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 ham, 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, the 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:
Dorian, Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau blog
Bellezza, Dolce Bellezza
Teresa, Shelf Love
Melissa, The Bookbinder's Daughter
Frances, Nonesuch Book
Bellezza, Dolce Bellezza
Teresa, Shelf Love
Melissa, The Bookbinder's Daughter
Frances, Nonesuch Book