Monday, October 3, 2016

October Update

Hello everyone,

As you may have noticed, it’s been a bit quiet around here lately. Some personal circumstances have contributed to this long hiatus and may prolong it for some time to come. I write today to affirm that seraillon will go on. I’ve sorely missed the blog and the wonderful community of literary bloggers (you’ve all been so prolific these past few months that I may never catch up…).

I am still reading and will continue to update the “Books Read” page. In fact, I’ll take this opportunity to give two quick thumbs up to two very different works I’ve just finished, both of them accidental finds completely off my radar when I lucked into them, one at a book sale, the other sent me as a gift.

The first, Scarlet Sails, by early 20th century Russian writer Alexander Grin (or Green in the English translation by Thomas P. Whitney), is apparently adored in Russia by children and adults alike, a fairy tale/fable set in a mythical country given the nickname “Grinlandia” by Grin’s fans. I too adored the book, especially its insistence, despite ample romantic elements, on dismissing superstition and affirming the role of human agency in creating magic, sensitively depicting those who feel compelled to create and to cherish their own imaginations.

The second is Serbo-Croatian writer Aleksander Tišma’s The Use of Man, a thematically sobering novel that still manages to burn with life and resilience in tracing the experience of several citizens of Novi Sad during WWII and the Holocaust. Using an unusual and recursive narrative style, Tišma gives us a series of discrete glimpses of his chief characters such that their stories unveil themselves gradually, almost matter-of-factly, drawing us into their remarkable and sometimes harrowing stories. I can say without hyperbole that I found Tišma’s novel as powerful as anything I’ve read about this period, a classic worthy of occupying the same shelf space as works by Primo Levi, Vassily Grossman, Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank.

As for the group read of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale that I promised in July, I do expect to return to it. I read and greatly admired the book, and would love to get a discussion going about it when the circumstances are more favorable.

Thank you as always for reading, and see you all when the clouds clear a bit.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Arnold Bennett Group Read, a General Update, and a Couple of Quotations

I had promised back in May a group read of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale for July, so since it’s already past the middle of July, I want to give those who are still interested (especially, perhaps, myself) an update - and a bit of breathing room. While I’d expected to be done with the book by now, I am scarcely a third of the way through, and hope that potential participants will not be disappointed if I postpone the group read until Labor Day week (September 5-12), perhaps a fitting time given the book’s concerns with the world of work and economics, and certainly a more propitious time for me given an unexpectedly challenging spate of work and other commitments these last couple of months.

In lieu of a post about literature, I’ll just add to this update a couple of quotations from my recent reading, offered as a promise of more attention to the blog to come soon.

The first is from Nicolas Bouvier’s The Way of the World, an account of an 18-month journey Bouvier made with his artist friend Thierry Vernet in a Fiat from Geneva to the Khyber Pass between 1951 and 1953. I thought it a marvelous travel book (albeit one that rather exudes male privilege, so one might read Bouvier’s Swiss compatriot Isabelle Eberhardt or the works of Freya Stark, who visited western Iran 20 years before Bouvier, to regain a bit of balance). Anyway, here is the 24-year-old Bouvier in the Balkans - the “heart” of Europe, if France is said to be its “brain” - early in his journey, early in his growth:

The invited us into dark kitchens, into little, ugly, comforting sitting-rooms for enormous bellyfuls of aubergines, kebabs, melons which sprayed open under a pocketknife. Nieces and frail old relatives – because at least three generations would be sharing these cramped quarters – would have already, excitedly, set the table. There would be introductions, low bows, phrases of welcome in charming, old-fashioned French, and conversations with these old bourgeois who were passionate about literature, who killed time by re-reading Balzac or Zola, and for whom J’accuse was still the latest literary scandal from Paris. Spa waters, the ‘colonial Exhibition’…when they reached the end of their recollections, there would be silence, and then the friend who painted would go off in search of a book on Vlaminck or Matisse. All the dishes would be cleared from the table, and we would leaf through the book while the family looked on in silence, as though a ceremony they couldn’t participate in was taking place. This gravity touched me. During my years as a student I had earnestly potted ‘culture’, done my intellectual gardening, analyses, glosses, taken cuttings; I had dissected various works of art without grasping their dynamic value. At home the stuff of life was so well cut, distributed, cushioned by habit and institutions that there was no space for invention, it was confined to decorative functions and only thought of as something ‘agreeable’ – that is, immaterial. In Serbia, things were quite different; being deprived of necessities stimulated, within certain limits, an appetite for what was essential. Life was still demanding and greatly in need of form, and artists – by which I mean any peasant who knew how to hold a flute, or daubed their wagons with sumptuously mingled colours – were respected intercessors, or bonesetters.

The second quotation is from Jean Giono’s Que ma joie demeure, which I’m re-reading in the French original, though the passage is copied from Katherine Allen Clarke’s English translation, Joy of Man’s Desiring. The setting is the Plateau de Valensole, in the southern part of Giono’s beloved Alpes de Haute-Provence, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. Bobi and Jourdan, a stranger and the farmer who has welcomed him and asked his help, are returning to the farm on a cold winter’s night after a journey to see a man about a horse. They are a bit lost.

The lights had disappeared. They had been slowly turning away from them. The ground rose gently. The cold solidified the night like cement in the bottom of the mortar box.
            “Look at the signs,” said Bobi.
            Before them, in the distance, golden signs had just blazed forth. They looked like letters. One was a capital L. And after this letter was a sort of apostrophe. They were level with the ground. There was a sign that made a capital E, but the E from time to time became an F. They were really signs and they were indeed of gold. But they could not be read.
            Jourdan tried. He squinted his eyes. He said: “L-apostrope-e-f, l-apostrophe-e-f. What does that mean?” As they drew nearer, the letters changed shape. The one that was an L had almost become an O, a little square, and the apostrophe had melted into it. The other letter became an M laying on its side. “We ought to mark them down on paper,” said Jourdan to himself. To know. Prescriptions are sometimes written out like that in strange letters, and he who does not know them looks at them and does not understand.”
            “L-apostrophe-e-f-o, l-apostrophe-e-f-o-m,” he said to himself, like one of those great, formless words that must have signified the sun, the moon, and the stars in the mouths of the first men.
            “Is it the house,” said Bobi.
            Jourdan pulled in the reins. The horse stopped.
            “What?” asked Jourdan.
            “The signs,” said Bobi; “it is the house. Marthe has lit the fire. She has closed the door and the window shutters, and there in front of us is the light flowing through the joints around the door and the shutters.”
            Jourdan remained silent for a moment.
            “One who knows is worth ten who seek,” he said.

Until next time…

Edith Berger, Les Foins dans le champ, 1948 (collection C. Perous)

Nicolas Bouvier photographed by Thierry Vernet, Turkey, 1953

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Jean Giono’s An Italian Journey - “…an ideal exercise of your ability to enjoy the world”

Since finishing, along with a handful of other bloggers, Jean Giono’s Hill, I have not been ready to let go of this enthralling French writer. And since I’m still centered on Italy and Italian literature, I was delighted to find the perfect intersection of these interests: Giono’s 1953 An Italian Journey  (Voyage en Italie). “Giono,” after all, is not exactly a French name. The writer’s father hailed from a small Piedmontese village, and Giono himself, in some late works, turned to Italy for source and inspiration.

An Italian Journey (the evocation of Goethe’s title is perhaps intentional) traces a 1951 journey by car Giono took with his family through the north of Italy. Though a biography would shed some light on Giono’s other experiences with Italy, the account conveys the feeling of a first visit, at least to the region.

Peculiarly, it also conveys the feeling of a reluctant visit. The initial pages suggest Giono’s hesitation in quitting his beloved Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, and offer a first, noteworthy bit of self-revelation: his intense dislike of the sea. He and his family take an inland route, coming down first into Turin. Milan, Brescia, Peschiera, Verona, Venice, Padua, Ferrera and Bologna follow until the trip’s apparent terminus in Florence – that’s where the writing comes to a halt anyway.

Once Giono gets over his initial anxieties, he settles into a rhythm, packing into his account enchanting and piquant observations on a plethora of subjects. He incorporates amusing anecdotes as well as a few passages borrowed from his voracious reading, which appears to have ranged from the Georgics to Ariosto to Dante, from Homer to Stendhal, from Machiavelli to the serialized Don Camillo stories of Giovannino Guaraschi, and from memoirs of Italian military officers to an “amazing” history of an 1838 revolution in Italy’s north, written by a personal friend who mapped out every village and pathway involved and spent thirty years wandering the region to mine the local archives. There are commentaries on painting (Giotto’s Scrovini Chapel frescoes look to him “like an aquarium”); on aesthetics (an oil refinery in Mestre is appreciated as something Don Quixote “would have included…straightaway in his repertoire of lyrical tropes”); on finding illumination just about anywhere (“…you can find traces of sublimity even in a grocer’s shop”); on history (a people’s history appears to be of chief interest); and on war, and the historical shift in the notion of battle from a means of acquiring property to a Napoleonic pursuit of ideas. Giono appears to have little truck with political parties and theorists: “I don’t like it when some other person comes along and decides to do my work for me. I want to see to it myself.”

Among things Giono does like is food, and this evident gourmand catalogs several miraculous food preparations, from a paste made of fennel leaves macerated in brandy to a Venetian recipe for cuttlefish spaghetti with tomatoes and raw mullet liver. What easily counts as among the most particularly French observations I’ve ever read about cuisine must be quoted in its entirety to be believed, and is written in response to an “atrocious” meal of fried fish at Lake Garda:

Fish always taste of the water they live in. Each river has its own particular qualities. These can scarcely survive a process akin to cooking salsify almost rigid in castor oil. I have known people to reject some freshwater fish because they tasted of sewage. They were quite right to do so when they had been served up something out of a chamber pot seasoned with boiled peanut oil. But even a tincture of sewage is delicious if you wash the fish so thoroughly first that you leave it with only the least trace of pee odor, especially if the juice of the fish is mixed in, and there’s the additional aroma of a slightly fruity olive oil. Eat it in the open air that smells as the fish tastes, alongside the water it came from, and the pleasure will be indescribable. You should try everything. Happiness demands effort.

Giono’s language, after the lyric intensity of Hill, here can be surprisingly witty. We are in Brescia, his first major stop:

When you arrive in any city at night, to be sure, it can easily seem mysterious. This was the same, but in a different way. The street where we looked for somewhere to eat, for instance, stretched out like any normal big street with shops and even a lawyer’s nameplate, but finished up as a dark, narrow byway from which a trolley bus emerged, all but scraping the walls. The bus was decorated with flickering red and green lights, and was quite empty: it was like an ambulating pickle jar.

Here he is in Venice, observing the widespread use of black both in dress and ornament:

That black, however, was very soothing in the Venetian light. I have already said how pure it was because of the absence of any dust. It was also the only color that added something new to the intense clarity. In the long run other colors became tedious because they repeated what the sun had already said, which was quite enough to deal with anyway.

In another instance in Venice, he cannot tear his eyes away from a beautiful woman, who in turn “all but feather-dusted me with her long eyelashes for the space of a generous instant.”

I worried a bit about this Venice chapter, since, like many people, I have my own obsessions about this grand, realized dream, yet Giono’s first sensation in relation to the city is dread. He associates it with Wagner and D’Annunzio and, of course, the pernicious sea; had his family not rebelled, he might well have skipped it altogether. Moreover, he arrives in the worst possible manner: at night, in darkness, into the depressing autopark at Piazzale Roma, and in the company of a dwarf tourist tout who quickly latches onto the group and maligns every place of interest. But the section on Venice proves miraculous. Despite my having read nearly everything I’ve run into about the city, I’ve seldom seen it depicted with such a conjuring of atmosphere or with as much attentiveness to the Venetian modus operandi. His selective details aim at elucidating Venetian character, and through them, one glimpses pockets of the city’s mysteries, such a waiter’s promise to show Giono “vast rooms where the windows were now all closed up and where beds with all four posters infested with beetles and devoured by rot had become as fragile as sand castles,” or tales of young women tucked away “in total seclusion in immense palaces.” The pockets are even literal; Giono notes the vertical pocket sewn into workers’ clothing just by the liver, and where the wearer could insert a small figurine of Saint Anthony of Padua. This 45-page section on the Serene Republic would be worth publication on its own; one only wishes it were longer.

Giono’s observations about Italy and Italians can appear as sweeping generalizations, but they’re so original, effusive and seductively idiosyncratic that one can hardly help but indulge and trust. Quite often they’re buttressed by Giono’s sense of responsibility to provide evidence to support his claims, but at other times one must simply accept on faith. One I particularly liked, the kind of assertion that appears to reveal something vitally important yet omits the instruction manual, is an observation of the people of Turin: “Here it was simply a matter of being happy and of reaching that state by very skilled procedures.”

The book also provides some welcome insight into Giono the person and writer. For instance, he notes having been transfixed by both his father and his Italian grandfather, who together “constructed a vast oral novel,” adding new “picaresque details” every evening. He recognizes how much novels invariably leave out. He muses about writing “a lively narrative” in which fictional characters meet real people and are “embellished” by them. His deep affection for nature, so evident in Hill, comes across in a celebration (no lesser word will do) of the trees planted along roads in Piedmont. In Giono’s appreciation of “resounding empty spaces,” unpeopled streets, the silence he finds in Venice, one might detect a tinge of misanthropy, but this is likely a bit of a put on. “You cannot think of people without thinking of happiness. What else do they strive for?” he writes at one point, and his early mornings and late nights in cafés and restaurants, engaged in observing and learning about those he encounters, reveal someone who wants to know people. Sitting in a café in Brescia, he finds “that capacity for spontaneous, almost totally uninhibited enjoyment, with absolutely no reference to any kind of deity, irresistibly infectious,” and later he counts himself among those who possess a “rare form of courage: people who dared to enjoy things.” Giono takes measurements of this enjoyment everywhere he goes, revealing its distinct regional gradations, and also making his journey an inquiry into human happiness – a pretty nifty subject for an exploration of Italy. The word appears repeatedly in the book, and many of Giono’s meditations probe the myriad manifestations of happiness. One such passage echoes the stark elements of Hill, and that novel’s concerns with violence and the importance of being-in-the-world:

The carrot of ultimate happiness has been held out to us since humanity left the Garden of Eden. It is an advantageous tool for all and sundry, for the mere promise of its eventual reign is enough. There is no difference between the happiness guaranteed by the Church and that which materialists assure us will be ours. It always lies in the future and we have to run after it, killing, killing, killing all the way, running amok in helpless, murderous frenzy like (so they say) the Malays. A tragic fate is reserved for those who want to remain free or who hold on to their own ideas: they are thrown to the Christians.

But more often Giono’s references to happiness come in less abstracted, philosophical forms, rising directly from experience. Recognizing his own contradictions, he finds hope in the gripping sight of a woman and her two daughters supplicating, in deepest devotion, at a church altar.  “If I want to be happy,” he asserts near the end of his journey, “I have to be sure that I am among people whose faces plainly declare that there will be a tomorrow.” This might be the rapturous impression of one merely traveling through – surely faith in the future is not possessed by everyone in Italy, not even in 1951. But An Italian Journey has made me ache to extend, though the north of Italy, those aspirations to travel through Provence that Hill inspired. I should only be so fortunate to have for company a mind as agile, inquiring and generous as Giono’s, and a spirit as attuned to the infinite possibilities of joy. One only need look at the portrait above to place some trust in the declarations that face makes.

Image: "Portrait de Jean Giono" by Jean Dieuzaide, from Autour de Giono, Actes Sud, 2002

Thursday, May 26, 2016

“Suffer a little, and then be sadder but wiser” – Jean Giono’s Hill

In encouraging readers to join a group read of French writer Jean Giono’s first published novel, his 1928 Hill (Colline), I may have been disingenuous in pointing to the novel’s mere 100 pages. There’s a terrible lot jammed into this small package, and while Giono’s story rips along at a compelling pace, what it leaves behind merits no small amount of attention and reflection. The tale of a small village confronting a series of calamities mysteriously connected with the impending death of its half-crazed eldest resident, Hill moves fluidly between granular particulars of place to grand global questions, an unorthodox, powerful exploration of the elemental forces with which people must reckon in trying to survive and of their responsibility towards life in all its myriad manifestations, all carried off with a close attention to language’s ability to construct a world – or to poison one.

For the inhabitants of Les Bastides Blanches, an isolated hamlet (“un débris de hameau” in the original French) in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region of southeastern France, life, though not without hardship, seems to proceed more or less according to routine. “Things were going well…[the hill] had never said or done anything to harm us. It was a good hill. It knew pleasant songs. It hummed like a big wasp. It let us have our way with it.” The agglomeration sits between Lure, a menacing “reef” of a mountain that blocks off the west, and the inhabited plain far below. Giono’s first line provides an almost cinematic establishing shot: “Four houses, orchids flowering up to the eaves, emerge from a dense stand of grain.” From here, the narrative unfurls by adding in details here and there the way a sketch artist might, discrete glimpses that accumulate to deepen the reader’s familiarity with character and place. Giono introduces his characters all in a heap, almost a cast list, a dozen peasant farmers who view outsiders, even the postman, with as much welcome as they do the ill wind that scours the land. There’s Gondran and Marguerite and her father Janet; Aphrodis Arbaud, his wife Babette and their two young girls; Alexandre Jaume and his daughter Ulalie; César Maurras, his mother and a farmhand. Gagou, a simpleton who showed up three years previously, inhabits a makeshift shelter on the edge of the village, and ups the population to unlucky number thirteen. A few characters in this introductory list are supplied mere social labels: “their young welfare worker” “one from Pertuis;” “his father-in-law.” This last is Janet, identified by name in the French original a good three pages later such that he seems someone to overlook, with no hint of the central role he’ll play in the events about to engulf Les Bastides Blanches.

But now there is a perturbation in the village’s way of life. The elder Janet is dying, and as he heads not at all gently into that good night, a disturbing anxiety takes hold of the village, accompanied by alarming events, especially the abrupt drying up of the village spring and, later, a forest fire. Out of an amalgam of practicality and superstition, a reliance on tradition and a grasping in desperation, the villagers seek Janet’s counsel, only to be rebuffed by his misanthropic ravings. This striking, commanding character embodies numerous dualities. He hovers between life and death, an indeterminate being lodged between flesh and wood, as Giono repeatedly tags him with metaphorical language relating to wood and trees: “hard like a laurel trunk;” “like a wooden saint;” “Janet is dead wood.”  He occupies a place of great authority in the village, the repository of folk wisdom such as how to divine water sources, but also exudes a repellent maliciousness. His language alternates between nonsensical rants – about snakes emerging from his fingers, a giant anthropomorphized toad, accounts of his louche sexual histories - and an authoritative certainly about the world that is disconcerting to the others, especially to Jaume, the next most knowledgeable resident, who comes to a conviction that the troubles of Les Bastides Blanches all emanate, as though through a maleficent supernatural force, from Janet.


A close attention to place is one reason Giono has been occasionally (though incredibly) viewed as primarily a regional writer, since he digs deeply into the particulars of the landscape and people of the rugged Provençal backcountry. To recognize this, readers need not know that at 11 or 12 years of age, Giono took off on his own to explore the region, traveling through numerous abandoned villages that left upon him a profound impression. The tenuousness of the human hold on the land is evident in Hill both through the precariousness of Les Bastides Blanches (its very name suggestive of the temporary stone shepherds’ huts that dot southern France) and in the villagers’ search for water taking them to the ruins of a village emptied by a cholera epidemic. Giono also notes the passage of human history on the landscape. The villagers do their washing in a medieval stone sarcophagus unearthed by Aphrodis Arbaud while uprooting an olive tree. At the edge of the village square stand two pillars, all that remains of a long-disappeared villa once used by persons of leisure from Aix. Not far away are the ruins of a Roman aqueduct. Les Bastides Blanches itself “had once been a market town.”

Hill is rich in descriptions of and references to the geology, flora and fauna of the region, as well as its human imprint. Details root the story in place, such as an absinthe made from artemesia, homemade marc and Pastis, or a lunch Gondran takes along to his olive grove, which consists of as rustic a French meal as one could ever hope to encounter: “a really fresh, firm cheese in its crust of herbs, six cloves of garlic, a vial of oil stopped with a scrap of paper, salt and pepper in an old pill box, a slice of him, a hefty loaf of bread, wine, a roasted thigh of rabbit rolled up in a vine leaf, and a little pot of jam. All this pell-mell in a leather bag.” One of the more arresting “ethnographic” details in the novel, both raw and tender in its relation of the peasants’ fundamental needs, is Jaume’s suggestion to his daughter, deprived of the sexual outlet that provided her only source of joy, that they could take on a young farmhand since “They’re already full-grown men, and you can get them to do whatever you like, you know?”

To recognize in Hill elemental natural powers at work, framed by the primal conflicts and drama one might find in a Greek tragedy, readers also need not know that Giono’s novel is the first in a trilogy centered around the pagan figure of Pan, nor that as an adolescent the writer steeped himself in Sophocles, Homer, Virgil, Aristophanes and other classical writers (editions of their works cost less than the contemporary novels he’d wanted to read). Such influences seem to have left a dense residue in Giono’s own writing without his having to bludgeon readers with explicit allusions and references. And with his limited number of characters, cleanly exposed conflicts and a plot that unfolds like the acts of a play, Giono seems to evoke the Greek stage. For the most part, these action takes place in and around a “small square of bare ground” enclosed by the houses of Les Bastides Blanches. Even some of the interior action is glimpsed from outside, through a window, as though we are looking at a stage set.

The language in Hill is immediately striking, even in a visual sense. The book’s pages consist of brief sentences, many of which stand alone as paragraphs, such that the text resembles something between verse and prose (one such paragraph consists of the remarkably communicative and encompassing single word, “Siesta”). Giono weaves into these brief sentences a vivid lyricism, filled with alliteration and rhyme, seeming at times to imitate psalmody, as though to echo Biblical narrative. Yet the world of Hill is largely a pagan one, and Giono almost completely avoids recourse to the Christian imagery that pervades, for example, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, a contemporary who also sensitively depicted rural people in collision with disaster. Probably the most resonant Christian image in Hill is a scene, more profane than sacred, in which Janet’s head lolls lifelessly on Jaume’s shoulder as in a lugubrious painting of Christ’s descent from the cross (certainly an abrupt contrast to the spellbindingly mystical and sacrificial scene surrounding one other human death featured in the novel that stresses finality and the absence of redemption).

Frequently Giono anthropomorphizes natural objects and animals, or allows a bleeding between the natural and human, the animate and inanimate. Nearly everything is invested with life, as though the entire landscape, human and natural, is made of the same organic, living stuff. The houses resemble the people, with vines like moustaches. The stream runs by “with a furtive step…its little white feet on tip-toe.” The terrain is filled with “unnamed passes where there are rocks that have the faces of half-formed men.” Giono’s use of this anthropomorphizing, synthesizing, metaphorical language reaches its apotheosis in his riveting description - occupying nearly a fifth of the novel - of the apocalyptic forest fire that threatens the village. The fire is alive.

Often Giono’s descriptions breathtakingly evoke the natural world and the small place humans occupy on it, as in this layering of impressions that calls to mind the swatch-like composition of a Cezanne landscape:

The sky is blue from horizon to horizon. The silhouette of the grasses is distinct, and you can make out every shade of green in the patchwork of fields. Here the wind has dropped an olive leaf on a spray of borage; there the lamb’s lettuce stands out lighter than the chicory; and there in here in this corner, where somebody must have shaken out some bags of fertilizer, really dense grasses, almost black, are shooting up like thick hairs on a mole. And you could count the needles at the tops of the pines.


I’ll also say something about Giono’s French, while acknowledging that the translation by Paul Eprile, which I also read, seems nearly miraculous given the particularities of Giono’s language. In addition to managing a highly lyrical descriptive prose despite the economy of his sentences, Giono also employs a distinctive, exquisite French infused with archaic or underused vocabulary; injects into his narrative words from Provençal (i.e. “topette” for a pitcher holding olive oil or “vièdaze” as a term of insult); and even “Frankensteins” French words with those from local dialect to create neologisms.


This fluidity between the natural and human reveals itself perhaps most starkly in Giono’s careful development of a theme of man’s capacity for destruction and failure to recognize his integral place in a natural order. Excepting the ominous wind that blows for days, the first material manifestation of the disturbance in the this order occurs when Gondran, having gone to work his olive trees, feels riven by a sense of anxiety and fear, and impulsively kills a lizard with his hoe. Seeing the hacked and mangled creature mixed in with the dirt - among the most vividly realistic and grotesque descriptions in the novel - Gondran has a sudden epiphany that shakes him to his core:

Blood, nerves, suffering.
He’s caused flesh and blood to suffer, flesh just like his own.
So all around him, on this earth, does every action have to lead to suffering?
Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals?
Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder?
It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill.
And when he scythes, he slays.
So that’s the way it is – is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic, runaway barrel, leveling everything in his path?
So it is really all alive?
Janet has figured this all out ahead of him.
Everything: animals, plants, and who knows, maybe even the stones, too.
So, he can’t even lift a finger anymore, without unleashing streams of pain?

…The idea rises in him like a storm.

The whole passage seems weighted with an acute consciousness of the capacity of human beings to destroy, of cataclysmic forces that can be easily awakened, of the exceptional vulnerability and fragility of the world. One can hardly read of this “gigantic, runaway barrel, leveling everything” without considering another biographical detail: the author’s World War I experiences, which left him as one of 11 members of his brigade to survive the terrible battle of Verdun, and two years later, back in the trenches, with an injury from mustard gas. The war isn’t directly referenced in Hill, set almost timelessly in a vaguely late 19th century period, but the forcefulness of Giono’s response to destruction, the sheer scale of the powers that Gondran and the others see before them at last, suggests a writer himself shocked to the marrow by what he has experienced and layering into his narrative a sublimate of his reaction to the war (though it’s perilous to make such causal links, this one seems borne out by Giono’s life-long adoption of pacifism, which would embroil him in accusations of collaboration when the next runaway World War leveled everything in its path).


Who writes about such things? An earth, alive down to its roots and rocks; a hill, as menacing and capable of blind malice as a monster in a horror flick; a wild, pagan and animistic universe, full - even within one’s own self - of the potential for violence and destruction?  Of the repository of traditional wisdom – embodied here in Janet – having come unglued, and even flat out refusing to be of any help? Certainly those more well-versed in French literature could set Giono in a firmer literary context, but on this, my fourth outing with him, he seems an especially forceful and utterly singular writer.

Adding an additional, enriching layer to Hill’s attention to vast mysterious energies that can wrench the world out of its course is the author’s thematic connection of this potential to language itself. Jaume pinpoints the beginning of the troubles of Les Bastides Blanches as the moment when Gondran reports that Janet is “raving.” The odd French verb Giono uses here displays his characteristic precision and uncommonness: déparler – literally, to “un-speak,” its multiple meanings including to speak nastily, to speak gibberish, to stop speaking. The generative and destructive capacity of language is expressed more explicitly when Jaume continues, in reference to Janet:

And then it was that he started to talk, as if he himself has been the source of the mystery. It all took shape – a whole world being born out of his words. He conjured up countries, hills, rivers, trees, wild animals. It was like his words were marching ahead, stirring up all the dust of the world. Everything was dancing and spinning like a wheel. It totally dazed me. In a glance, I saw, as plain as day, how all earths and heavens are one. Including this earth where we exist  - but transformed, totally varnished, totally oiled, totally slippery with malice and evil…the words he sowed go on multiplying like weeds.

Hill thus comes across not just as a lyrical and powerful small novel, but as a deliberate and self-evident affirmation that language matters, that in it one has the ability to construct or decimate a world.

Before leaving off this interminably growing post, I’ll briefly note two other aspects of the novel. The first - since a question about narration prompted this group read proposal in the first place - concerns the novel’s narrator. Hill’s omniscient narrator remains for the most part outside of the action, yet in one instance one finds the pronoun “we” and in another “I.” Giono provides us few if any clues as to who may be telling the story, but with this subtle injection of first person pronouns he brings the reader directly into the tiny community of Les Bastides Blanches, invests him or her in its survival, “bound together” with its inhabitants “right to the bitter end…” The other aspect is covered by David Abrams’ introduction to the New York Review Books edition, which stands out for framing Giono’s novel in the context of contemporary environmental and ecological concerns and for what may prove the author’s increasing relevance. We have hundreds of 20th century writers who’ve testified to the horrors of war, but it’s difficult to think of another who has tried to dig so deeply to find the kernel of our violence and destruction, or who conveys so vividly and globally what stands to be lost by it: our only world, this one right under our feet, which “swarms with wild things.”  “From now on,” says Jaume towards the novel’s end, “it’s going to be necessary to live in a lit-up world, and it’s painful.”  We can nonetheless be grateful to Giono - a writer I certainly anticipate reading again - for helping to light it up.

I read Colline and Hill thanks to the group read proposed by Dorian of the Eiger, Monch  and Jungfrau blog. Other commentaries may be found here: