April's NYRB Classics Book Club selection is Jean Giono's Hill, which I thought I had better pick up and begin reading in earnest before May comes along and a new book appears in my mailbox. I started reading and decided that it was going to be one of those books which is deceptively simple. Slender though it may be, coming in at just over 100 pages, it is lush and brims with meaning. So, I turned back to the beginning and read the introduction, which I normally save until after I have finished a book fearing potential spoilers. Sometimes, however, introductions are really helpful before reading a book. David Abram's introduction is really helpful, but he offers so much (very articulate) helpful information that I am going to have to go back and reread it when I have finished the story!
I think I could write a whole post about the introduction alone which is going to take me a while to process, but let me just share a few things from it, and then a teaser of Giono's writing. I have read his work on a couple of occasions. I started this year's reading with the fable (and I highly recommend it if you have not yet read it) The Man Who Planted Trees. Several years ago, however, I read his WWI novel, To the Slaughterhouse, which was a raw, visceral sort of read. It is a war story to end all war stories, and if you read it, you might find that you are a different person coming out of the book than you were going in.
Hill is Giono's first published work and I am very intrigued by it and will be curious to really get into the story. Apparently in this as well as in his other first works "the primary actors are the elemental powers of the more-than-human earth that enable and and necessarily influence all the human happenings". And a teaser from the opening page to give you a taste:
"Four houses, orchids flowering up to the eaves, emerge from a dense stand of grain."
"Up there among the hills, where earth's flesh folds in thick rolls."
"Sinfoin in bloom bleeds red under the olive trees. Bees dance around birches sticky with sap."
"A fountain murmurs and overflows in two streams that plunge from a ledge and scatter in the wind. Gurgling under the grass, they reunite and course through a bed of rushes."
"The wind hums in the plane trees."
"These are the Bastides Blanches, the White Houses."
"The remnants of a hamlet perched halfway between the plain, where steam-powered threshers roar in tumult, and the vast, lavender wasteland, the wind's domain, in the frigid shadow of the mountain range of Lure."
"The land of wind."
Interestingly the story opens with lots of description of place--earth and wind and animals--an imposing vista and Mount Lure dominates the backdrop where the town sits perched. It takes a few pages before the little village, what that it is, begins to populate with actual people and then there will only be a baker's dozen or so. This story, I have read, will be about the beauty and the terror of nature. Despite having been written in 1929, it is just as timely now as it was then and certainly most prescient. How did he see, how did he know what is coming? Actually, what is here now. Maybe from his experiences during the war when he saw how man and mechanization could not just damage but literally wipe out the countryside and the people in it?
Okay, so since I am thinking about language and how Giono uses it, and this is something that is discussed in some detail in the introduction I will share just one more quote and I am afraid it is going to be quite a mouthful. (This is why I will be reading it again when I have finished the story).
" . . . Giono showed that by using corporeal and sensorial turns of phrase that mingle the flesh of humans and other animals with that of plants and earthly elements; by wielding metaphors that merge weather phenomena with sensations that we feel in our torso or our limbs; by combining in one extended metaphor terms are drawn from different sensory modalities (that is, by using audible terms to describe visual phenomena, or tactile terms to describe olfactory sensations)--such intellectual notions begin to be experienced as visceral, felt realities."
I think this is going to be a story that is not only easy to bring to the imagination but one quite thoughtful and using a language well ahead of its time. I hope to make quick work of it this week and will be back soon to share more of the story.