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On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

February 7, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin (1982) Translated into French by Georges and Marion Scali. French title: Les jumeaux de Black Hill.

I’m awfully late for the billet regarding our Book Club read for January. It was On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. I only finished it this week. Sure, work and life got in the way but mostly I wasn’t motivated to finish it, something I’ll try to explain in my billet. But first things first, the plot.

Chatwin_GrassetOn the Black Hill relates the life of twin brothers, Benjamin and Lewis Jones in Wales from the beginning of the 20th century to their death in their 80s. I’ve read it in French and it’s lovely. It’s undeniable. It’s well written (and well translated). Chatwin puts a lot of poetry in the description of the land, the peasants and the Jones dynamics as a family. The twins’ mother, Mary was from a higher social class than her peasant husband Amos. They fell in love, she married him against her family’s wishes and their married life was not a bed of roses. Amos was instable, sometimes violent, sometimes mystic. The twins never married (that’s not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the first chapter) partly because their mother enjoyed having them around and partly because they couldn’t bear to be separated.

Chatwin doesn’t spend pages analysing Lewis or Benjamin’s feelings and vision of life. He makes us understand their personalities and their vision of life through their actions. He shows their special bond due to their twinning. Lewis would have liked a life detached from his brother. He would have wanted to get married and have a family of his own. Benjamin was happy that way and only needed his brother. I found his attitude towards his brother a bit smothering and unhealthy.

Chatwin describes a net of characters around the Jones family –mostly neighbors–and relates their life in a few pages when their path crosses the Jones’ and leave a trace in Benjamin or Lewis’s destiny. All this makes of On the Black Hill a sort of Welsh literary version of a Dutch painting by Brueghel the Elder. It’s picturesque and it shows life in the country.


Two wars appear in the background. Agriculture becomes motorized. The local gentry lose their power after WWI. And life and relationships remain in the same with mutual aid between families, quarrels with neighbors. Nothing really changes in the twins’ routine even if modern life peeks through sometimes.

Honestly, it’s a wonderful book, but just not for me. Chatwin puts a lot of affection in his words, fondness for this rural society who accepts changes but really slowly. On the Black Hill could have been set in another country, in another century and the novel could have been the same. Chatwin conveys the attachment of people to their land, their village and their limited horizon. It’s lovely but not so exciting for this reader.

Stories about rural life tends to bore me unless it’s spiced up by Hardy-esque coincidences. I recognized rural mentality all along the novel and its tendency to accept fate and things as they are without rebelling. There’s this sort of peasant stoicism and acceptance of life as it’s been dealt that irks me. (It irks me in real life too.) I don’t know how to call it. Lack of ambition for anything else than acquiring land? I want to avoid hasty generalization but I can’t put my finger on my annoyance without a bit of generalization.

Well, the book lacked rhythm but only because the twins’ life was slow and mostly uneventful and not due to any flaw of Chatwin’s as a writer. Even if I didn’t love it, it is still a great piece of literature.

Chatwin_Black_HillChatwin_Livre_PocheI want to say something about the covers of this novel. My copy has the red cover; it’s in the collection Les Cahiers Rouges by the publisher Grasset and they have good titles in this collection. The mass-market paperbacks have ludicrous covers, both in French and in English. The French one smells like Irish misery à la Angela’s Ashes. The English one is so corny that I’m embarrassed for the publisher. Did they confuse it with children lit?

  1. February 7, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    I haven’t read this one, but I have read The Songlines and the writing style was exceptional in that one too. Some writers just have that gift, I think, and Chatwin was one of them. Like Steinbeck. He could have written a laundry list and it would have been beautiful.


    • February 8, 2015 at 6:11 pm

      I’ve read it in French but the style shines through the translation. (well done, btw)
      I’ll have a look at The Songlines, thanks for the recommendation.


  2. February 8, 2015 at 12:21 am

    Actually I looked at this a while ago and passed. It just didn’t grab me but when you say that “Stories about rural life tends to bore me unless it’s spiced up by Hardy-esque coincidences,” I would have to agree. There’s something about that “peasant stoicism” than irks me–rather like stories about characters mired in religion.
    There’s a film version of this btw. I saw on Amazon Uk that this is compared to jean de Florette.


    • February 8, 2015 at 6:15 pm

      I have the same reaction to stories with characters mired in religion. Sous le soleil de Satan is not for me.

      It’s compared to Jean de Florette? Why not but I think there’s less drama in On the Black Hill. It just confirms why I didn’t love it. Jean de Florette is not my cup of tea either.


      • February 8, 2015 at 7:23 pm

        Yes according to the description on Amazon UK. I didn’t like jean de florette much either…


        • February 8, 2015 at 9:45 pm

          You didn’t like Jean de Florette. What a surprise! 🙂 How we get to have so similar tastes never fails to baffle me. I like Pagnol’s plays. I find his novels gushing about Provence a bit too much.


          • February 11, 2015 at 7:16 am

            I didn’t much care for Marius and Fanny (the newer film versions).


            • February 11, 2015 at 10:21 pm

              I’ve read the plays when I was like 14. I loved them at the time but I don’t know if my older self would like them.


  3. February 8, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    I’m actually considering it. When you say “All this makes of On the Black Hill a sort of Welsh literary version of a Dutch painting by Brueghel the Elder.” I’m hooked. Maybe I’m not yet satiated from reading rural novels and I like the fact that description of feelings is kept to a minimum, especially over the long period of time the book covers.


    • February 8, 2015 at 6:18 pm

      I’ll be curious to read your post about this one, if you read it.
      The description of feelings kept to a minimum is also consistent with the scenery: these were not people used to hash out their emotions.


  4. February 8, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    I’ve read almost everything he wrote but while I was reading this I often wondered “Why did he choose to tell this?” The writing is amazing but the story felt so dated somehow. The Songlines is great.


    • February 8, 2015 at 6:18 pm

      It sounds like Giono or Ramuz, don’t you think?


      • February 8, 2015 at 7:23 pm

        I found them more original.
        It felt as if it wasn’t his theme. He was a traveller, someone whose life was the total oppositite of the lives in this book. It’s a peculiar choice for him.


        • February 8, 2015 at 9:42 pm

          I saw that he wrote traveling books. I also wondered what prompted him to write something so different, about characters that never leave their Black Hill.


  5. February 8, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    I think I would like Chatwin’s writing style, but the peasant stoicism and focus on the quietness of rural life does sound quite dry. Perhaps I’ll investigate The Songlines instead.

    I do love that painting though…


    • February 8, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      It gives a good picture of life in Wales countryside. Perhaps you’d get more out of it than me: I may have missed British references that you would pick.


  6. February 9, 2015 at 12:14 am

    I remember liking this novel a bit more than you. Bruce Chatwin sadly died at the young age of 49 in 1989, and most of his books were travel books which I don’t read. For awhile rural minimalist was a big genre. Not so much anymore except maybe Kent Haruf


    • February 9, 2015 at 10:39 pm

      I’m not tempted by travel books either but maybe I should try again. Sometimes things change with getting older.


  7. February 9, 2015 at 2:16 am

    thanks, sounds like the type of books I would really enjoy


    • February 9, 2015 at 10:39 pm

      Hey that’s the point of blogging: if this helped you find a new book, I’m happy.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. February 10, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    Love the picture. I think I may have seen it in the flesh, though I can’t recall where if so.

    This sounds like a good book that found the wrong reader. Since I suspect I’d be another wrong reader I’ll pass on it, but I do feel I have a good sense of what I’m passing on and why for someone else it might be a very good choice indeed.


    • February 10, 2015 at 9:44 pm

      I like Dutch paintings of that time because they let us see people and everyday life contrary to other painters of the time who were more focused on religious paintings. I get tired of watching Viring Mary and child on every picture.
      I have trouble remembering the names of the painters, though. Unfortunately. Writers seem to be the only artists I have no trouble memorising.

      I think you’d like On the Black Hill better than me. I’m sorry I couldn’t post any quote from the book because it’s worth it. (I have a copy in French) He has an amazing style.


  9. February 11, 2015 at 12:47 am

    What a lovely idea to pair Chatwin and Brueghel! I do like this book very much and wonder if he wrote it to try and understand lives that were so different from how he lived his own. ‘Songlines’ is definitely closer to his own heart and he could certainly make language sing.


    • February 11, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.
      I actually thought about the paintings when I was trying to put my finger on my emotions, my visuals of the novel. This is what blogging about books brings me, a better vison of what I’ve read and felt.

      Songlines seems to be a unanimous choice among commenters. It usually means it’s good.


  10. February 22, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    Sorry to hear you didn’t find this one more than you did. I have a particular affection for it since the area where it is set is only about an hour from my home and I can relate to the descriptions of the landscape etc.


    • February 22, 2015 at 11:24 pm

      I understand that it speaks to you if it’s not very far from your home. I’m glad I had a French copy, I would have lost a lot of things in descriptions otherwise. I don’t know the English names for trees, plants…


  1. February 23, 2015 at 12:03 am

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