"Derborence, by C. F. Ramuz" - photograph by Pierre Sottas, used by permission.
More of M. Sottas' photos may be viewed here.
At a book sale last week I picked up a novel on impulse, having never heard of its author, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and drawn by its curious title, When the Mountain Fell. Given that title, a blurb on the jacket from French dramatist Paul Claudel calling the book “one of the summits of French prose” both piqued my interest and caused one of my irony receptors to flash for an irreverent moment. Having now read When the Mountain Fell, and putting aside its being in translation rather than in its original 1935 French incarnation, Derborence, I’m inclined to trust that Claudel’s statement is no exaggeration. At home late that night, I opened the book expecting to have a quick look; two hours later I emerged from this exquisite novel as though from a trance. Ramuz’s captivating narrative style is completely compelling; his descriptions of the Swiss Alps in which his story unfolds are ravishing; his grasp of the ways people grapple with disaster displays a profound sensitivity and understanding; the ending of the novel still rings in my mind days later with a precise, poignant, crystalline beauty.
As a title, When the Mountain Fell, even if it’s not Ramuz’s own, sums up the novel succinctly. This is a simple story of catastrophe and human response to it, based on an actual event, a colossal landslide in the early 18th century in Derborence, in the French-speaking corner of Switzerland near the source of the Rhône, which brought half of a mountain down onto the scattered seasonal cabins of herders who had taken their livestock up to a mountain meadow to graze. The resulting rock field dammed a stream and created a lake, spread debris for a distance of five and half kilometers, and buried the area in rock to a depth estimated at 100 meters.
Ramuz focuses on the human element of this catastrophe, the actions and reactions of the valley’s citizens across a wide psychological spectrum, from resigned acceptance to abject grief to madness, relating the landslide’s impact on individual lives as well as on the community of the valley and beyond. His characters, simple country people, employ a laconic, pared-down language that captures the essentiality of rural life, as in the relationship between Antoine and Therese, the young newlyweds at the novel’s center:
He said, “hello”; she said, “hello.” He said “Well now…,” she said,” You see, it’s like this.” They had to meet far from the village, because there were always busybodies around.
This economy of language that leaves a world of things unsaid remains unchanged even in the face of disaster, as when men from neighboring villages and even from the German-speaking side of the range converge on the site of the collapsed mountain:
They came. They said nothing at first. They came and said nothing. They looked at the people from Zamperon who said nothing either. Then they nodded their heads slowly.
And they said, “Well?”
The people from Zamperon said, “Yes,” and nodded their heads.
But the ostensible simplicity of When the Mountain Fell masks far more complexity than appears on its surface. Ramuz’s sentences are short. His paragraphs are short. What he does within such constraints can be quietly dazzling. Frequently, perspective shifts subtly between observer and observed, as when Therese, while a storm rages outside, sits dazed within her home, grappling with a ghostly vision she’s had of her husband, a scene we see from her eyes and, a split second later, as though eyes have turned to look at her:
The lightening flashed again. Suddenly there was a window opposite her in the kitchen wall, then it was no longer there.
A blinding white square, it sprang into being, vanished, flashed out again, and with it Therese too was first brilliantly lighted, then swallowed up in darkness , then lighted up again.
Ramuz’s sentences perform similar acrobatics in delicately flipping perspective between interior thought and exterior phenomena, or in juxtaposing elements that suggest, in the wake of the calamity, consciousnesses struggling between extremes of belief and disbelief, between profound anguish and the irreverent indifference of particular material things latched onto in the mind’s desperate grasp for solidity and succor. At times Ramuz replays, “Rashoman” style, an entire scene as viewed first from one character’s perspective then from another’s, even aligning this along a back and forth tension between the buried meadow up the mountain and the women, children and elderly men left in the village below. Perspective looks up the mountain then back down, as though strung along an invisible cord binding the village to the disaster which has taken so many of the town’s most vital men, as though to emphasize the empathic ways in which the living ache for the dead, longing to identify, whether out of grief or hope, or out of both, with those they love, with those they have lost.
The tremendous sense of loss is amplified and thrown into sharp relief through Ramuz’s contrasting, rapturous descriptions of the natural world. Beyond and above the sharp, cruel rocks, everything seems divinely luminous and alive:
It was as if they were standing at the bottom of a well, except that the steep walls were fissured from top to bottom by narrow gorges, each with is tiny waterfall hanging in a wavering white line. Their gaze swept evenly around the rim, then halted where Serpahin’s forefinger still pointed at the sky.
It was up there right on the edge of the parapet at its highest point. Just there the rock jutted out into space, and towering along its whole width was the rim of the glacier. Something up there was shining softly: a luminous fringe, faintly transparent, with gleams of blue and green and a sheen like phosphorescence – it was the broken edge of the ice, and in that enchanted hour of the night it too was filled with infinite silence and infinite peace. Nothing stirred anywhere under the impalpable white down of moonlight which seemed to drift effortlessly on the night air and settle in thin sheets on every smooth surface.
When the Mountain Fell contains a few elements of what in less adept hands I’d be tempted to call “Christian kitsch” – Bible beams breaking through clefts in cliffs and clouds to illuminate polished crosses, symbolic incarnations of good and evil, suggestions of Christian allegory. But what Ramuz accomplishes, almost miraculously, is simply and seamlessly to bring the reader inside the religiosity of the community he describes, conveying how belief - or incredulity - can shape and constitute perception of reality. Rather than imposing a theological vision, Ramuz simultaneously keeps us outside as observers and inside as participants in the community’s small, sincere rituals and gestures of faith, which have a particular poignancy in the world he creates around his good people, a world actually at odds with a reassuring God and where faith is, almost literally, teetering on an abyss. On the surface When the Mountain Fell may appear an anachronism, out of step literarily with a decade that gave birth to works of such striking modernism as Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Yet Ramuz’s story contains, in addition to its subtle, controlled experiments with syntax and perspective, a canny questioning of perception itself – throughout his novel there’s a delicate infusion of dreams, hallucinations, visions, and superstitions capable of altering reality – but above all a deep sense of existential indeterminacy and of the indefinite and indefinable. A simple description of a precipice along a mountain path contains all the power of an existential void:
And suddenly the ground falls away from beneath your feet.
All at once the line of grass against the sky, which dips slightly in the middle, is outlining its hollow curve over nothingness itself. You have arrived. A chasm opens abruptly below you, like an immense oval basket with precipitous sides over which you have to lean, because although you are yourself six thousand feet up, the bottom is seventeen or eighteen hundred feet below you, straight down.
You bend over, you lean your head forward a little. Or else lie down flat, and look over the edge into the depths.
A breath of cold air blows into your face.
In like manner, even the descriptions of the rock field - “stones, and more stones, and still more stones” - come across as both literal and conceptual, a “waste land” at once geological and as existential as the one that gave a title to T. S. Eliot's poem. Everything in When the Mountain Fell works to suggest a grandeur of existence far beyond the intimacy of the place and time; Ramuz's story could take place as easily in 1935 as in the early 18th century. This lends When the Mountain Fell an eternal, allegorical quality, and, in the context of when it was written, a deeply sensitive prescience. If the minimalist speech of the mountain people carries within it a world of meaning and understanding, then so does Ramuz’s ostensibly simple narrative. For such a small book, it seems vast and echoing, radiating out from that instant of catastrophe as though touching all the world’s catastrophes. And, though the calamitous events in a small, peaceful, Swiss mountain village in the 18th century seem at first far removed from the tumultuous period in which When the Mountain Fell was written, no other novel I’ve read from the time has seemed to communicate so profoundly an anticipation of the imminent catastrophe facing 1930's Europe, of the mountain about to fall on it.