A Disquieting Pastoral: A Review of Terror on the Mountain by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz
What happened at a field above Sasseneire stays at a field above Sasseneire. Or at least it should, according to the old folk who remember.
But of course, the mayor and younger townspeople are corrupted by new ideas. They see a high pasture, 7,000 feet or more up, underneath a hanging glacier, as useful for grazing cattle, there’s money to be made. But the old folk complain, “in the valley they have their own ideas, which are not always the same as ours, because they live near a railroad.” Oh that terrible industrial progress.
The Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (1878–1947) deserves to be better known in North America, indeed he was nominated numerous times for the Nobel Prize and is lauded in parts of Europe. Terror on the Mountain, published in French in 1926 and in English in 1967, is as good an introduction to his work as anything.
The plot is straightforward. A shepherd’s hut is refurbished and men who laugh off the old stories are recruited to take the herd of cattle to the high field. Once there however, things turn bad and tragedy comes to nearly all who touch set foot upon it. A mule slips and falls off a cliff during the trek up, footsteps are heard at night on the roof of the hut, cattle catch a disease that is probably hoof and mouth. And then people begin to suffer strange deaths. Eventually the endeavor is abandoned.
The normative Romantic ideal is that one stands in awe of nature’s transcendental grandeur, sees nature as wild and dramatic, and conceptualizes nature as out of human control. Nature was something to be taken in, the object of appreciation. Der Wanderer uber dem Nebelmeer by painter Caspar David Friedrich captures the sentiment. A young man stands in a long coat with his walking stick and surveys crags, clouds, forests, and a distant mountain. Nature is an influence upon the Romantic’s emotions and thoughts, although its presence is passive. It’s the human mind that actively considers, and through this consideration comes reflection, of the self and the self’s relationship with nature. Edmond Burke would call this the sublime, that by definition contained elements of attraction and fear.
But I’ll raise a question. It is interesting that we apply the sublime somewhat selectively. Consider natural forms of forces, a tornado or an avalanche, any such thing that embodies both attraction and fear, yet we don’t call such actions of nature sublime. Arguably the differentiating aspect is the the action. The sublime seems reserved for objects in view that do not contain a threat, that the observer may consider “without being afraid of it” as Kant commented about the sublime. (1) Ramuz has explored the Romantic ideal, granting no further agency to humans than normal in the relationship with nature, but granting a parallel relationship, a malevolency of nature. This is not nature’s usual attribution of accidental destructive anomalies, but an endowment with intent against living intruders, or at least it is perceived as such. This is the conclusion of the old folk of the town, and certainly the general opinion of everyone after the tragedy has unfolded is that of the mountain’s engine of maleficence.
Ramuz has done two things extremely well in Terror on the Mountain, in addition to writing a great novel of relatively short chapters. First he never speaks of what the terror is. In fact there is little terror in the novel although whatever it is, it is immanent. Eleven year old Ernest can’t take it anymore and flees from the mountain. He can’t stop trembling for days. In the middle of the the night there are three loud raps on the door of the hut. Clou has not yet returned. Joseph says, “Hey, Barthelemy!” he said. “Come along with me. That must be Clou. “How do you know?” said Barthelemy. “Because it might be Him….” Still, who dares answer? Nobody. Footsteps tramp on the roof at night. Something seems to push against the locked door. Light and shadow play games. But there are real consequences. The cattle die as do the people. A man gets a splinter in his thumb and dies. A second man goes hunting and is found shot and oozing. Whatever it is refuses to be seen. Nobody wants to search either. So the dreaded thing remains an unseen unconceptualized presence.
The wonderful short story writer M. R. James wrote, “I heard a cry one night, and I heard one laugh afterwards. If I cannot forget that, I shall not be able to sleep again.” (2) It’s this sentiment of foreboding about the unknown, the unsolved, the unsearched, that pervades Ramuz’s novel. One evening in the hut the men sit around the fire, they enjoy its brightness and life, while the elephant in the room, or the mountain in their thoughts, remains unstated. “You listened, nothing came, it was a night without wind. Again you listened, still nothing came. So that inside, by contrast, the fire made a great noice when it crackled, or when anyone coughed, or spit, or moved his foot. So that Barthelemy made a great noice out of a small one when he said: ‘Yes, yes,’ and shiing his head repeated: ‘Yes, yes.’” This is the writing of a masterful author, which leads to my second comment. Ramuz is brilliant at describing, allowing form to follow function as needed. I can’t say I’ve read any work that gave me more of true-feeling description of mountains, ever. Here’s a wonderful passage.
“All was gray and white, gray then white, and nothing but gray and white. And the men grew smaller up there as the walls rose higher, walls which had become gray also, a dark gray, then a light gray; then all at once they turned a rosy pink, but falsely pink, for this color does not last.”
We discover Ramuz is a careful observer of sounds: doors creak on rust-eaten hinges, a bolt cries when pulled across the gate of a pigsty, animals squeal, and then Victorine says nothing when asked by Joseph if he should go to the high field to work for the summer so he can earn money for their fall marriage.
As trekkers climb the mountain, the cross on the stone church moves down, a fairly obvious comment, but nice. Or consider this account of Joseph climbing, “If anyone could have seen him, he would now have been no bigger than a speck, seen from the bottom of the glacier, then he would no longer have been seen at all and it would have been as if he did not exist.…Where was he going? Again, you wondered: ‘Where could he possibly be going?’”
Points of view change. We are here and then there, looking up then looking down, we are addressed as “you.” Ramuz proves what all great fiction writers prove: great writing need follow no pedantic rules. The only mandate for Ramuz is to capture the musicality of language with respect to the phenomenology of the situation.
At times the narration floats away from the characters, as would an echo in a mountain valley. The expanse of the mountain compresses into a tiny world of intimate thought, and then Ramuz takes us back out, disembodying the narration. People watch the landscape and the landscape watches them. “They were watched only by that blue strip of sky overhead; ….Paying no head to you, the beautiful weather went on its way up there with its own clockwork; and the men below are they so much as seen?” To mention Gérard Genette’s idea of focalization, who speaks and who sees are often at odds here.
Victorine attempts to head to the hut, at night, with predictably tragic results. Ramuz writes, “‘Oh yes,’ they say, ‘you could read it all. It was written sentence by sentence as in a book, up to that very last one, that is, to up there above one of those pockets in the rock, where no one could get down to try to find her, and there the story came to an end.” We could but why? A lesser novelist would have needed to describe the whole situation, would have worked to summon our empathy.
At the end of the novel, “There was a tolling for the dead. It was a color like that of overripe wheat, after the ear, once golden, has turned red and brown. It spread a film over the sky like the film over the eyes of the blind.”
Ramuz once said, “The world ‘novel’ is unfortunate; [it has become the designation for a certain stereotypical novel] the best would be to find another name…the novel must be a poem.” There are many who will agree, including me. This is a great little novel, one to be enjoyed with a glass of muscatel while imagining cowbells and the cool alpine air of a high field in the summer.
(1) Kant. E. (1951). Critique of Judgement. (Trans. J.H. Bernard). New York, NY: Hafner Publishing Company.
(2) James. M. R. (2011). Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. New York, NY: Dover.