Peck's lengthy translations
the mountain fell
by D. C. Peck with assistance from Petit Robert
Ferdinand Ramuz was born in Lausanne in 1878, hung out in Paris with
the artsy Big Boys from 1903 to 1914, then gratefully came home and never left
again. He is doubtless the premier Swiss French writer, and in the course of his
long career he died in 1947 in Pully, near Lausanne he created a
very large body of extraordinary works. In my own non-expert view, his most outstanding
achievement was his creation of a melding of an "artless" Swiss mountain
peasant way of thought and expression with a structural idiom based upon the sophisticated
mindset of Greek drama and the force of expressionist French poetry. Ive
not read all of his books, and I dont read French as a native might, but
my favorites are definitely Derborence (1934) and Le
grande peur dans la montagne (1926), both of which brilliantly capture
pre-modern high-mountain life in almost a post-modern idiom.
is still a wonderful place (though the chef of the low-cost lodgings there, in
Godey, seems frequently to fall off the back porch drunk, leaving the desperate
waitress to offer lodgers only salads and the cheese fondue). Situated at about
1450 meters in a vast hollow behind the massif of the Diablerets, the "mountain
of the devils" (3208m), but looking squintingly out southward through a really
vicious gorge towards Sion and the valley of the Rhône, Derborence has been a
high mountain pasturage since Roman times, used in summer by the peasants of the
villages high above Sion in the canton of Valais. The Pas de Chevilles, however,
leads steeply up westward over towards Bex in the canton of Vaud [map below],
and the Col de Sanetsch leads northwards over towards Gsteig and Gstaad in the
canton of Bern.
In the 18th
century, extremely large pieces of the Diablerets and its glaciers broke off and
descended upon Derborence, to everyones instant regret. There, every summer,
grazers brought up their cows and sheep and lived in teeny rustic little huts,
shoving the animals around and living on bread and cheese inexorably hardening
and wishing TV had been invented. Moms, and kids, and all the old dads and grandmoms
stayed back in the villages down below. The back half of the mountain collapsed
and squooshed people, cows, sheep, trees, shrubs, in fact, everything.
It was recorded at the time that, months later, a sole survivor wriggled his way
out of the rocks and slabs and went home. This is
the simple record upon which Ramuz built his superb story.
Derborence, Ramuz created an astonishing fake peasant
form of speech, at once authentically peasanty-sounding and at the same time highly
poetic and artificial distant, removed, observational, repetitive when
necessary, but of course extremely emotive and even sentimental at times. Well,
in fact, VERY sentimental at times. Thats okay with me, I reckon hes
earned the sentimentality by virtue of the stark realism of the peasant way of
life. (Don't you grad students give me T. S. Eliot's "objective correlative"
at this point, I'm trying to be serious!)
the narrative voice is sometimes astonishing - in a single sentence,
the narrator's voice can observe a person, then become the person observing something
else, then observe the person observing something else and responding to it, with
no confusion or delay for the reader, only a perfect sense of suitability and
rightness and a small flash of insight, as the story carries on without a hitch.
And the frequent use of the second-person, telling you the reader what you can
see and hear -- it's almost cinematic. The hard, minute observational character
of some of the narration reminds one often of Alain Robbe-Grillet, an apparently-emotionless
attention to physical detail which in fact evokes great emotion.
for me, the most devastating narrative technique is Ramuz's use of repetition,
drawn from Greek drama I suppose, which creates a sense of inevitability, of fate:
"it was the 22nd of June", "it was 9 o'clock, the 22nd of June"
-- it reminds you of the knocking on the door in MacBeth
-- you are in the hands of an artist, and you have only to follow where he leads
Ramuz first published
Derborence in 1934, with the good offices of his friend
the publisher Mermod in Lausanne, and then sat in Lausanne cafés scribbling changes
in the margins of every new reprinting of the story between 1936 and 1947. An
English translation by Sarah Fisher Scott was published in 1947
by Pantheon Books, then a distinguished
independent publisher but now probably owned by Disney or AOL or Coca-Cola or
Hyundai Motors, under the title When the Mountain
Fell. Ms Scotts translation is competent, but it was
based only upon the first edition, without the benefit of C.-F.s compulsive
café afterthoughts and inspired whims in his later corrections. More importantly,
its also a misguided effort to retell the story in a colloquial and natural
kind of American English, which reads well enough in its own way, but in the case
of Ramuz's incantatory prose, its a big big mistake.
present translation was made in the early 1980s for a girlfriend long departed
and takes cognizance of all of Ramuzs additions and corrections in all subsequent
reprintings (though a handful have been rejected as not helpful). The original
intention was to publish this new translation with superb photos of the scene,
but somewhere I lost both the photos and the energy to pursue it. All the Derborence
photos I can find now have got either me or my semi-friends in them or lots of
telephone wires or the concrete dam at Godey, so perhaps one needs to go back
there soon and do the job properly. So here's just the stunning low-key poetry
of Ramuz (anglicized and dwighticized) -- the photos may be coming along later.
and permissions. I havent got any . . . but dont sue me,
I havent got any money either, and youd just be wasting your time.
Ramuzs original copyright has expired, but in the early 1980s a Swiss film
director, Francis Reusser, made a wonderful film of the story, with Bruno Cremer
and Isabel Otero in it, Switzerlands entry in the Cannes film festival in
1985, and because I figured that this guy who made the film must have bought up
some of the rights, somehow I never got round to sorting out the legal side of
things and seeking a publisher. And in the meantime I moved house
a dizaine of times and lost the photos Id taken to illustrate the splendid
So here it is, in three
files, and perhaps someday soon with photos stuck on.
Diablerets and higher meadows above Derborence, from Godey, June 2000 (Photo:
(1450m altitude) at the bottom of a bowl.
A path leads from the west over
and down from Solalex, Anziendaz, and the Pas de Cheville in
the canton de Vaud (chapters 2, 3, 7). The landslide described in this story (shown
as Eboulement des Diablerets on
the map) came from top center.The road shown across the cone of the landslide
is modern, leading to a mountain inn and some vacation chalets at the little lake
(marked 1449m), which was created by the landslide. The men from Col de Sanetsch,
in the canton of Berne, came from the upper right descending near Godey, as in
the photo below (chapter 7). The path from the villages above Sion and the Rhône
leads up from the extreme lower right, following high up on the gorge of the Lizerne
-- the paved road, which requires a long succession of galleries and tunnels,
has been put in in very modern times.
Visit the Derborence Web site at www.derborence.ch.
towards Derborence in awkward weather (1984), looking southwest from below the
Col de Sanetsch. Derborence lies just behind the modern dam at Godey (center).
The Pas de Cheville lies to the upper right; the valley of the Rhône lies
sharply down the left behind the Godey dam.
ahead to Part I, chapter 1, of Derborence|
do not reproduce this text in any form for commercial purposes. The Derborence
logo at the top of this page was taken in June 2000 from Le Godey in the Derborence
valley, with the telephone poles and wires removed. Feedback and suggestions are
Translated in about 1983, posted on this site 25 June 2001, updated 21 August 2008,version
5 September 2007.