Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jean Giono's The Horseman on the Roof - ill suited to any romanticism

Thinking ahead to a likely visit to Provence, I read what must be the best possible book for Provence tourists, Jean Giono’s The Horseman on the Roof (1951, tr. Jonathan Griffin).  An Italian nobleman is passing through Provence for some reason.  He has the bad luck, although in a sense his luck is better than that of many, to be there when the Asiatic cholera of 1832 breaks out, killing about a hundred thousand people in France on this pass.  Giono describes, in repulsive detail, I would guess about ten thousand of those deaths as Angelo rides and fights his way to – well, not safety but rather more comprehensible dangers.

I am quoting historian Jürgen Osterhammel’s passage on cholera from The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2009, tr. Patrick Camiller, p. 190):

Its symptomatology underlined its horrifying nature: it appeared suddenly and could theoretically strike anyone, leading with plague-like probability (more than 50 percent of cases) to death in a time that might be as short as a few hours.  Unlike smallpox, which causes a high fever, cholera is always described as a “cold” illness; unlike tuberculosis or “consumption,” it is ill suited to any romanticism.

The Horseman on the Roof is a historical post-apocalyptic novel, not a genre I know well.  It is as unflinchingly disgusting as the visual post-apocalyptic works I have seen, meaning comic books like The Walking Dead and Y the Last Man that seem to want their artists to draw every drop of escaped human fluid.  How much time do today’s comic book artists practice drawing viscera?   I would love to read a comparison of Giono’s novel and The Road.  Here is a sample that is horrifying but not so disgusting:

At Orange station the passengers in a train from Lyon began to pound as hard as they could on their carriage doors to get someone to come and let them out.  They were dying of thirst; many had vomited and were writhing with colic.  The engine-driver came along with the keys, but after opening two of the doors he could not open the third: he went away and rested his forehead on a railing; after a time he fell against it.  (Ch. 1, p. 16)

How handy for certain kinds of plotting to have a disease that makes characters drop dead on the spot.  The perverse thing is that The Horseman on the Roof, although constructed on a pile of blue corpses, is at heart 1) a complex and artful depiction of the Provence landscape and 2) a work of deep humanism.  Angelo, the Italian horseman, is deeply, existentially, concerned with heroism, with honor and glory, which makes him a plausible man of his time, but also with serious questions about how to live that are more those of a French writer of 1951, or of today.  How to do good.

I will make some attempt to pursue those ideas in my next couple of posts.

The 1995 Jean-Paul Rappeneau film, and how else could it function, tones down the horror quite a lot and turns the story into more of a Dumas-like adventure.  Much of the pleasure of the film is spending time gazing upon two actors who were among the best-looking humans on earth; too much body horror would spoil the effect.  I likely remember the movie poorly.  That was over twenty years ago.


  1. Provence for tourists, huh? Try Pagnol.

    I remember vividly the descriptions of death by cholera. When you read this, you understand why "choisir entre la peste et le choléra" is a French expression meaning "to be between a rock and a hard place."

    PS : When the film was released, all the girls were half in love with Olivier Martinez.

  2. I'll try to think about a more contemporary book about Provence. So far none comes to mind.

  3. In English, there are so many contemporary books about Provence, mostly sentimentalized tourist goo.

    Pagnol is someone I really ought to read. I've seen the film adaptations, the more recent ones. I see that Giono and Pagnol were born two days apart, so when they are writing about their childhood Provence, it is about the exact same time.