Before becoming a well-known novelist, Jean Giono worked for seventeen years at the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris. His career at CNEP illustrates the opportunities for internal promotion at the bank at that time and it also had some influence on his literary work.
In 1911, Jean Giono, then sixteen, joined the Manosque branch of the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris as a lowly ‘gofer’. In his book Virgile, he recalls: “Every day there passed in front of my eyes a procession of people whom I secretly called ‘The Five Zeros’. These were the people whose names were inscribed in our Great Ledgers, on the headers of six-figure loan agreements (i.e. with five zeros). As soon as we saw their hats appear over the frosted glass of the door, we had to grab hold of the handles of their walking sticks and help them into the office. We had to take their umbrellas, push forward the armchair, bring them their Cote Desfossés newspaper, cutting-out scissors, writing paper, their tables of figures, and everything else they might need. And they had no qualms about calling out for these items in loud, clear voices either! […] Then they used to wade through those endless columns of figures with meticulous attention. I used to wait discreetly by their side, in my blue, many-buttoned uniform, ready to meet their every need, as that was the job for which I was paid thirty francs a month out of the till.”
The ‘immobile traveller’
In 1913, Giono was promoted to officer in charge of the ledger entries in the discounting department. It was here that his love of writing was born, stemming from the repetitive work: “I had to draw up the statements, with complicated thirty-five figure sums showing the discount premiums. It was unforgiving arithmetic. The disbursement locations which I had to write out in the second column added some geographical interest to the job, but in spite of that I found it impossible to really get involved in my work. It was only in fits and starts that – writing a Saint-Etienne-les-Orgues here, a Noyers-sur-Jabron, Orpierre or Nyons there – I suddenly saw, as if illuminated by a flash of lightning, the green slope of a hill, wind on the plateau, or night falling on the chestnut orchards.”
An excellent career at the Comptoir
Giono was called up to serve in the First World War, which made a profound impression on him and was the inspiration for his novel Le grand troupeau (published in English under the title ‘To the Slaughterhouse’). After the war, Giono returned to CNEP, working at the securities depository department in Marseilles. In 1920, he went back to the Manosque branch, joining the securities department, where he took charge of ‘securities processing’. He then began to climb the ladder, becoming Head of the Cashier service, authorised signatory, then Deputy Manager of the branch. Going round the sub-branches in the little villages gave him an exceptional opportunity to observe the countryside and people of Provence.
From ‘doing the books’ to writing books
In 1928, the bank decided to close the Manosque branch. Jean Giono turned down a move to Antibes, as he did not wish to leave his home base. He resigned and joined the Crédit du Sud-Est bank. Looking back in 1958, Giono recalled: “When I wrote Colline, I had been working in banking for seventeen years and had no intention whatsoever of leaving the job. Many times people have said to me ‘You must have been so unhappy!’ No, I was happy, I liked the work.” However, when Crédit du Sud-Est went bankrupt in December 1929, Giono decided to finally stop ‘doing the books’ and devote himself to writing books.