When Scott of Seraillon and Dorian of Eiger Monch and Jungfrau, as a result of a discussion surrounding the latter’s dislike of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, suggested reading Jean Giono’s Hill, recently published by New York Review of Books in a new translation by Paul Eprile, I felt almost obliged to join in given my own hostility to Seethaler’s novel. Hill was Giono’s first novel, originally published in 1929, set in a small village, the Bastides, in Provence, an area Giono knew well. (This, of course, immediately points to one difference between the novels: Seethaler, born in 1966, is writing about a past he never experienced; Giono, who was thirty-four when Hill was published, is writing about a time and place which he knew intimately).
That the novel begins with a description of the landscape, and that the first consciousness we inhabit is that of a boar, is an indication of the importance of nature in Giono’s work. The landscape is as alive as any other character, with Giono frequently using imagery to suggest this:
“Mount Lure dominates the landscape and blocks out the west with its huge, numb, mountain body.”
Shortly after he describes night “pouring into the valley”:
“It washes over the haunch of the hill. The olive groves raise their song, under the shadow.”
While nature is given human attributes, characters are often described in terms of the nature around them:
“From his beady, chestnut coloured eyes his blank stare flits into the sky like a moth.”
Despite cramming the novel with a wheen of apt and striking similes and metaphors, Giono never strays from the world of the novel in his imagery, enhancing the sense of a closed eco-system, and the limits of his characters’ perspective.
Thirteen characters live in the village, the oldest of which is Janet, now bedridden. A deterioration in his condition has prompted a doctor’s visit, a rare intrusion from the world outside:
“I don’t believe he has much time left… Do what I told you. However, in my opinion it’s like putting a bandage on a wooden leg. If he gets any worse, come and get me if you want, but it’s a long way. It took me three hours to get up here.”
Janet’s approaching death is not the only cloud hanging over the village, both literally and metaphorically. Much of the novel has an ominous feel; the village’s dilapidated state is a reminder of the precariousness of man’s existence, and tension builds towards some sensed but unknown threat. First there is a storm (“The sky is like a swamp where patches of open water gleam between patches of slime”), and then the sighting of a black cat associated with previous misfortunes, which Gondran, Janet’s son-in-law, is happy to list to the other villagers:
“As for the earthquake back in ’07…it was on a Thursday. The Monday before that, when I was stalking partridge, I’d seen the cat.”
Soon after the fountain, the village’s only supply of water, runs dry.
A rural life is one where luck, and therefore superstition, plays a part, but Giono is making a more profound point than that. Gondran has an epiphany where he considers the way man treats nature:
“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, levelling everything in his path?”
The novel, as well as being a detailed portrait of rural life in the early part of the twentieth century, is also a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, for which, it suggests, there is a price to pay. (This can be seen, for example, in Gondron’s failure to shoot a boar at the beginning, a kill which he makes at the end). In this it is in some ways a very contemporary novel despite its description of a way of life which has largely disappeared in Europe, exploring ideas about how we should treat animals and land, a debate which is even more urgent today.
Above all, it is a joy to read. It is beautifully written, and therefore I imagine beautifully translated, with too many memorable phrases to mention. Stylistically, its short paragraphs and sections of direct speech perfectly suit both the characters and the building tension. The characters themselves, though often built in a series of brief strokes like an etching, soon come to inhabit the landscape, as does the reader.