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:





18 comments:

  1. It sounds incredibly rich and thought-provoking for such a slim novel. Quite remarkable. I couldn't help but be reminded of another one of your posts as I was reading this - your piece on When the Mountain Fell. (And I see you've mentioned Ramuz on your commentary, highlighting a contrast between his use of Christian imagery and Giono's approach.) The Giono seems to be a little difficult to get track down in the UK, but I'll keep an eye out for it.

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    1. Thanks, Jacqui - I thought this was a terrific little novel, one with a lot to chew on and one expect will stick with me for a long time. It's hard to think of other writers like Giono, though Ramuz did come to mind. But he doesn't have the depth and power of vision that Giono has, even though both seem to write presciently about the environment. Sorry that this isn't easy to find in the UK!

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  2. I did not read your post carefully as I have not yet finished the novel. I will be back to comment more articulately, but I have little hope that my post will be as insightful as yours. Nevertheless, a discussion awaits us.

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    1. I'm enjoying the discussion quite a lot and look forward to your joining in, Bellezza!

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  3. Thanks for your detailed review. Interesting to hear of the influence of the classics - I would never have thought of that but it made sense when I read it. Also pleased to hear that you rate the translation as I thought it read beautifully - as you say, that strange combination of lyrical and economical. I'm so glad I joined in!

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    1. I'm glad you joined in too, Grant - I've gotten a lot out of your post and Dorian's, and hope to see others. Initially I felt completely deflated with the translation after leaving off of Giono's French, but I recovered almost immediately and think, as I noted above, that it's a tremendous thing that Eprile managed to pull off. But the French is unbelievably exquisite. About every page I'd read some line aloud and just marvel at the language and then root around in Larousse to figure out the meaning of some word - and Larousse doesn't even have all of them.

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  4. Great commentary as always Scott.

    It is so interesting how some writers can squeeze so much into a small number of pages while others spread out just a few ideas over many.

    I love the emphasis on the power of language that this book seems to contain.

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    1. I was really impressed by both Giono's thematic treatment of language and by his dexterity with it. He seems often to choose words that themselves have references to language. For example, in one scene, to describe a character beating a fire with a poker, he uses an archaic verb, "fouailler," which means "to lash or whip" - but it also has a secondary meaning, which is "to hurl invective or insults."

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  5. It's interesting that the hill is initially described as non-menacing, as you quoted in the beginning of your post, but then later becomes an object to be reckoned with. What, I wonder, caused the inhabitants' change in perception? Perhaps they felt that it had never done or said (love the personification) anything to harm them before they saw the harm that came with Janet's paralyzation...the drying of the spring...the fire. Yet what, or who, was to blame? The more I think about that, the more I'm unable to answer the question. They wanted to blame the mountain, then Janet, but they never blamed the "landlord", or looked to themselves, or even considered that it was all just a natural occurrence of events.

    Another thing that interested me, which I never wrote about, was the name of Mount Lure. Surely it's just a name, but it's an interesting one. There's lure as in to tempt someone to do something, but there's also the fact that it comes from the Old French word "luere", probably related to the German word "Luder" which means bait. I'm wondering if that mountain, those meanings for its name, have anything to do with what Giono was saying about the hill or nature. Aren't we tempted to tame it? Yet isn't it beyond our grasp?

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    1. I hadn't thought about this etymological angle before, Bellezza. Makes sense, and leads back to your other question: who or what is to blame? And can we think about experience without assigning blame, or causation?

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    2. This notion of ascribing blame is so interesting, especially in light of the villagers' proposal to kill Janet. As you and Dorian have noted, there seems to be a questioning of just how people should deal with events beyond their control, how we - as Dorian puts it - can simply confront experience and make sense of it. One of Janet's chief criticisms of those around him is that they don't understand anything, that they have no perspective on what it takes, for example, to make a tree. And in the great epiphany of Gondran, his realization that everything is alive, this "lit-up world" he can now see - he recognizes that Janet is already aware.

      I love your comment on Giono's language and your puzzling out "Lure." I have no doubt that, though the mountain's name preceded him, Giono was attentive to the possibilities of suggestion in the word. The more I rummage around in Hill, the more I'm convinced that Giono is extraordinarily attentive to his word choices and to their multiple resonances.

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    3. It seems in the novel that the ability to ascribe blame depends upon occupying a position of power. The human element appears to have the upper hand when it rejects the notion of a moving, live force beneath its feat but loses that ground when nature asserts herself as we see ourselves as people fret over more current concerns like global warming. They can lay blame on Janet and threaten his life as he is dying and unable to physically combat them. His assumed spiritual ties to the natural elements is his real source of power but it cannot exist without his own human life force.

      Such an incredibly interesting and rich read! I am definitely re-reading when time permits, and have plans to read Song of the World and Joy of Man's Desiring as Abram recommends.

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    4. I love your comment about power, Frances. I'm curious, though, about the malice that the villagers ascribe to Janet and to his refusal to help (or maybe it's just a refusal to provide easy answers), and I'm especially intrigued by the connection of this real or perceived malice with language. The villagers, at least Jaume, seem frightened by the ability of language to construct the world for them, and I even wondered, at a stretch, and given both Giono's Italian roots and his war experiences, whether there might be in this theme some subtle warning about the power of demagoguery of the sort Mussolini had begun to wage in the years just preceding Giono's writing of Hill. Such high-flung speculation aside, it's a good question: just how malicious is Janet, and how much of that is just the villagers' scapegoating? What I loved in this novel is Giono's own refusal to provide easy answers. Janet's crazy anger seems both cruel and justifiable.

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  6. Scott, I missed this read-along and would have joined had I enough time for a shortish yet rich book based on what you outlined here, rich in theme and lyrical prose. The environmental ideas were inviting. Add a touch of the apocalyptic and I'm sold. I've taken note of Giono (and Ramuz) as a writer of deep ecological and cultural sensitivity, one well worth exploring.

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    1. Thanks, Rise - I wish you had been able to join (it's really not too late!), especially as I think Giono's attention to earth and environment would appeal to you (he even set up a sort of commune dedicated to pacifism and ecological awareness). Definitely a writer worth exploring; I plan to keep doing so.

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  7. Scott, I've finally had the time to sit down properly with this remarkable little essay on Hill. I read it before, of course, but I was going quickly-and what you say here really bears re-reading. Every paragraph is filled with lovely insights. As is my wont, the ones based on close reading strike me the most. I hadn't noticed the descriptions of Janet likening him to wood. Do you think we are then to connect Janet with the forest fire, via those descriptions? In a way, he is burning up, just as he forest does. And both conflagrations almost destroy the village. Since I only read the translation, I wasn't in the position to pick up on that terrific singling out of "deparler" as a key word here, and I totally agree with the conclusion you draw from it: that language gives us both the ability to control and destroy the world. I was so struck by Giono's simultaneous recognition of, on the one hand, the generative power of language & culture & human life more generally, and on the other of the complicity (maybe inescapable) of that culture in the despoliation of the earth.
    Last thing I'll say about your piece is that I really enjoyed how seemlessly you wove biography and literary criticism together. Maybe you should ditch everything and write the Giono biography the world clearly needs.
    I think this read-along worked out pretty nicely. Thanks for running it with me.

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    1. Dorian, thanks so much for the kind comments, and above all for proposing this group read. I have to say that I found Hill electrifying and invigorating after a period of reading many good books that nonetheless failed to generate much excitement for me. Obviously I'm still riding the Giono wave, and am well into a re-read of Que ma joie demeure already.

      I hadn't connected Janet's "wooden" qualities to the fire, but you do it so nicely above. He's at least twice compared to a "wooden saint," but I appreciate Giono keeping his "sainthood" so ambivalent.

      Ha, no, I'm not the person to write a Giono biography, but it was certainly convenient to have a few good biographical details in the French edition! I haven't yet looked for a bio, but am sure there's something out there, in French at least. Thanks again!

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  8. http://nyrbclassics.tumblr.com/post/149092766367/jean-giono-read-along

    Scott, above please find the link to our thoughts on Hill. Thanks for leading us on this read-along!

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