“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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16 thoughts on ““Teeming with Life”: Jean Giono’s Hill

  1. Dorian – Thanks so much for this post, which has my mind buzzing with a lot of new thoughts about a book that has already provoked a storm of them. I’m kicking myself for having omitted that line about “the avenging spirits of the vegetal world” from my own post, since I’d even considered using it as a post title – though as you point out in your discussion of it, it doesn’t quite encompass what’s going on in this peculiar, complicated and powerful book.

    Anyway, your refusal to go for easy conclusions is so helpful here, in particular noting the way Giono keeps things so ambivalent. I like too your observation that even a novel with such memorable characters isn’t a novel of characters. I couldn’t get a grasp on the narration either, other than to see that something complicated and mysterious was going on, so I’m delighted to see your insightful comments on it. And I especially like your conclusion, about Giono’s contemporaneity and his forcing us to think, in fundamental ways, about our relation to nature. There’s almost nothing aged in this novel; somehow Giono seems to have digested from the classics even the ability to write something enduring and almost ageless and yet full of concern for the future.

    Thanks for having suggested we read this. It’s been one of the most rewarding works I’ve read this year, and I think I may move right on to a couple of other Giono books I have sitting about. And for sure, my next trip to France, should I be so lucky, I plan to visit the region. Lure, seen from Google Earth, is impressive.

    • Thanks, Scott, for such generous comments. (I’ve a lot to say about your insightful post, but I’m out the door for the long weekend so will save that for when I return.) It’s so helpful what you said about Giono’s recourse to and use of the classics–among other things, I really want to read a biography of him: is there one in English, I wonder? What are the other Giono books you’ve got? The library here has one and I’ve got that coming to my local branch, so I hope there’s more of him in my future too.
      As to Mont Lure: I say the next reading group should be in France…

      • Ha! I am on the same page as regards the next reading group. In fact, Hill has thrown it perturbations not only into the lives of its villagers but also into my thoughts about a return trip to France. It’s become nearly an obsession for me to see this region.

        The other Giono books I have: Un Roi sans divertissement (A King Without Diversions); Noe, which I don’t think has been translated; Que ma joie demeure (Joy of Man’s Desiring) which I think would make a great follow-up to Hill, and which I intend to read again; and Jean le Bleu (Blue Boy), which might answer in the short term your hope for a biography, since it’s a thinly autobiographical account of childhood in Provence. I’m not offhand aware of a biography but intend to look for one too.

        A few more thoughts about your rich post. I hadn’t put together the boar skin at the end with “scapegoat” – a literal one, as you note. That’s great. I wonder, though, if this “new killing” isn’t qualitatively distinct from Gondran’s killing of the lizard. After all, the villagers see themselves as having lived more or less according to routine, a routine that involved hunting. And the boar – which we first see rooting around in the fountain – seems more of a natural enemy of the village. His killing doesn’t seem wanton, but almost restorative, since the novel begins with an attempt to kill him. And of course he provides a celebratory feast for everyone. So I wonder if Giono is making a distinction here between wanton savagery and that killing which – in an impoverished village like Les Bastides – is part of the ordinary course of life. There’s another line I’d wanted to quote: “The old ways were so straightforward. There was humanity, and all around, but underneath, animals and plants. And things were going along well that way. You kill a hare, you harvest a fruit. A peach – it’s nothing but sweet juice in your mouth; a hare – it’s a heaped-up plateful of rich, dark meat. And afterward, you lick your lips, and you smoke a pipe on the front step./It was simple, but it left a lot of things in the dark.” Of course that raises a lot of questions too. Gino seems to be arguing for elevating an acute awareness of one’s actions with regard to the world, something almost primal in recognizing that what’s here is not simply to be used. The delicate line between use and abuse can be seen in another line I’d wanted to use: “But if you don’t go at it with your spade, if you don’t go at it with your axe, if you don’t clear a space around you, if you let the blade fall away from your hands just one time, then the whole mass of green surges over your feet and right up over your walls. It turns everything back into dust.” It’s this conundrum of needing the things of the earth but also trying to avoid deliberate harm.

      • Right, that puts it perfectly. I don’t think the book is just saying that we should avoid exploiting nature. We can’t exist without such exploitation. And that great quote even intimates that if we didn’t combat nature we’d be done in my it in no time. But there’s exploitation and there’s exploitation, which your distinction between use and abuse gets at very neatly. All of which is to say, I take the point about the boar killing being different from the lizard. I still thought that ending was pretty ominous, though.
        Maybe *you* should write that Giono bio…

  2. Great to read your review so soon after reading the novel – as you suggest, it’s remarkably complex for such a short book. I liked the way it refused to allow the reader easy answers and left them searching (as you say) for explanation with the villagers. In fact, I felt it demonstrated the flaws in humanity’s determination to explain – it certainly doesn’t encourage the educated or contemporary reader to feel superior.

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  4. It is easy to blame Janet for the misfortune that comes their way; people want to blame something, I think, and it’s all too easy to find a scapegoat for suffering. Or, for evil.

    As I ultimately do, when faced with novels which bring existential questions to light, I am reminded of passages from the Bible. My post mentions Genesis 3, which I find so fitting to this book. Adam and the serpent, like Gondran and the lizard; the way that we are in enmity with the ground. I’m not suggesting that Giono felt this way, I’m merely pointing out connections that were pertinent to me.

    You write so beautifully about this book, bringing to focus all sorts of passages and characters and quotes. It is a short book with so much to say, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time to come. Thank you for introducing me to this author, for including me in the read-along with you, Scott and Gary.

    • Thanks, DB. Although I hadn’t thought of Genesis before, now that you mention it, the comparison seems inescapable. Unclear that Giono thinks we can return to a natural idyll, though–or that nature was even an idyll to begin with.

  5. One of the things that came to be as I was reading this book was that the attempts to explain seemed to be what led the characters astray. There’s a natural human desire to explain, to have a cause for the effect, because that means the possibility of control. But these characters were much better off when they got to the work of coping (getting water, digging a trench) than when they tried to explain. Nature is too big and wild for explanation, perhaps.

    • Agreed, Teresa, and that’s very well put. I like the suggestion of coping rather than controlling as a model for how humans might interact with the world.

      • And that brings up the thought that language is a method of control as well. As humans, we argue semantics as if the naming out of a thing or its purpose can fundamentally alter the very nature of something. Oh wait, it can! So in so many moments is language ambiguous, fleeting in its power, unable to deliver some longed-for absolute. That is the gorgeous feel of Giono’s language here. We can’t trust it even in its sparseness. We can’t trust the rambling, erratic speech of a dying, old alcoholic either, and yet, the ready willingness of those around him to trust that his words have some power that they cannot control is mysterious too. Is its power rooted in its unfamiliarity? That which we can’t understand occupies a position of power? I really need to read this again.

      • Indeed. And I’m then wondering whether the language of the narrator is any different in this regard than the language of the characters. Or is the narrator a kind of shaman like Janet?

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