region of southern France.
Pagnol began his career writing plays, many of which have been adapted to the silver screen. He then began producing his own films and only later decided to begin writing novels. His love for Provence and his vivid descriptions of le pays de son enfance (the country of his childhood) in his books make you feel as if you can hear les cigales (the cicadas) and smell la lavande (the lavender). When you visit Provence you will experience for yourself what Pagnol is describing and will surely appreciate his writing even more.
The joys of summer holidays spent with his family in the south of France beginning in 1904 became the subject of Pagnol’s later romans autobiographiques (autobiographical novels), namely La Gloire de mon Père (My Father’s Glory) and Le Château de ma Mère (My Mother’s Castle). These two stories were later made into movies and released in the early 1990s. Pagnol recounts his youth in two more books entitled Le Temps des Secrets (The Time of Secrets) and Le Temps des Amours (The Time of Love). Both have gone on to become best sellers.
Pagnol wrote a number of other novels, two of which were released to international acclaim and were later made into movies starring Gérard Depardieu and Yves Montand. Although not autobiographical, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources are infused with some of the painful experiences of his youth, like la mort de sa mère (the death of his mother) Augustine in 1936 when he was just fifteen and the loss of his best friend Lili des Bellons in World War I.
Pagnol died in Paris on April 18, 1974 at the age of seventy-nine. His legacy as a writer, playwright and filmmaker lives on in his books, plays and movies. I would encourage you to read the books and watch the movies in French rather than in English. Pagnol’s mastery of the French language and the beauty of his narratives are worth the effort.