Jean de Florette & Manon of the Springs (Two Novels) - Marcel Pagnol, W.E. van Heyningen

Jean de FloretteThe Water of the Hillspremière partie

Jean de Florette is the first part of Marcel Pagnol's moving, humorous, mournful, triumphant two-part novel titled The Water of the Hills. His story, set in the bucolic hillside of Provence, is a lesson in the power of nature- of the land in its capacity for sustaining life and destroying it; it represents the varying shades of human nature, determined resolve and resilience. Family, and the continuity of generations are also a significant aspect of the novel's theme.

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The provincial drama sets the sly, old peasant Cesar Soubeyran(aka Papet), and his dimwitted nephew, Ugolin(aka Galinette) against the cultured, refined hunchback from Crespin, Jean Cadoret, focusing on a plot of land that is fundamental to them all. 

On the deaths of his grandfather and his mother, Florette, Jean inherits a farm, Les Romarins, near the small town of Les Bastides. Being disgusted with city life in Crespin, he moves with his wife, Aimee and little daughter, Manon, devising grandiose plans to cultivate and live off the land. The Soubeyrans have their own schemes for the land--rich of soil, under which flows the eponymous natural springs--and deviously plot to sabotage Jean's endeavors.

The ill-treatment of Jean de Florette from the villagers of Les Bastides bears a slight resemblance to that of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame character, Quasimodo. He is looked upon as an unwelcomed stranger, an outsider, mistrusted, alienated, and even abused by a 'stray' boule. 

Jean's farming devices are successful when nature is kind, but eventually, he is dishearteningly defeated by its destructive wrath. His refusal to 'never give up' stems from the city life he left, where he was humiliated, also for his hunchback. The stubbornness and determination to forge on, despite the disastrous toll on his finances and health, not withstanding the devious actions of the Soubeyrans, lead to his tragic downfall, creating the opportunity for the Soubeyrans to takeover the coveted land.

Pagnol's dual tales were well rendered in film, but to read the novel version was a sheer delight. His literary style was easy flowing, his prose vivid. Many a well-turned phrase made me utter praise for the author and the translator.

Part One ends: ***weeps uncontrollably***
Jean's story, as anticipated, ends tragically but very compelling to catapult the reader head on to the next part. ( Jean de Florette trailer, 1986)


Manon of the SpringsThe Water of the Hillsdeuxième partie
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The story picks up a few years later. Papet, anxious for an heir to continue the Soubeyran bloodline, has only his not-too-sharp-thinking nephew, Ugolin, to consider. He justifies his family's lineage: "partly out of pride and partly not to be separated from their money, they intermarry, cousin to cousin, and even uncles and nieces... At the end of four or five generations you get a maniac like my grand uncle, Elzéar. Two maniacs and three suicides. And now there's the two of us, and I don't count anymore. Now this Soubeyran family is you!" 

Manon, now a teenaged beauty, educated, smart and a bit of a wildling shepherdess, is at the center of attention. The self-indulgent Ugolin choosing her for a wife and obsesses about her to an ever-climbing psychopathic degree: "I saw you when you were bathing in the rain pool... I looked at you for a long time, you were so beautiful I was afraid of committing a crime." (not a very gallant way to declare one's love, dimwit!)

Manon could hardly recognize him after four years, "but this person had played a large part in her past ...since her childhood he had inspired in her an irrational aversion, and since he had taken the farm from her, this aversion had turned to hate."

The stirrings of love enters Manon's heart for the first time, but they are for Bernard, the new schoolteacher in Les Bastides. Besides the tension of love-rivalry, Manon realizes the treacherous hand that Ugolin and his uncle played in her father's ultimate demise: 

"The long suffering of her father, his three years of heroic effort, had become almost ridiculous ...the little hunter had said that people had laughed at him. It was not the blind forces of nature, or the cruelty of fate, that he had fought for such a long time, but the tricks and hypocrisy of stupid peasants, sustained by the silence of a coalition of miserable wretches, whose spirit was as low as their feet. He was no longer a vanquished hero, but the pitiable victim of a monstrous farce, a weakling who had employed all his efforts for the amusement of an entire village."

The way she settles her revenge is one of the book's bitter ironies that inspired a hearty: "You go, girl!" from this reader.

Pagnol portrayed the French pastoral life and small town idiosyncrasies with precise accuracy, down to the petty little squabbles, superstitions, jealousies, prejudices, and even the little secrets no-one claims to 'know' about:

"The 'band of unbelievers' (thus referred since they never went to mass) would often gather around the terrace of Philoxène's café for gossip, and so they talked about 'other people's business,' but by means of discreet allusions--for example, when the baker said one evening: "some families are really on good terms with each other," it was because Petoffi had just gone by and he was suspected of being the father of his sister-in-law's child."

On the lighter side, these characteristics of the townfolk are more amoral than fatalistic; mostly, they are humorously co-mingled with the community's bond of camaraderie, and general sense of good nature, once they get to know you. For, if called upon to dig a little deeper, they would put aside the pettiness for the sense of 'right and good conscience' to surface. (Manon of the Springs trailer, 1986)

Revenge, justice, well-conceived ironic twists, and the examination of earthly dark and lightness: melodramatically build the final part of this captivating, well-written novel of the forces of nature, both divine and humanistic; a fertile mixture of tears and laughs, which I could only highly recommend.