“Teeming with Life”: Jean Giono’s Hill

Scott from Seraillon & I have organized a group reading of Hill. I’ll update this post with links as I learn of them. You can read what Grant from 1streading’s Blog, Teresa from Shelf Life, Frances from Nonsuch Books, and Dolce Belezza have to say about it.

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When I sat down to write about Jean Giono’s Hill (1929), I did what I usually do: I re-read the opening pages to get my head back into it. Then I did something I almost never do: I kept on reading until I’d read the whole book again. It helps that Hill, in this lovely new edition from New York Review Books, is only 112-pages long. But I bet if it had been three times as long I would have kept turning the pages, as hypnotized as the characters are by the story one of them tells to explain the events they’ve suffered through:

They were listening, with their eyes wide open, their jaws slack, their lips drooping, their pupils dilated, their hands frozen, overwhelmed by the vision of the avenging spirits of the vegetal world.

The “they” in this passage are the men of a tiny hamlet called the Bastides, halfway up the side of the Mount Lure in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Too tiny to even be called a village, the Bastides is a remnant, a leftover, an almost-abandoned former market town in which only four houses are still inhabited. Twelve people live here, plus an unlucky thirteenth, a gentle stranger, a simpleton the others call Gagou, after the only syllables he is able to make. There’s Gondran le Mérédic, who married Marguerite Ricard and farms the land that belonged to her father, Janet. There’s Aphois Arbaud and his wife, Babette, who have two small children. There’s César Maurras, who lives with his mother and a servant. And there’s Alexandre Jaume, whose wife committed suicide a few years back. He lives with his grown daughter, Ulalie.

Only on my second reading did I begin to get a handle on these characters. That’s telling: Hill isn’t a novel of character. In fact, it’s hardly a novel of human beings. Instead it’s a novel about the relationship between humans and the non-human world. As its title suggests, Hill is about the earth; in its world-view, geological formations are as alive as non-human animals or plants.

With that thought in mind, let’s return to that passage I quoted above. The men are “overwhelmed by the vision of the avenging spirits of the vegetal world.” They’ve been listening to Jaume as he tries to explain a series of frightening things they’ve experienced. But even though Jaume has a privileged place in the village—he reads, he’s the one the others turn to when they need their world explained to them—he isn’t held in the same esteem by the novel as a whole. We shouldn’t confuse Jaume’s explanation with the truth. No doubt the vegetal world of this book is animated. And no doubt the villagers have been right to be afraid of what’s happened to them. But whether the world is out to get them is less clear.

So what’s gone wrong for the people of Bastides? In his excellent introduction to this edition, the philosopher David Abram suggests it all starts when Gondran, working in his olive orchard, sees a lizard. He’s filled with a spasm of irritation. The text adds—and its narration is interestingly hard to get a handle on: often in present tense, sometimes in past, often in third person, but sometimes referencing a first person narrator, often omniscient but sometimes attached to a character’s perspective—“Man wants to be the master-beast, the one who kills.” Gondran smashes the lizard with his shovel. He’s first ashamed and then uneasy. A sound fills the air:

The wind comes rushing.

The trees confer in low voices.

(Giono likes one-sentence paragraphs.) Gondran gets back to his work, but as he does

 it occurs to him for the first time that there’s a kind of blood rising inside bark, just like his own blood; that a fierce will to live makes the tree branches twist and propels these sprays of grasses into the sky.

Here’s an example of what I said before: the book believes in something we might call a generalized sentience, a life force that manifests itself through everything on earth, not least the earth itself. A passage like this one seems to support Jaume’s later suggestion that the earth is taking revenge for the things people have done to it. Shortly after that day in the field, the villagers suffer a series of inexplicable events. First the village’s spring runs dry, forcing the villagers to carry water from an abandoned village far away. They set up a rotation but the effort irritates them and sets them against each other. Then one of Arbaud’s children get sick and no one in the village, not even Jaume with his medical book, can make her better. The fever that rocks the little girl’s body is echoed in the final catastrophe: a terrible forest fire sweeps across the region and threatens to destroy the village.

The villagers certainly think of these events as connected, and the novel doesn’t give us any reason to doubt that. But as to why they’re happening, well, that’s harder to say. Maybe it wasn’t the murder of a lizard. Maybe it all started when old Janet, Gondran’s father-in-law, is incapacitated by something like a stroke, leaving him bed-ridden in his daughter’s kitchen, able to do nothing other than swallow, move his fingers, and talk, talk, talk. Or maybe it started with the return of a black cat to the village, a cat the others are convinced is tied to unlucky events in the past. Or maybe it has to do with the connection between the old man and the cat. Janet, who seems to have some kind of supernatural power (as a younger man he was famous for dowsing), or the very least who sees in ways the others cannot, sometimes seems the know the source of the trouble, maybe even to have brought it on himself. Right after his stroke he says something to Gondran that could apply to any of the villagers: “When you come right down to it, you’re incapable of looking at a tree and seeing anything but a tree.” It sounds like a curse.

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You’ll notice I’m using a lot of qualifiers in describing these events. That’s because the book refuses to explain them. In fact it doesn’t even know exactly how to define them. Fittingly, Giono’s preferred pronoun is “it”, his favourite noun is some version of “thing”: “Then all at once, it started”; “It all took shape—a whole world being born out of his words”; “Whatever it is, it’s brought a cold sweat to their brows”; “There’s still this thing lingering in Jaume’s brain”; “This kind of thing, it always starts with someone who sees farther than the rest”; “It runs out of him in a stream and it’s not so funny.” Those are just a few examples.

But even though the characters are the ones who either directly (in speech) or indirectly (through the narrative voice) use these inherently vague terms, they aren’t satisfied with vagueness. And neither are readers. Needing an explanation, the villagers convince themselves that Janet must be the source of their trouble. They decide to kill him, sure that this is the only way they can get back to the good relationship they had with the hill. As their spokesman Jaume puts it:

“It’s Janet who made this happen, with his head full of ideas.

“Things were going well before all of this. It 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. We never dug too deep. One or two blows of a spade, what harm could that do? We walked across it without fear. When it spoke to us, it was like a spring. It spoke to us though its cool springs and its pine trees.

“He must have messed with it.”

The villagers’ scapegoating of Janet is disturbing. And yet as readers we’re complicit in the same thinking. We too want to know why the things that have happened have happened. The novel is sharply critical of this kind of knowing, which symbolizes a disposition towards the world that the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a contemporary of Giono’s, called “standing reserve.” When we see the world as a standing reserve, we see it only for our purposes, only for the ends we could put it to. We look at a river and we only see the hydroelectric power it could provide, for example.

But whereas Heidegger’s philosophy is fundamentally nostalgic—which might explain why he was seduced by fascism—Giono’s novel is harder to pin down, and all the better for that uncertainty. Once in a while it suggests an age-old peasant wisdom in which people live in harmony with the land. But it also argues that this so-called harmony is always exploitative. And yet as readers we are asked to sympathize with the people who perpetrate that exploitation. Is there any way of living on the land that isn’t living off it, in the way a parasite lives off its host?

Thus the ambivalence of the novel’s end is so fitting. At the last minute, the villagers don’t need to murder Janet because he dies, naturally as it were. And as soon as he does, the village’s spring starts running again. The fire has been beaten back. The little girl “looks like she’s doing better.” It’s a relief to have misfortune and acrimony between the villagers and their environment replaced by harmony and the hope of better things to come. This vision of plenitude is best symbolized by the newly plashing spring, which “sings a long lament that conjures up cold stones and shadows. The water trough quivers, teeming with life.”

Cold stones and shadows are lovely things, especially on hot Provencal days. But why a “long lament”? Here Giono qualifies the idyll he’s just given us. After all, there has been a scapegoat: the interloper Gagou succumbs (rather ecstatically, it must be said) to the fire. And on the book’s last page, the villagers shoot a wild boar and stretch its skin to dry on a tree. We might remember the murder of the lizard and worry what atrocities might arise from this new killing, especially when we read the novel’s last lines:

 Now it’s night. The light has just faded from the last window. A large star keeps watch over Lure.

From the skin, which turns in the night wind and drones like a drum, tears of dark blood weep in the grass.

It’s egotistical to think the nonhuman world would respond in human terms (vengeance, say) to human actions. But Hill conjures up such non-human emotional sentience on almost every page. Yet it doesn’t pit the non-human world against the human in a vision of environmental apocalypse that would only flatter human depredation (we must be special to have caused—even deserved—such harm). Nor does it aim for some consoling vision of harmony between the human and the natural.

That’s a lot of contradictions, I know. What’s amazing is how vividly Giono animates them in such a short book.

Here’s the final contradiction, one it would take a post much longer even than this one to tease out: if language is fundamentally human, something (maybe the main thing) that distinguishes the human from the non-human, would it even be possible for language to depict the non-human world in a way that wasn’t anthropomorphic or romantic? I think Giono accomplishes this feat. He’s very good at using language to represent things that seem inherently non-linguistic. In this he reminds me of another early twentieth century writer skeptical of knowledge and compelled to see a life force in all living beings, D. H. Lawrence. Both are visionary writers who value the non-human environment without apologizing for the humans who are inescapably but not necessarily harmoniously intertwined with it.

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Like many people, I’ve been preoccupied by and aghast at the fire that swept through Fort McMurray in my home province of Alberta and might burn for as long as a year. Since Fort McMurray is the center of the tar sands industry, a horrifying industrial sublime well captured by the photographer Edward Burtynsky, it’s tempting to see the fire as climatological blowback, the nightmarish effects of climate change coming back to strike one of the centers of the industry largely responsible for creating it. I’ve thought such things myself. But tell it to the people who have lost everything. It’s a lot easier to talk about karma from the safety of somewhere distant. Yet I’m also repelled by the “Alberta Strong!” chauvinism that insists “we” will return and rebuild. The Horse River fire is much more devastating than the one in Hill, but, more than anything I’ve read in the media so far, Jean Giono’s almost ninety-year-old novel helps me to think through our relationship to what we so casually call nature.

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I never know what to say about translations, especially when I haven’t compared them to the original. I know it’s bad form to ignore a book’s having been translated, but to me it’s just as unhelpful merely to assert how well it’s been done (a “sprightly new translation,” “ably translated by…” and so forth). So my apologies to translator Paul Eprile. I don’t know what to say, other than thank you. The translation seems powerful and lucid, as forceful as the original must be. I’m hoping Scott will have more to say about Eprile’s work, since I know he read both the original and the translation. All I can say is how excited I am to learn that Eprile will be bringing another Giono title into English. It can’t come soon enough.

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Pulp Friction: Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming

Review of Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming (2015)

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Is this book any good? It’s not often that I have to ask myself that question.

Its author, Lavie Tidhar, seems like an interesting guy. An Israeli who grew up on a kibbutz, moved to South Africa, and now lives in London, Tidhar has written—in English, as best I can tell—quite a few books, mostly science fiction and fantasy.

Like those earlier works, A Man Lies Dreaming, much fêted in the UK on its publication last year and newly arrived in the US from Melville House, is genre fiction. I was going to call it a pastiche of hard boiled detective fiction, except that pastiche often means derivative, and this book, even though in dialogue with and indeed filching styles and phrasings from all kinds of books, is anything but derivative. And if pastiche is problematic, then calling this book hard-boiled is even more so. A Man Lies Dreaming is instead an example of a genre that seems endlessly interesting to writers—alternate histories of WWII-era Europe. In this regard, Tidhar’s book reminded me of Jo Walton’s Farthing trilogy. Walton is another writer who is nominally a fantasy writer but mostly writes books that are hard to classify.

A big difference between Tidhar’s book and Walton’s, and indeed almost every book that revisits the struggle against fascism, is that in his the Germans haven’t won the war. Indeed, there hasn’t even been a war, at least not as we know it. In his world, the National Socialists came to power only briefly before being decisively defeated by communism, an event ominously called the Fall by fascists and their opponents alike. A Man Lies Dreaming is set in England in late 1939. The fascist leader, Oswald Mosley—whose real-life attempts to bring fascism to England were scuppered in the 1930s (and who is memorably pilloried in P. G. Wodehouse’s peerless The Code of the Woosters)—is about to be democratically elected. Former high-ranking Nazis, who have made their way to England and drifted into various illegal enterprises, abet Mosley’s rise to power.

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Against this backdrop, Wolf, a down-at-heels private detective, is hired by a beautiful and rich young woman to find her sister. So far, so Hammett (or Chandler). Wolf is a bit different than Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, though. He makes us uneasy already from his first sentence: “She had the face of an intelligent Jewess.” No matter that his client, Isabella Rubenstein, is an intelligent Jewess. What disturbs is the attribution of her Jewishness to her physiognomy, and the not-so-coded anti-Semitic suggestion that her intelligence will lead to some sort of scheming or malice. Indeed, on the next page Wolf bluntly asserts that he won’t work for Jews—though his poverty and her wealth, as well as, more complicatedly, his intensely ambivalent relationship to Jews, means that he takes the case.

Our uneasiness about Wolf is soon confirmed in, well, spades. He’s none other than Adolf Hitler, reduced, if that’s the right way to put it, to pounding London’s mean streets as a gumshoe. The novel doesn’t explicitly name Wolf as Hitler until it’s almost over, but it’s not exactly keeping it a secret, either. Everything we learn about Wolf’s earlier life matches on to Hitler’s, and in a historical note at the end of the book Tidhar reminds us that Hitler “used the nom de guerre of ‘Wolf’” in the 1920s.

In turning Hitler from a dictator to a PI, Tidhar makes things uncomfortable for his readers. As developed by Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and others, the hard-boiled detective was already Exhibit A in readers’ willingness to sympathize with disreputable characters. (These days we so equate Hammett’s Spade with the charisma of Humphrey Bogart that we are quick to forget the novel’s introduction of him as looking “rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.”) Of course, those novels always gave us an out because the society in which the PI made his way was so corrupt that any uncertainty we felt about the hero paled in comparison to his singular ability to do the right thing—or maybe he could be such a moral exemplar precisely because he was beyond the phony morality espoused by everyone around him.

But what happens when the knight in dark armor is Hitler?

Tidhar uses the irony of his conceit to trouble our relationship to his central character. Hitler’s famous abstemiousness (no alcohol, no cigarettes, no meat) contrasts nicely with the usual private eye vices. And characters are forever wondering at how Wolf could have come down so far in the world—that’s partly presented as a function of his purity (unlike other Nazi leaders like Göring and Goebbels or even famously sadistic functionaries like Ilse Koch or Josef Kramer, all of whom appear in the novel, Wolf is unwilling to turn his hatred into mere criminality) and, conversely, partly as a way of reinforcing the delusory quality of Hitler’s appeal. It’s as though no one in the novel can imagine how he managed to sway as many people as he did for as long as he did.

Perversely, then, we are sometimes led to side with Wolf, even feel bad for him. After all, like any good, dogged, hard-done-by PI he pursues his case no matter what obstacles are thrown in his way. He’s even falsely accused of being the serial killer who is murdering London’s prostitutes (like most noir fiction, A Man Lies Dreaming has too many busy sub-plots).

But he’s still Hitler. He’s despicable: violent, full of hate, and convinced of his own superiority. (I haven’t even mentioned his line in violent and debasing sex.) So when terrible things happen to him we’re left cheering. At least, that’s how I sometimes felt. At others I was more relieved than triumphant. And mostly I simply didn’t know how to feel. It’s common for the hardboiled PI to suffer a lot of physical abuse. Tidhar takes that convention and runs with it, most dramatically when Isabella’s father—immensely rich and influential, yet another anti-Semitic cliché except that he is hardly the effete weakling of Nazi propaganda—ambushes Wolf in his office. After beating him to a pulp, Rubeinstein and his henchmen circumcise him.

This vivid, visceral, and totally insane moment has significant ramifications. One of the subplots involves a secret Jewish resistance group that smuggles Jews out of an increasingly anti-Semitic England and on to safety in Palestine. Wolf gets his hands on one of the resister’s identity papers and, replacing the photo with one of his own, he becomes Moshe Wolfson. Late in the novel, a devoted and misguided admirer finally goads Wolf into admitting that he is in fact Hitler. The upshot is a furious spasm of violence that eventually leads Wolf to break down—or is it break through? Kicking the boy over and over until he is nothing but pulp, Wolf screams “I’m Hitler! I’m Hitler! I’m Hitler.” That avowal doesn’t last long, and the scene concludes:

He was no one. He was nothing.

“I’m…” he said. The theatre was quiet. The seats were empty and silent with disuse. There was no one to hear him, no one to respond. No one to acknowledge him, there was no one to march to his tune.

“I’m a Jew,” he said, and laughed; but like Wolf himself, the sound meant nothing.

What are we supposed to make of that? (You can see that whatever this novel has going for it, it isn’t subtle.) On a first reading, it would seem that Wolf’s identification as Jew is presented as totally spurious (“the sound meant nothing”). But then what about the novel’s denouement, when Wolf—now Wolfson—makes his way on to a ship leading to a new life in Palestine? Are we to cheer the little boy who cheerfully tells Wolf, “You ain’t nothing mister. You ain’t worth shit”? Or are we to laugh—or cry?—at Wolf’s taking on of that most sacred of Jewish cultural traditions, the Jewish joke? Consider this entry from his ship’s journal:

In the latrines an argument over who is a Jew, some suggestion not everyone on board may be kosher. “Easy way to tell,” I said. Pissing against the wall in a row, we all had a good laugh. I looked at my Jew dick in my hand almost in affection.

Should we be enraged with Wolf’s appropriation of the people and culture his real life counterpart tried to exterminate? I mean, even here Hitler is still a dick. “Almost in affection”: ugh, what a shit. Or should we conclude that Wolf aka Hitler is really now a Jew? I can’t decide whether this perverse use of the idea that the Jew is a universal figure for suffering is only Wolf’s (and therefore something we can dismiss as delusional) or in fact the novel’s (and therefore something we’re supposed to take seriously). When even Hitler can be a Jew the term has become so metaphorical as to be meaningless.

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I’ve been talking about the novel as though it’s written in first person, but that’s only partly true. There are two other narrative voices in addition to the first person excerpts from Wolf’s diaries. They might help us decide what the novel wants us to think about its premise. The first of those voices continues the story that Wolf tells, but in third person rather than first. It’s unclear to me why we need both, since the third person sections don’t cast new light on the first person ones. We’re given no reason why any given piece of information is narrated in first or in third person; this arbitrary and unnecessary distinction is the weakest part of the book.

The second voice is also told in third person but it’s connected to someone else altogether, a man named Shomer who is interned in Auschwitz. Shomer is a fictionalized version of the real-life Yiddish writer Nokhem Meyer Shaykevitch, who wrote hundreds of popular novels, plays, and stories under that pseudonym. (So it’s a fictional version of a real person who in fact used a fake name to write his fictions: got that?) The real Shomer died in New York in 1905 and so was spared the Nazis’ largely successful attempt to destroy his linguistic and cultural world. Shomer became famous, or perhaps infamous, as the foremost purveyor of shund, that is, trash or lowbrow literature. As Tidhar explains, Sholem Aleichem (the leading Yiddish writer of the late 19th century and best known today for the stories that Fiddler on the Roof is based on) attacked Shomer’s work as poorly constructed and morally dubious.

Shomer is obviously Tidhar’s stand-in, though his attempt at rescuing Shomer would have been more convincing had Shomer had a larger role in the story. Having said that, though, I must acknowledge that Shomer is interned in a concentration camp and Tidhar’s point, I think, is that Shomer is no longer a human being or on the verge of no longer being one. (It’s worth noting that Tidhar’s brief descriptions of life in Auschwitz, in particular of the Sonderkommando and the Canada Men, the Jews who were forced to work the crematoria and to separate newly arrived prisoners from their families and their possessions, is more sensitively managed than usual and much less pious and lugubrious than, say, Martin Amis’s in his recent The Zone of Interest.)

That Shomer represents Tidhar becomes clear halfway through the book in a scene describing an encounter between two prisoners who discuss how anyone could ever write about what is happening to them. It will be clear to many readers—and if it’s not Tidhar makes it explicit in his note—that one of the men is Primo Levi, who argues that “the novelist must employ a language as clear and precise as possible, a language without ornament.” The other, less well known to English-speaking audiences, simply calls himself Ka-Tzetnik, that is, “inmate.” Ka-Tzetnik, who would later case a sensation at the Eichmann trial, where he fainted during his testimony, and who later wrote a serious of lurid Holocaust novels, including House of Dolls, about the camp brothels, argues with Levi:

To write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet. Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.

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The anachronism of this speech—no one at the time and in that place would have spoken of the Holocaust—is beside the point, because this isn’t really Ka-Tzetnik speaking, it’s Tidhar. For him, pulp or popular literature is an appropriate way to talk about the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. It might even be the best way. I don’t think Tidhar is arguing that Levi is wrong, rather that his approach only tells part of the story, maybe doesn’t grapple with the utter insanity of what the victims are experiencing. (I do think Tidhar’s Levi is a caricature, though—and Levi in fact wrote about how the Lagers would have generated a new language had they existed any longer than they did—but I also think Tidhar wouldn’t take that as a criticism, since I don’t think he sees anything wrong with caricature.) Even Wolf/Hitler gets in on the act. On the boat to Palestine, he reads Conrad’s The Secret Agent, laconically concluding, “Have read better, by worse.” Of course Hitler would have no taste. But Tidhar we need to take more serious. Still for me the question remains: what can shund do that serious or traditional or highbrow literature cannot?

The answer seems to be that it lets us escape. The man of the title, the one who lies dreaming, isn’t primarily Wolf/Hitler (whose dreams are other people’s nightmares). Rather, it’s Shomer, who finds some respite from his concentration camp existence by imagining the story we are reading:

And Shomer’s mind shies from the glare, conjures up a safe haven, a world of mean streets and buxom dames and flat-footed detectives, as is, if only he could open up a secret door, he could be transported there, and be free.

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I read this book because I can’t get enough of the period it’s about, even when the period is an imagined version of the real one. But I also read it because I thought it might be something I could teach at the end of my course Literature after Auschwitz, which examines representations of the effects of the Holocaust on those who came after it, those who had no direct experience of it but whose experiences have nevertheless been sharply affected by it. The first time I taught the course, I ended with Ellen Ullmann’s recent novel By Blood, a book I like a lot and that fit pretty well with what I was trying to do but which was a bit too long and too interested in so many other things to be the ideal last book on the syllabus. (Sometimes books don’t teach well for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with quality.) I read A Man Lies Dreaming with one eye to its possible placement on the syllabus.

And that’s where I come back to the question I asked at the beginning. Is this book any good? But do I mean, does this book have literary merit? (Tidhar would say that could be a dubious proposition, one inclined to value certain kinds of books over others.) Do I mean, does this book treat fascism and the Holocaust in an ethically sound way? (Here everything depends on how we’re meant to take the book’s portrayal of Hitler.) Or do I mean, would this book be good to teach?

Here I am led to wonder about the relationship of prurience to critique in this book. I think there are pleasures that are regressive and pleasures that are critical. (And maybe some that are just pleasures.) Regressive pleasures are still pleasures—just because, for example, Downton Abbey is selling us a fantasy that whitewashes a restrictive class structure by pretending to overturn or undermine it doesn’t mean it’s not also satisfying to watch—but in the absence of any self-consciousness about that regression they’re dangerous.

Now A Man Lies Dreaming is nothing if not self-conscious. And it has the honesty to admit, in that passage I quoted above about Shomer’s dreams of pulp fiction, that what it is describing is a fantasy—“as if, if only he could open up a secret door, he could be transported there, and be free.” The challenge of reading A Man Lies Dreaming lies in figuring out what it thinks fantasy can do. When is fantasy mere indulgence, a hopeless, ineffectual, and even pernicious because distracting response to a horrifying reality? And when is it a powerful counter-force to that otherwise seemingly overwhelming reality? What’s so great about reality, anyway?, Tidhar seems to be asking. In the end, he lets Shomer dream himself into Wolfson’s place, so that he gets to be the one who is welcomed to Palestine. Is this escape, or is this escapism?

What do you think? Should I teach this book?

 

Jean Giono Readalong

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Later this month, Scott of seraillon (I hope you read his blog regularly: it’s excellent) and I will be reading of Jean Giono’s first novel, Hill, published in 1929 and recently reissued in the indispensable NYRB Classics series. We hope you will join us!

Here’s what the publishers have to say about Hill:

Deep in Provence, a century ago, four stone houses perch on a hillside. Wildness presses in from all sides. Beyond a patchwork of fields, a mass of green threatens to overwhelm the village. The animal world—a miming cat, a malevolent boar—displays a mind of its own.

The four houses have a dozen residents—and then there is Gagou, a mute drifter. Janet, the eldest of the men, is bedridden; he feels snakes writhing in his fingers and speaks in tongues. Even so, all is well until the village fountain suddenly stops running. From this point on, humans and the natural world are locked in a life-and-death struggle. All the elements—fire, water, earth, and air—come into play.

From an early age, Jean Giono roamed the hills of his native Provence. He absorbed oral traditions and, at the same time, devoured the Greek and Roman classics. Hill, his first novel and the first winner of the Prix Brentano, comes fully back to life in Paul Eprile’s poetic translation.

The idea for the group reading came out of a series of exchanges we had about my review of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. In his defense of Seethaler, Scott said he was “reminded too of some of Jean Giono’s pastoral novels, which also have a third person narrator whose reliability one is scarcely conscious of needing to question, the narration almost seeming an organic aspect of the landscape.” That got me intrigued: I wanted to know more about this narrative voice, and since I had just learned of the reissue it all seemed fated to be.

So even though I know nothing about Giono–beyond the wonderful National Film Board of Canada animated film of The Man Who Planted Trees that was a staple of my childhood (directed by Frederic Back, it’s indelibly narrated by the aptly named Christopher Plummer–those tones!)–the good news is that Scott knows a lot. So between us we have a  perfectly average amount of knowledge to share.

Please consider joining us–and let us know if you decide to do so! We’ll be posting about the book in the last week of May and look forward to working through it together with you all.

Added 8/19/16: You can find my thoughts on Hill here, BTW.