Hill

HillThe Bastides Blanches are just four little houses in Provence, not enough to even qualify as a village. The four households who live in these homes, plus the drifter Gagou, form the community at the heart of Jean Giono’s 1929 novella Hill, newly translated into English by Paul Eprile. I received this book a couple of months ago as part of my New York Review of Books Classics subscriptions, and when I saw that several bloggers were going to be participating in a readalong of the book, organized by Scott and Dorian, I decided that this would be a good time to read it.

As Hill begins, it looks like a pleasant enough depiction of rural life, but it eventually takes some dark turns, and as I approached the end, I wondered just how dark it might get. The first grim scenario involves the incipient death of Janet, the patriarch of one of the households. As he approaches death, he begins to hallucinate, imagining that there are snakes coming out of the tips of his fingers. When his son-in-law, Gondran, assures him there are no snakes, Janet scoffs:

“So you think you see everything do you, with your pathetic eyes? Can you see the wind too, you with your tremendous powers?

“When you come right down to it, you’re incapable of looking at a tree and seeing anything but a tree.

“People like you believe trees are dropped straight into the ground, with their leaves and all, and that’s the end of it, right there. Oh boy, if only it were so, it would be so easy.

As Janet raves in his bed, the little cluster of families experience other troubles. The spring runs out of water, a little girl becomes ill, a black cat appears and brings a sense of doom. And the community wants answers.

Giono shows an intense respect for nature in this book, in part through his descriptions of the surroundings and the expressed need to preserve them but also through showing nature’s power to change lives, for good or for bad. Nature is a living thing, as Godron realizes when he’s out working in the field and suddenly comes upon and furiously attacks a small lizard.

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?

It seems to me that this line of thought is just one of the characters’ many attempts to try to create a sense of order in the world. Nature makes them suffer because they make nature suffer. If they can understand the logic of the world, perhaps even see ahead, they’ll be able to control it. It’s an impossible hope, of course, and the attempt nearly tears the community apart. Yet being in community is the thing most likely to save them all.

This is a short book, that accelerates quickly once it gets going. The momentum that builds shows how panic and fear can spread, leading to disaster. But the converse is that healthy fear is needed to prevent destruction. Giono shows both reactions at work. There’s a lot here to ponder, and I look forward to seeing what others made of the story.

Other Readalong Posts: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau; Seraillon; Dolce Bellezza; 1st Reading

 

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15 Responses to Hill

  1. Bellezza says:

    I didn’t know you were reading this, too! Wonderful, I’ll add your review to the links on my post after I comment.

    I like your sentence, “Nature makes them suffer because they make nature suffer.” That certainly seems to go along with Giono’s personification of so many things, from trees to hills to wind to the moon. Surely it can apply to all of nature, as being almost willful, or “having a mind of its own.”

    A part I was going to mention in my post, which you did but I didn’t, was the killing of the lizard. To me, it is so similar to Adam and the serpent in the Garden of Eden; Genesis tells us that the Lord God said to the serpent, “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals…I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” While I realize that this is spoken to the serpent who is not a lizard, to me the similarities are striking enough to point out. In both situations, man is trying to exert control, over creatures, over nature, and perhaps even over himself. In both cases there is a certain amount of enmity.

    • Teresa says:

      I wasn’t sure I was going to join in until I found the time to read it this weekend. I’m glad I did!

      The question of whether nature has a will in this book keeps coming back to me. It would certainly give the seemingly random events meaning, even if the meaning is the unsettling idea that they’re at war with nature.

      The lizard parallel to the serpent in Genesis is interesting. That moment in the book feels like a loss of innocence and gaining knowledge of good and evil, which fits nicely.

  2. Pingback: Hill by Jean Giono “Do I Have What It Takes To Wrestle the Rage of These Hills?” – Dolce Bellezza

  3. banff1972 says:

    “Yet being in community is the thing most likely to save them all.” I particularly like this sentiment. Something no one has talked about yet is how gender works in this book. Seems like women are only secondarily a part of the community (when things get bad, the men go off on their own to talk about it). I don’t think women are disparaged in this novel, but I do wonder about whether some people are more in the community than others. Gagou (and Ulalie, too) would be instructive in this regard, too.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought a bit about the women as I was reading and agree that they aren’t disparaged, but they also don’t drive much of the action. I’d like to know more of what they thought of the goings on. They do seem more interested in just coping with circumstances, rather than trying to understand and control them. I also wonder what to make of the fact that in the aftermath Ulalie’s father finally gives some thought to her desires. It seems to be depicted as a positive development, so maybe listening to the women is a way of getting back in balance.

      • banff1972 says:

        Yeah, that’s a good thought. And by your own reasoning–that coping not controlling is the way to g0–the women would be the most enlightened characters in the text. I wish we had more sense of their thinking, though. Ulalie is an exception here.

  4. Pingback: “Teeming with Life”: Jean Giono’s Hill | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  5. This sounds kind of like Jim Crace’s The Harvest, which also had an idyllic rural setting that turned dark. Perhaps I should add this one to my to-read list!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve never read that, so I can’t speak to the parallels. But this is nice and short and offers a lot of rewards for the small amount of time it requires!

  6. Scott W. says:

    I was delighted to find your post on Hill, Teresa. I agree that the effort to establish community is what helps in a senseless world, and it occurs to me that in one sense the novel is simply about the disruption to a community that occurs with one member’s death. Obviously Les Bastides has gone through tough times before – what happened when Jaume’s wife hanged herself, for example? But here it’s the village patriarch, all the old village wisdom mixed in with malice. And in the end Jaume at least recognizes that all they have is one another.

    Interesting comments (in the comments) about gender. While it’s true that the women aren’t prominent in the novel, I didn’t feel Giono was reflecting anything other than the manner in which gender roles worked in this small village, but certainly it would have been interesting to see more of the women’s perspectives on the events. That scene when Jaume “gives some thought to Ulalie’s desires” really struck me, given all that Jaume has had to digest in learning about her relationship with Gagou, and yet he ends up with this recognition of how void of joy her life is and makes this generous gesture, which indeed seems restorative.

    • Teresa says:

      I like that idea of Janet’s death as a disruption of community that sets everything off. He’s the foundation, in a way, and they have to reorganize themselves.

  7. Hi there, looks like a good one! It would be great if you added your review to the Books You Loved: June collection over at Carole’s Chatter. Cheers

  8. Janet’s assertion that there are serpents shooting forth from his finger tips and they are such fools they cannot see them became one of my favorite parts of the book when later the flames of the fire and other threatening aspects within nature begin to be compared to a moving, coiling serpent. Pile on the ambiguity! Are we then to believe that Janet does control the natural world in the ways he hints at or is he just the powerless, old man that his neighbors can easily kill? I want to pay more careful attention to Janet when I reread.

  9. Stefanie says:

    I really want to read this. I loved his story the Man Who Plated Trees.

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