Wednesday, June 28, 2017

it was impossible to recognize anything familiar - Jean Giono makes it strange

The Horseman on the Roof is full of magnificent, original imagery of the Provence landscape.  The story is about Angelo, the horseman, trying to avoid quarantines, murderous mobs, thieves, and cholera, the latter the cause of all of the former.  Meanwhile, earth abides.  Perhaps there is irony here.  Giono’s numerous, repulsive descriptions of death by disease are not exactly clinical, but nor are they voyeuristic.  Death by disease is part of nature.  The novel is full of nature.

The light, crushed to a fine irritant dust, rubbed its sandpaper over the drowsy horse and rider, and over the little trees, which it gradually spirited away into worn air, whose coarse texture quivered, mingling smears of greasy yellow with dull ochers, with great slabs of chalk wherein it was impossible to recognize anything familiar.  (Ch. 1, p. 14)

The book, the imagistic side of it, is an exercise in “make it strange,” the human world made strange by the cholera, the natural world distorted by the heat.  The next sentences:

The slopes poured down into the valley the stale reek of everything that had died within the vast radius of these pale hills.  Tree stumps and skins; ants’ nests; little cages of ribs the size of a fist; skeletons of snakes like broken chains of silver; patches of slaughtered flies like handfuls of dried currants; dead hedgehogs whose bones looked like chestnuts in their burrs; vicious shreds of wild boars strewn over wide threshing-floors of agony; trees devoured from head to foot, stuffed with sawdust to the tips of their branches, which the thick air kept standing; carcasses of buzzards fallen into the boughs of oaks on which the sun beat down; or the sharp stink of the heated sap along the hawthorn trunks.

This is some mix of close observation and hallucination.  Provence is consumed by death before the cholera comes (it comes in the next paragraph).  “The heat reached [Avignon] the same day, and its first blasts crumbled the sickliest trees” (16).  Then comes the nightmare in the Orange train station I quoted yesterday, and a series of other horrors.

Nature turns against man.  Angelo is sleeping on the roofs of the town of Manosque, Jean Giono’s home, in order to escape the plague and give the novel a title:

His eyes had been shut for an uncertain length of time when he felt himself being slapped by downy little paws, struck painfully about the temples, and claws raking through his hair as if someone were trying to plow it up.

He was covered with swallows, which were pecking at him.

They thought he was a corpse, as was entirely likely.  Even more horrifying is a later passage in which the butterflies, “yellow, red and black, white ones spotted with red, and huge ones, almost as big as sparrows,” become a menace, or at least, in this world, feel like one.

They had invaded and covered the road; they floated between the horses’ legs.  Their colors, endlessly darting, tired the eyes, induced a kind of vertigo.  They were soon mingled with swarms of blue flies and wasps, whose heavy humming urged sleep in spite of the morning.  (Ch. 11, 312)

Later, though, viewed from above, “[t]he butterflies sparkled like sand” (332).

The great beauty of Giono’s descriptive writing is thoroughly mediated, ironicized, and distorted.  The historical event, the epidemic, allows Giono to use the landscape in which he spent his whole life without the usual sentimentality.  The result is the perfect book for Provence tourists with a sense of history and irony.

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