26 April 2015

Jean Giono: Colline | Hill of Destiny (1929)

Born in Manosque where he also died, Jean Giono was the son of a shoemaker born in Provence and of Italian descent. He is one of the great uncompromising Provençal writers with nothing of the sentimentalism and commercialism of Marcel Pagnol. The first novel he wrote was Naissance de l'Odyssée – the title of which reveals a major source of his inspiration – although it was not actually the first novel of his to be published.

Colline (1929) – translated as Hill of Destiny (and now Hill) – was the first one published and is the first part of the Pan trilogy, the others being Un de Baumugnes (also 1929, and translated as Lovers Are Never Losers) and Regain (1930, translated as Second Harvest). Colline is set in a peasant community near Manosque in the imaginary hamlet of Les Bastides Blanches, which has just twelve inhabitants, and the novel is steeped in mythology and superstition.

Les Bastides Blanches is not a hermetic community – goods are sold to neighbouring communities and the postman and doctor make occasional visits – but it is otherwise cut off from the outside world. Here, Gondran lives with his wife Marguerite and Janet, his eighty-year-old former alcoholic father-in-law who is the éminence grise of the story; Arbaud lives with his wife Babette and two very young daughters; Maurras live with his mother; Jaume is considered as the leader of the community, and just lives with his daughter Ulalie now that his wife has hanged herself for reasons that remain completely unclear; and finally there's Gagou, the community idiot who lives in a self-made 'cabin' and who enjoys a sexual relationship with Ulalie because, well, she doesn't really have anyone else to choose.

Bedridden, Janet starts to babble and things start to go radically wrong. First, the well – the community's only source of water – refuses to work. Then Arbaud and Babette's young child Marie falls seriously ill and Jaume's copy of Dr François-Vincent Raspail's medical manual doesn't help.* It's as though Les Bastides Blanches is cursed, as if Nature is taking its revenge on the humans. And the appearance of a black cat is seen as a very negative omen. In desperation, Jaume looks to Janet for advice, but all he gets is pantheistic doom-laden words and insults.

Jaume suspects Janet is responsible for the community's misfortunes, and he believes that his theory is backed up when he notices the black cat on Janet's bed. After a fire nearly destroys the hamlet, Jaume calls the men together and tells them that the only way they can ease their burden is to kill Janet. A job which is easily done, and suddenly the well begins to work again.

A really striking aspect of Giono's dialogue writing is its directness, its trueness to life, which must have come across at the time as a little coarse?

*Boulevard Raspail in Paris is named after the amazing François-Vincent Raspail, of whom much more later this year.

My Jean Giono posts:
Sylvie Giono: Jean Giono à Manosque
Jean Giono: L' Homme qui plantait des arbres
Jean Giono: Le Hussard sur le toit
Jean Giono: Colline | Hill of Destiny
Jean Giono: Un de Baumugnes | Lovers Are Never Losers
Jean Giono in Manosque
Jean Giono: Notes sur l'affaire Dominici
Jean Giono's grave, Manosque, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

there is a new translation coming out in April that looks fantastic - check out the Kirkus Reviews - it's called Hill with a probably great intro by David Abraham