David Abram introduces the new Paul Eprile translation of Jean Giono's Hill with great insights into language and storytelling, but it was a very small piece of those introductory remarks that especially caught my attention.
"It might be worth pointing out that the author did not title his novel La Colline (The Hill) but rather Colline (Hill). Given that nouns, in French, are pretty much always preceded by a definite or indefinite article, the fact that here Hill stands on its own seems significant. Indeed atop Giono's manuscript, he had written "La Colline," but then had crossed out the definite article. Perhaps the reason lies here: When we use a definite or indefinite article in front of any noun - a bear, the bear - it entails a slight distance from that being, either for classification (as one bear among many) or specification (the bear, there). But when we dispense with an article and speak of this presence as Bear, there is no distance. The object involves us totally."The Hill" determines a particular hill that we may approach or envision from a distance. Hill names a power that absorbs us, and may even, perhaps, subsume us."
The last line there came off a little over-blown to me, more of a reaction to the text itself than the linguistic difference he astutely points out, but the gist of what Abram says here also speaks to intimacy with all the weight that the word implies. It is not a hill but Hill. It has a name as we do, and invites us to consider the power of the non-human components of our world in terms other than romanticized, or to another extreme, feared or in the least desirable sense, ignored.
When we consider the first line of the novel, a description of "[f]our houses, orchids flowering up to the eaves,emerg[ing] from a dense stand of grain," our experiences as readers could easily lead us to romantic assumptions of a pastoral ideal. Yet on that very first page, the plant and animal life around these "remnants of a hamlet" are described in humanized terms - "earth's flesh folds in thick rolls," "[s]anfoin in bloom bleeds red," "a fountain murmurs," "[t]he wind hums." Blood and milk flow from all forms of life in this novel as the powers of life and death. Humanity is clearly not the master of this domain.
So four houses with just a dozen residents that live a simple life, existing off of what the land yields. They can see other communities from where they are perched, but are of considerable distance from them for practical purposes. When Janet, the old man in their small community, takes to bed after something like a stroke, he begins to speak inexplicably and threateningly about both the power he wields over what they require to survive and the parts of nature of which they have no understanding. Then suddenly, the fountain stops and the residents have to desperately search for other sources of water. And other serious challenges begin to present themselves. All the while, Janet lies in his bed, resisting requests for his help and inviting the reader to question his motivations, his origin even. This struggle between human and non-human forces expands gorgeously through the complex text that seems to command more than a mere 112 pages.
What I really want to do in order to have a deeper understanding of the text is to explore different depictions of Pan as alluded to here and otherwise. The character of Janet can be confusing because he appears a malevolent force, often one with the natural forces threatening his family and neighbors. That would lead one to believe that nature itself is a darker force than the respectful, conciliatory conception we have in a few places at novel's end. This novel was linguistically delightful and so full of interpretive possibilities that I really think it deserves a second read. Maybe soon.
I was lucky enough to read this novel in the company of Dorian of Eiger, Munch & Jungfrau, Scott of Seraillon, Meredith of Dolce Bellezza, Grant of 1st Reading, Melissa of The Bookbinder’s Daughter, and Teresa of Shelf Love.