Hill by Jean Giono “Do I Have What It Takes To Wrestle the Rage of These Hills?”

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The hill is “but a fold in the broad flesh of Mount Lure”, but in Jean Giono’s hands it becomes a formidable beast. Mentioned no less than 66 times in this book of a mere 144 pages, the hill is personified as a foe that the people who inhabit the four little houses nestled in the Bastides cannot seem to overcome.

“Before long we’ll be completely on our own. The whole hill has turned against us, the whole huge body of the hill. This hill that’s curved like a yoke that’s going to smash our heads. I see it. Now I see it. Now I know what I’ve been afraid of since this morning.”

Fear is a growing force within the novel; it comes subtly and relentlessly with each page turned. It came in the form of a cat (vaguely reminiscent to me of the cat in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), but also from the paralyzed body of Janet found almost drowned in the stream, and from the drying of the spring so that the people are without water, and from the sickness of little Marie, and finally from the fire which consumes the simpleton, Gagou.

“Do I have what it takes to wrestle the rage of these hills?”

It is a question fraught with ambiguity. Do hills have rage? Do any of us have what it takes to wrestle the forces which we feel work against us? Who, in fact, is stronger: nature or the efforts of mankind against it? I am reminded of this passage in Genesis:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:17-19

Janet does not acknowledge that the ground is cursed outright, but he does point at a greater power over it. He tells Jaume, who has come to seek his wisdom over what to do about the calamities which have befallen the inhabitants:

“You want to know what you need to do, only you don’t even know what kind of world you’re living in. You realize something’s against you, but you don’t know what. And all this because you’ve been staring at what’s around you without really seeing it. I bet you’ve never given any thought to the great power? The great power of the animals, plants, and rock. Earth isn’t made for you alone to keep on using the way you’ve been used to, on and on, without getting some advice from the master every once in a while. You’re like a tenant farmer-and then there’s the landlord. The landlord in his handsome, six-button jacket, his brown corduroy vest, his sheepskin coat. Do you know him, the landlord?”

Giono presents a theme we’re familiar with today, using the earth as though her resources will never end. As though man can take what has been given without any thought of its cessation.

And, I’m intrigued with the mention of the landlord from Janet, who surely recognizes an authority greater than his own even if he does not call it God; who surely recognizes the need to take care of all that we’ve been given, be it animals, plants, rocks, or even one another.

In their minds, the paralyzed elder, Janet, has ultimately become the reason for the evil that they have encountered. In killing him the inhabitants of the hill have fought against the forces of nature they feel have come to overpower them. Oddly enough, after his death, the water from the fountain begins to flow once again.

The Hill is a little book with much to contemplate. The questions are deep, the writing beautiful. How I loved the personification that Giano uses; phrases such as these: “A mulberry tree makes cooing sounds as it’s tousled by the moon’s wan hand,” make the pages sing for me. Even while I tried to muddle through exactly what it is he intends to say.

I read this novel with Dorian of Eiger, Munch & Jungfrau; Scott of Seraillon, and Gary of 1st Reading. There is also a beautiful review at The Bookbinder’s Daughter, as well as Shelf Love and nonsuch book.

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19 comments

  1. I don’t know. A sentence like “A mulberry tree makes cooing sounds as its tousled by the moon’s wan hand” is such a mixed metaphor it’s hardly a surprise you found yourself muddling. That sort of thing often signals an author who’s trying too hard. And I do hope the “its” in that sentence is your typo (wholly forgivable, by the way). If not, the author needs a better editor. I don’t mean to be snarky; it’s just that things like that can cause me to stop reading.

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    1. No, no it was my error. I ‘let’ autocorrect have its way, and I’ve since gone back and fixed it. Shame on me for not proofreading more carefully! But, don’t let that sentence fool you into thinking that this is an unimportant book; rather visit the posts of those who read it with me. They have significant insights into a novel I found compelling and beautiful, but could not as coherently portray.

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  2. I’m so clueless: at first I thought: oh, where did she get that poster of the cover of Hill? Then I realized: that’s an e-reader version! I’m so 20th century…

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    1. Not clueless, I prefer 20th century myself so much of the time. Only, I could not get hold of a paper edition of this novel before we were to post on it; hence the ebook for my kindle.

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  3. I like that, unlike the rest of us who’ve written about Hill, you’ve focused on the hill itself (and the advantage of e-reader: finding that Giono uses the word 66 times!). It occurred to me that the story has a lot of the ingredients of a horror movie: a community battling a monster, trying to subdue it.

    I’d also marked that great passage containing Janet’s speech about the “landlord,” how for all his apparent malice he grasps the carelessness with which people treat the earth and its treasures.

    The language is so beautiful in this novel, especially (and your “mulberry tree” line exhibits this so nicely) how he constantly melds the natural with the human and vice-versa. The images are so striking, and work so beautifully together to underscore Giono’s theme of the earth being alive. There’s another lovely one I marked involving trees (Giono is obsessed with trees), one of the rare instances where I had a quibble with Eprile’s translation. The translation reads: “It’s strong – a tree. A hundred years it’s spent holding up the weight of the sky, with a hopelessly twisted branch.” It’s a great image, a poetic line, but in the French the verb Eprile translates as “holding up” is “répousser” – to repel or push back against, quite a different thing. And “hopelessly” is something Eprile has inserted himself; it’s not in the original at all, though I assume he was trying to convey something stronger than merely “twisted” since Giono’s word – “tortue” – is stronger (and rather typically strange as well, since it’s an uncommon version of “tordue” such that it evokes both deformity and slowness).

    Anyway, I’m so glad you joined in for the group read!

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    1. How it is that you’re able to leave a comment as long as my post, but more meaty, is beyond me; however, I’m so glad you took the time to come over and leave your thoughts.

      After reading your review, and Gary’s, and Dorian’s, and Melissa’s, I wonder how it is that I neglect to analyze so much of the book. I guess I focus on what is significant to me, and in this case it was definitely the hill. (I’m flummoxed as to the meaning of the cat other than a harbinger of woe, but surely Giono meant more than that?!)

      The hill had to be significant if that’s what Giono chose for the title of his work, and that is why I looked for it’s importance. (And true, an e-reader is helpful in discovering how often the word appeared.) While I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel that he was saying the ground was cursed, or surely fighting against man’s efforts to survive, and this the reference to Genesis. But, there is so much more than that…

      The idea of a “landlord”, the idea of Gagou and the daughter who obviously loved him…remember how her expression changed when she learned of his death? The idea of preserving the land which we’ve been given, all these themes are timeless and still pondered over in this 21st century.

      I’ve come to adore books with no clear answer, something I learned primarily from Japanese literature, and I’m so glad you and Dorian called for this group read. I only wish that my French was as strong as it used to be; how wonderful to read this book in its original language and point out the inconsistencies despite the translator’s best efforts.

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  4. I really liked the ambiguity of the book, the way the Hill and the whole natural world feel like characters with a will, even though you can never be sure that they actually have a will or what their will would be. I’m going to have to consider the landlord image a little more. God seems absent from the book, but I did note a mention of them women trimming the wick of the lamp during the night of the fire, which could be a biblical reference reminding us that they are waiting for the judgment from God/Nature/the Landlord/the Hill.

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  5. I did not notice the mention of the women trimming the wick, so glad you brought that to my attention. For me, the biblical references are explicit, even though I can’t say that’s what Giono intended. But, maybe he did; that striking the lizard/serpent story, the way that the ground of the hill is seen as almost evil or cursed, and now the trimming of the wick by the women…fascinating to consider. His whole novel is fascinating, so multi-faceted and full of implications.

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  6. You’re right – the characters recognise a higher power, one that works through nature (or is nature). I found my own reaction fascinating as, though I was aware of their superstitions, I was unable to entirely dismiss them as irrational.

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    1. That’s the thing about superstitions: they seem to hold enough validity as to become truth for many people.

      I think we all want something to believe in, whether it’s God, or a “landlord”‘of sorts, or a superstition, people seem to need something other than themselves to count on.

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  7. Appreciate the way you focus on Janet, and you certainly point to a need to re-read his “rantings” again. The concept of a landlord here was one I struggled with – so trickily ambiguous that I still cannot decide if that is a malevolent or beneficent force. Does this landlord guard the natural world and/or seek revenge upon those who try to assert undeserved power over it? When we discuss the possibility of rereading with the lens of mythogical/classical studies, I immediately look at this brief passage. Their has to be some antecedent to that landlord that has not occurred to me yet. Like I keep saying, I really need to read this again.

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  8. With my Christian perspective, I tend to see the landlord as God, although I’m not assuming that is what Giono is saying. I’ll have to reread, as you say, to discern if Janet means someone benevolent as well as in authority. To me, he’s implying that it is our responsibility to care for the earth; disasters are perhaps a consequence of our mistreatment.

    But, I wouldn’t presume to speak for Giono other than to give my interpretation. Like so many Japanese books I’ve read, this novel seems ambiguous in many places. I recall how Haruki Murakami advises readers to be “wide open to possibilities.” Which, I think, we all are.

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