The Water of the Hills: A Parable for Our Times by Marcel Pagnol


Recently I returned again to the wonderful novel sequence Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources by the French playwright, author and film director Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974). This year I even made The Water of the Hills (L’eau des Collines), the title for the whole work, my book of 2019 in The New Statesman. Originally published in the same year that Rachel Carson released Silent Spring (1962), Pagnol’s great work is the most resonant modern parable about nature that I know.

Every European who has ever watched a screen in the last 40 years has been touched by it, because the famous harmonica riff that has been used ever since in Stella Artois adverts was initially inspired by Pagnol. Those few melancholy chords have morphed into a kind of audible signature for everything rural in France, but they were initially part of the soundtrack for Claud Berri’s brilliant screen adaptation of Jean de Florette (1986) starring Gerard Dépardieu and Yves Montand. (in fact, I learn that this music was itself borrowed from the overture to another tragic tale, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, Force of Destiny, opera).

Together with the sequel Manon des Sources, Berri’s film is still the biggest box-office success among all foreign-language cinema and sealed the international reputation of Dépardieu. Yet I urge you to find and watch the films again here: like me you may come to judge Montand’s performance, at the very end of his life, the more complete and the most moving expression of broken human dignity.

Everyone thinks of both the novels and the films in terms of their dramatic human story and I shall outline this in the first of my two blog posts. (The Water of the Hills is, after all, shaped as two separate novels, so i shall respond in kind!). In the second post I’ll dwell on its implications for our relations with nature. The title, even, gives a strong clue to the underlying ecological themes. The work is a meditation on water’s centrality to life.

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Pagnol is rightly cherished as a kind of Gallic Thomas Hardy, with his books, in turn, celebrated for their rich, earthy, humorous accounts of Provencal life at the turn of the century. The author was born and raised in the high limestone country just inland from Marseilles and his landscapes and rustic characters have the authenticity that comes from deep firsthand knowledge. To the bucolic comedy, however, Pagnol blended plots that most closely resemble those of classical Greek tragedy. In fact the pair of novels contain heart-rending dramas that are of mathematically precise symmetry.

The first volume tells of Jean Cadoret, who is both a hunchback and an idealistic intellectual, a town-bred tax collector, who has inherited a family farm just outside the fictional village of Les Bastides. The farmhouse is called Les Romarins and is portrayed, at first occupation, as a forlorn plot, rank with weeds and brambles, the olive trees long neglected and its rich soils unproductive and dormant. The farm’s single saving grace is a private spring that flows perennially in its upper ground and offers potential to Jean Cadoret’s ambitious new rabbit-breeding scheme.

Unfortunately just before Jean, with his wife Aimée, a former opera singer, and their delightful young daughter Manon can arrive and take possession of the house, they are preempted by the machinations of  Ugolin Soubeyran. I love the way that the clue to his despicable behaviour is contained in the name. He is a young peasant farmer with his own grand designs for Les Romarins – an intensive carnation-growing operation that would be a thirsty consumer of its spring waters.

Egged on in these flower-growing plans by his elderly and wealthy uncle, César Soubeyran – known by all in Les Bastides as ‘ le Papet’ – Ugolin blocks up the spring at the Cadoret place. His hopes are that the owners and their plans will soon fail and enable him to snap up the farm at a bargain price. Quickly he inveigles his way into their household, feigning friendship and offering faux assistance, somehow always finding a way to be on hand for his charming and open-hearted neighbours, all the while enjoying a spider’s-eye view of the unfolding tragedy.

For no matter how hard Jean de Florette labours, and no matter how nobly he wrests from Les Romarins the makings of a successful enterprise, the hunchback is thwarted by basic meteorology and geography in that part of southern France. Unaware of ‘his’ spring or its blockage by the Soubeyrans, Cadoret resorts to ever more desperate measures to obtain water. Steadily, inexorably – with a growing thirst that can never quite be quenched by the wine that is his consolation and his increasing addiction – Jean dies for want of simple H2O.

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The second volume Manon des Sources tells a very different kind of story, but it is one of equally dramatic and emotional power. And, in a way, it is the perfect measure of Pagnol’s brilliance as a novelist, because the central tragic ‘hero’ – if we can call him that – is precisely one of the two villains of the first volume. César Soubeyran.

At the close of Jean de Florette we see César and Ugolin unblocking the well after purchasing Les Romarins from the destitute widow Aimée and the fatherless Manon. In their poverty the two Cadoret females are obliged to go and live with their Piedmontese friends and neighbours in a cave located near the only other water source in the area. The Soubeyrans, meanwhile, free the spring from its cement plug and the waters gush forth, at which point Ugolin cries:

“The carnations, Papet … Fifteen thousands francs a year … The carnations … It’s a fortune that’s bubbling up … Look! Look! It will run to the carnations … Look!”


Initially the waters and fortunes flow exactly as they plan. The Soubeyrans  do indeed found their carnation farm and Ugolin secretes in his hearth the gold louis that his profits yield. César is delighted to see his nephew flourish and anticipates that his wealthy young relative will soon take a wife and produce the heirs to inherit the Soubeyran land and money that his ancestors have salted away.

Manon, meanwhile, grows up into a gorgeous young woman, living freely in the hills above her old home, tending her goats, reading her fathers’ books and playing the harmonica that is her only other inheritance from him. The story then reaches a watershed in two Hardyesque moments of dramatic reversal, and fate flows in the opposing direction.

The first occurs when Ugolin, out hunting in those same hills, comes across the sumptuous young naked Cadoret maiden as she bathes Diana-like in a rock pool. He is intrigued, increasingly captivated and ultimately besotted with Manon, who moves centre-stage to direct the course of events in the second volume.

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The second key moment happens when Manon, following a lost goat into the Earth, discovers the underground chamber, where gather the waters that supply, not only Les Romarins and Ugolin’s thirsty carnations, but the entire supply for the village of Les Bastides. She thus reverses the situation and blocks up this mountain stream and inflicts upon the community what it has done originally to the Cadoret family. For Manon discovers that several of the villagers knew of the Soubeyran plot to oust them from their farm but had done nothing to stop the evil.

Two tragic consequences unfold as the water crisis grips the village. Ugolin, tormented by his guilt and his love for Manon, and realising that she will never consider him as a suitor, goes mad and hangs himself. Cesar is grief stricken by the loss of his only blood relative, but worse is to follow. For in his youth le Papet had had a love affair with the eponymous Florette, the mother of the hunchback Jean Cadoret and the grandmother to the beautiful Manon.

However he had departed into the army and had never learned why Florette’s had abandoned him and had gone to marry in a neighbouring village. He learns, however, his lover, far from leaving or rejecting him,  had written to tell him that she was pregnant with their child.

At the book’s close Cesar realises finally the devastating truth. The man whose misery he had sought, whose livelihood he had ruined, whose farm he had allowed to fail for want of water, whose plans he had thwarted in favour of a nephew, and whose family he had rendered destitute and turned into cave dwellers, was, in truth, his own son. Jean was his heir and Manon his granddaughter.

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The boy, the man and the Jack Snipe: why I jump for joy at being a naturalist

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‘Is it a “Jack” snipe because it is like a jack-in-a-box?’ were the words I overheard from someone standing near me. A fair question, because as it feeds this tiny wader (technically it is called Lymnocryptes minimus) from Arctic Russia bobs up and down, the body performing a rhythmic movement that I timed at about one bob per second.

The seemingly involuntary vertical motion is in a separate plane to the jack snipe’s frenetic, horizontal mud-probing action, which I reckoned it was repeating at about five stabs every second. So in a minute of feeding the bird simultaneously pops up and down and jabs the head and beak forward at a rough ratio of 60:360. Let’s be frank: this is hilarious stuff. (Check out the various Youtube pieces here, apologies for the music).

But to answer the person’s question, this bouncing behaviour doesn’t explain the name. ‘Jack’ – first recorded in the seventeenth century – is a reference to the species’ size. It is a ‘little’ snipe, compared with the once-abundant resident bird known as a common snipe.

What I find entrancing about this secretive creature is that it reveals its identity, aside from the distinctive jack-in-a-box behaviour, by relative or negative capabilities. Jack snipes are less than their relatives. When visiting Britain they are also silent. In all my life I’ve never heard so much as a peep. They’re famous, when flushed, for flying less than common snipe and sometimes even refusing to move at all (for this reason the French call it Bécassine sourde, the ‘deaf snipe’). In fact the first I ever saw 46 years ago was plucked bodily by a friend like a gold-and-emerald treasure from out of its rush couch.

Since that moment a jack snipe has gifted me, through these negative details, an understanding of its identity each subsequent time that we have met. The process of acknowledgement by one species unto another, observer towards the observed, is for me the greatest privilege enjoyed by any naturalist. I recommend it to everyone. It peoples every day with so many live encounters; it has crowded a lifetime with ‘friends’, and around each of their names has accumulated a deep well of memories. So that an hour by a muddy pool with a little bobbing bird is part of a life steeped in meaning.

(The lovely photograph is courtesy of my good friend David Tipling, the wunderkind of British nature photography  The short article is taken from my Guardian country diary. You can find it on 29 October 2019. Confines of space meant that it was cut and part of the article’s real significance was lost. I’m posting it here so I can restore it to the original.)