While searching for works of fiction in which non-human presences—animal, vegetable, or mineral—are as essential as human ones, I stumbled upon Hill, a wondrously strange and enduringly vital novel by French writer Jean Giono, first published in 1929. New York Review Books Classics has recently reissued Hill (Colline in the original French) in an energetic new translation by Canadian poet Paul Eprile.
I’d never encountered Giono’s work, and when I first heard his name, I mistook it for that of the mid-century American poet John Giorno. But no, Jean Giono is the prolific and celebrated twentieth-century French writer now not much available in English. Largely self-taught, he lived most of his life in a small town in rural Provence, the landscape of Hill. Among Giono’s feats: his decision to translate Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a work that he loved, into French along with a friend, despite knowing little English. The translation, reworked from a word-for-word version provided by an English antiques dealer, was published in 1941 alongside Giono’s ostensible introduction, which morphed into an idiosyncratic stand-alone creation, part pseudo-biography, part lyric novel. NYRB will reissue Melville in a new translation by Eprile this year.
Giono’s brutal experiences during the First World War turned him into a pacifist. He was imprisoned without charge during the Second World War because his pacifism made others suspect him of collaboration. He died in 1970.
I fell into Hill with the words of British writer Paul Kingsnorth ringing in my ears. Kingsnorth, a novelist and ecological activist, is one of the minds behind the Dark Mountain Project, which seeks to revitalize contemporary literature by asking what new kinds of narrative we need in these ecologically perilous and politically turbulent times. He co-authored the Uncivilisation manifesto, one of Dark Mountain’s foundational texts, which states: “The shifting of emphasis from man to notman: this is the aim of Uncivilised writing. . . . This is not a rejection of our humanity—it is an affirmation of the wonder of what it means to be truly human.”
Okay, the phrase “man to notman” would not be mine. Still, I’m all in when it comes to finding ways to extend our attention to “the more-than-human earth,” as ecologist David Abram, who writes the introduction to this new edition of Hill, describes it. And I’m particularly interested in what form this empathetic extension might take in fiction.
In Hill, everything is alive. The same feverish energy pulses through plants, animals, hills, people, sky. There is a human drama, but really there is a human and hill and animal and plant and water drama. The humans are somewhat but not exclusively foregrounded, a defamiliarizing alteration of balance. We are introduced to a hamlet of four houses already almost lost within a landscape that bleeds, dances, hums. Trains and a mechanized thresher are noted in passing at the periphery of this world, but they are far off. The first subjectivity we encounter is that of a wild boar, making his way to drink and wallow at the local spring. What makes Giono’s writing most distinctive, though, is the way the novel’s restless consciousness keeps moving through a landscape that is itself in constant, metamorphosing motion, one in which, through insistent metaphor, everything alive is continually and almost overwhelmingly connected to everything else.
A doctor arrives to examine the village’s oldest inhabitant, Janet, felled by a stroke. Janet has always seen more than the rest of the villagers, to “the other side of the air.” Now, he’s either visionary or delirious, divinatory or full of devilish malice, or all of the above. He tells his son-in-law, Gondran, that he has snakes in his hands, that curls of smoke are women, and that he once killed a toad with the eyes of a man. The next day, a new kind of silence descends. Janet gives Gondran a warning: “This is bad. Take it from me, boy, it was just like this when it started up the other time.” But he refuses to say more.
The silence precipitates its own unease. Off in his olive grove, Gondran kills a lizard. Filled with shame, he has a sudden awareness of the blood coursing through all living things, even trees, but this recognition comes to him as a perception of all-encompassing suffering in which he is a murderer. Overcome by his vision’s hallucinatory strength, he projects his self-disgust outward, twisting it into a conviction that the earth, identified as female, will exact her revenge. “She’ll haul me up to where the skylarks lose their breath.” He shares both vision and conviction with the other men, and they grow vigilant, searching for threats. Half a day later, the spring, source of the village’s water, dries up without warning. Days after that, the whole hillside erupts into flame, a wildfire set accidentally by people clearing fields below.
Three men have an experience of extreme animism in which the world beyond the human is suddenly revealed to be as alive as they are: Janet, Gondran, and Jaume, the hunter. Four if you include Gagou, the village simpleton, who unwittingly leads the men to a new spring; is variously described as ecstatic, animal-like, and with a monstrous shadow; and whom the natural world, impartially destructive, eventually swallows. No women are offered this revelation, which is presented not as fey or folkloric but as estrangingly intense. Maybe a woman’s experience would be different, but apart from Jaume’s daughter, Ulalie, they remain largely housebound.
Jaume, who believes “you have to treat these hills rough, like a horse,” sees old Janet as bound up in the menace, even its source, the one who has turned the hill they live beneath against them. Seeking guidance, he visits Janet, paralyzed and laid out in his son-in- law’s kitchen. Janet taunts and verbally attacks Jaume before offering up a vision in which a landlord who has the blood of all things in his veins soothes the natural world. Janet never uses the word god, and anyway, this figure, gentle overseer though he may be, is too enmeshed in nature to resemble the Christian god. Jaume is confounded by this talk and by Janet’s admonition that he get to know the rocks and be tender to all living things. “Tenderness! He said ‘Tenderness.’ Like it’s that easy.”
Jaume doesn’t deny what Janet has shown him. “From now on it’s going to be necessary to live in a lit-up world, and it’s painful.” But pain becomes terror, the only way Jaume seems capable of living with the recognition of being enmeshed in so much sentience. Terror unites the men but, seeking a source, turns itself upon the land, making it terrible. I was reminded of Robinson Crusoe, set upon a fecund island where he builds an impenetrable fortress against the unknown and takes years to realize he might milk the friendly goats he kills for food.
The paradox of human consciousness is its ability to sense the possibility of other consciousnesses while rejecting this potential, a problem that besets more than French peasants. Fear drives Jaume to find a human scapegoat, Janet, the one who “conjured up countries, hills, rivers, trees, wild animals”; “a whole world being born out of his words.”
Giono’s own sympathies lie explicitly on the side of recognizing sentience. He says as much in the quote that opens Abram’s introduction, which is a lucid argument for the book’s timeliness. “Toutes les erreurs de l’homme viennent de ce qu’il s’imagine marcher sur une chose inerte alors que ses pas s’impriment dans la chair pleine.” (All man’s errors arise because he imagines that he walks upon an inert thing when really his footsteps press themselves upon a flesh full of life.)
But Hill, which Giono describes as a poem rather than a novel, doesn’t moralize. Instead, it teems, tumbles, and self-contradicts. Much of the life of the book radiates from its similes and metaphors. I reread Hill alongside Alice Oswald’s new collection Falling Awake and her earlier Dart, and Oswald’s poetry feels in conversation with Hill: there’s the same roving consciousness that speaks from various parts of the natural world—stone, river, rain, badger, as well as human—offering a profound sense of interpenetration.
In Hill, everything has a body or is a body, including a house. A vine looks like a moustache. A fire has muscles and bones. Olive groves sing. Willow trees growl like a dog. The hill has a haunch. Nothing is inert. The metaphors relentlessly return us to animate materiality and insist that embodiment is not only a human condition. The comparisons flow both ways. Bed-bound Janet is like a tree trunk, a sick girl is a heather root. Everything is compared to everything else with both abandon and necessity, Giono’s metaphorizing impulse as compulsive as that of his hero Melville. The aesthetic and ethical equivalency created between humans and the natural world may be risky (see Jaume’s condemnation of Janet) but is fearless and makes Hill feel exhilaratingly wild. This ain’t no pastoral. To steal Paul Kingsnorth’s phrase, it is uncivilized.
I’ve only read short passages in French, enough to sense that Eprile’s translation conveys the blunt, declarative immediacy and often odd word choices of the original. Eprile, of Creemore, Ontario, began the translation as a labour of love, and its route to publication was winding and serendipitous. He discovered Giono’s work on a bookstand in rural France and started translating Colline for himself, often spending days searching for an exact word. He could not interest any publishers in republishing the book (long out of print in English after its 1929 publication in the United States under the creaky title Hill of Destiny) until the director of the Association des Amis de Jean Giono in France put him in touch with Edmund White, a fan of Giono’s work. It was White who introduced him to an editor at New York Review Books.
The newly translated Hill reaches us at a moment when I can read elsewhere that trees have social networks and may be chemically aware of our presence. While I suppose it’s possible to read Hill as an extraordinary literary fantasy, whose metaphoric life remains symbolic, I believe that Giono wants his metaphors to take on a literal life, spurring us to re-see and enter the fully sentient world he holds close to us. The revelation isn’t consoling. The spirit of Hill is as brutal as it is joyous. The invitation that it extends remains radical.
Catherine Bush is the author of the novels Accusation, Claire’s Head, The Rules of Engagement, and Minus Time. She lives in Toronto, where she coordinates the University of Guelph Creative Writing M.F.A. program.