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.


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42 Responses to “Hill”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great review Grant. I had considered this one, and then rejected it for lack of time – maybe I shouold have succumbed… 🙂

  2. Martha G Says:

    Very nice review but David Abram is not the translator–he wrote the introduction. Paul Eprile is the translator.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    A very interesting review as ever, Grant. I was quite tempted to join Scott and Dorian’s readalong, but when I looked into the novel’s availability in the UK it seemed a little hard to track down. Funny you should mention the Seethaler as it came to mind as I was reading the blurb on the Giono on the NYRB website. That said, this sounds like the better book (shame I’ve got the Seethaler but not the Giono!). I do like the sound of it being a meditation of man’s relationship with nature.

  4. Caroline Says:

    I wanted to join this readalong as well but I ran out if time. I’ve read other books by Giono and they are always a joy. Will you read the other two in the trilogy as well? Since I didn’t like Seethaler either, I’m sure I’d like this.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’d like to read the other two (though I didn’t know when I read it that it was part of a trilogy). Are they simply his first three novels? If so, I’m not sure how easy they’ll be to get hold of.

      • Caroline Says:

        Yes, they are the first three. In French they are called La trilogie de Pan but usually they are not grouped in one book. I have the here (the French editions) and they seem longer than the first. I read and reviewed To the Slaughterhouse on my blog. It’s an outstanding book as well.

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

    […] 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 has to say about […]

  6. Scott W. Says:

    Just saw your review as I was posting mine, Grant, and am pleased to see that you appreciated this one as much as I did. I’m struck, in your choices of quotations, by what you note as “too many memorable phrases to mention,” since I picked out others and felt the same way. The language is just incredibly rich, isn’t it? I’ve commented in my post on the outstanding translation especially given the utterly exquisite and inimitable French original. I felt enormously grateful to be able to read both.

    I also love your point about the language never “straying” from the world of the novel, “enhancing the sense of a closed eco-system.” Giono quite literally constructs a world in his novel, while simultaneously thematically underscoring the importance of language in constructing the world, and your point also gets at the “ecological” vision that Giono conveys.

    I feel almost compelled to revisit Seethaler’s book, which I liked, but he is certainly no Jean Giono. To be fair, few writers are.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think I’ll be reading more of Giono before I return to Seethaler! Are there any of his novels in particular you would recommend?
      (When I was quoting I didn’t attempt to decide which were the very best lines – there was usually at least one worth quoting on every page!)

      • Scott W. Says:

        I should have corrected Dorian’s impression that I knew a lot about Giono. I don’t, other than this having not been my first encounter with him. I’ve now read four of his novels plus his enchanting The Man Who Planted Trees, and they have all been quite different, though filled with the same rapturous prose and attention to nature. Que ma joie demure (translated as Joy of Man’s Desiring may be my favorite, though I read it so many years ago I could well do with a re-read (in fact, I’ve already pulled it down from the shelf). He also wrote some interesting “pot-boilers” after WW2 when he came into disfavor for his pacifism, but in the one I read – Un Roi sans divertissement (A King Without Distraction – he can’t let go of an intensity in exploring the landscape and people of the region. I loved it. There’s a film version that doesn’t quite live up to the book but is interesting enough (and features, rather incongruously, the singer Colette Renard).

        I agree about finding at least one line per page worth quoting. As I noted in my post, the French is completely exquisite – which makes Eprile’s accomplishment that much more impressive.

      • 1streading Says:

        I certainly intend to read more of his work, but what I read next may depend on what I can get hold of. So much of what has been translated is now out of print.

      • banff1972 Says:

        I think Scott’s reply shows that he *does* know a lot about Giono. A lot more than most Anglophone readers, anyway. Keen to read more Giono. I’m really hoping NYRB or other publishers bring more of that stuff into print. Those potboilers sound especially intriguing…

      • 1streading Says:

        It would be great if NYRB had more in the pipeline. Or perhaps a publisher will reprint some of the novels Harvill brought out as Pushkin Press has done with Leo Perutz.

      • banff1972 Says:

        Here’s hoping someone in publishing is reading all these posts!

  7. banff1972 Says:

    I agree this book is a joy to read. Thanks for your review! I really admire how much you are able to say so succinctly. My posts are always too long. Completely agree that the book speaks very much to our concerns today. I wonder if that’s because it isn’t particualrly sociological (about the peasant way of life, say), even though it’s totally grounded in a specific place.

  8. Scott W. Says:

    I just want to second Dorian’s praise of your enviable ability to convey so much so succinctly!

    Also, addressing the other part of Dorian’s comment, I found Giono obviously had a deep understanding of the way of life of his peasants, but quite beautifully balanced the particular details he chose to convey about them with the more universal elements of his story. No, he’s not sociological – he not attempting a complete ethnography – but at the same time he gives a quite distinctive sense of how these people live, how they work, how they think about things, how they interact, how they view the outside world, what they eat, etc.

    • 1streading Says:

      That was one of the differences with Seethaler I felt – lived experience versus imagined.
      Thanks for introducing me to Giono!

    • banff1972 Says:

      Yes, I think that’s just right. It would be interesting to compare him to someone like Zola (maybe in The Earth?) to see how a different writer handles people who work closely with that land. Giono seems so at ease in the world he’s describing that he doesn’t feel the need to be an ethnographer of it.

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

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  10. Bellezza Says:

    The building tension, the ominous and mysterious mood, the personification throughout, all made this book so compelling to me. And, I like to muddle through exactly what the author is saying. To me, it was more about man vs. nature than anything else, but of course there were more profound things going on, such as putting the blame for misfortune on someone else. I loved the portrait of rural life, of life in France from another era. I loved picturing the scenes from the hill, even the fire with its candelabra to which Gondran succumbed was somehow glorious.

  11. Melissa Beck Says:

    Definitely a timeless book that shows man’s relationship with nature. The descriptions of rural life made for great prose even in translation!

  12. Frances Evangelista (@nonsuchbook) Says:

    “Stylistically, its short paragraphs and sections of direct speech perfectly suit both the characters and the building tension.” So true! I especially appreciated the way the dialogue was presented especially Janet’s interactions with people. One was not immediately sure who was speaking as the lines shot off one after the other without identifying the speaker directly. But very quickly, in small clever ways, the speech is so linked to how the character is defined that its source is clear. And that says a tremendous amount of a book that is not character driven – unless you count houses and cats and hills and many things as characters.

    • 1streading Says:

      I didn’t comment much on the dialogue but I thought it worked very well. The ‘knowing who was speaking’ also drew the reader into the community. I also felt the short paragraphs suited both the pace and the mindset of their life.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I don’t know the author or the book, so I’m glad I saved your review to read since it sounds tremendous. Marvellous quotes. It reminds me of the first John Berger I read (Pig Earth, there’s a review at mine) which focuses closely on French peasant life but without perhaps the same emphasis on nature itself. I should read this, and I should read the two books that followed that Berger given how much I liked it.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it’s been my find of the year so far. Not sure why people are finding it difficult to get hold of – NYRB books are usually easy to come by in the UK. You’ve reminded me that I must read John Berger, though.

    • banff1972 Says:

      I thought of those wonderful Berger novels as I was reading Hill too. They seem quite different though. Giono’s not a Marxist, for one thing. Maybe it’s that he takes less distance from his characters. Or that they’re different kinds of characters than Berger’s.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, it seems to be out of print in the UK, though perhaps the new edition just hasn’t arrived yet.

    I note Giono wrote The Horseman on the Roof. I don’t know the book but the film based on it is rather good.

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