Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Another novel about a plague

I recently ran an item on five books about plagues: only one was a novel.

Reader François Tournigy wrote in with a suggestion of another work of fiction in that category: Jean Giono's The Horseman on the Roof.

Upon its reissue, the New York Times wrote of the novel:
A handsome, naive young Italian nobleman and his beautiful female companion are confronted by moral dilemmas when they're caught in a cholera plague in Provence in the early 19th century. This 1951 novel impressed our reviewer Frances Keene with its ''beautiful writing'' and ''the power of its portrayal of the implacable forces of nature.'' Its author, the prolific French writer Jean Giono (1895-1970), was critically acclaimed, but never won wide popularity in this country during his lifetime.
Jan Marta's commentary at the "Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database" hosted by NYU spells out the role of cholera in the story:
Jean Giono's portrait of the horseman on the roof is as much a social portrait of the 1832 Provencal cholera epidemic as it is of the reflections and actions of his Stendhalian protagonist. Cholera is at once background and foreground, a social context and a primary agent of the narrative (see Greimas's actantial theory of narrative). The initial chapter illustrates the interconnection of time, voice and perspective in narrative technique (see Genette's theory of narrative discourse), of medical and non-medical (social, religious) perspectives on contagion, and of different forms of medical expertise (knowledge, experience).

Chapters 1, 2 and 13 highlight medical ethics through the attitudes and actions of four physician-characters, while the book as a whole reflects the social ethics of epidemics. Specific episodes represent the dynamics of scapegoating, rebellion, and familial relationships, including that between Angelo and his mother.

The rich descriptive detail gives the reader a vivid sensorial experience of the time, the region, the epidemic, the illness, and the agonizing deaths of the victims. Read together, Giono's The Horseman on the Roof and Camus' The Plague..., written only four years before, dramatically underscore the diversity and autonomy of literary representation of medical subject matter.

Jean-Paul Rappeneau directed a movie version of the novel, which Roger Ebert reviewed:

The Horseman on the Roof is a rousing romantic epic about beautiful people having thrilling adventures in breathtaking landscapes. Hollywood is too sophisticated (or too jaded) to make movies like this anymore; it comes from France, billed as the most expensive movie in French history.

Thanks to François (who also nominated Fifth Business by Robertson Davies as the best Canadian novel) for the suggestion.

--Marshal Zeringue