Julien Gracq The Opposing Shore.
Columbia University Press, 320 pages, $19.95
The word surrealist is appropriate here, in one of its few current applications: a French schoolteacher, Julien Gracq (born Louis Poirier) was an admiring companion of the poet Andre Breton, the founder of literary Surrealism. Gracq wrote a book-length appreciation of that “saint of poetry,” its first edition, in 1948, illustrated with a frontispiece by Hans Bellmer. Julien Gracq’s writings may be, finally, the only truly successful works of serious fiction written under Breton’s direct influence. Of them, The Opposing Shore (Le Rivage des Syrtes) is the best known among French readers.
Gracq’s books are finely crafted intellectual puzzles, dense with perceptiveness, complex in fantasy and language, and stimulating even to a reader of cultivated taste. If only by virtue of its ability to command one’s full intellectual respect, The Opposing Shore— originally published in France in 1951 and now published in its first English edition by Columbia University Press—has almost nothing in common with the familiar “fantasy” genre, both in its highbrow (Umberto Eco) and lowbrow (science-fiction) forms. Indeed, “nothing in common” (“rien de commun”) is the motto that appears in the somewhat esoteric trademark of Gracq’s French publisher, José Corti. Gracq’s books, for the most part, are not truly novels: rather, they are extended Surrealist prose poems, mixing elements of dream, myth, and personal obsession, evoked with a special linguistic sonority that recalls Celtic and Norse literature.
The Opposing Shore is set in a landscape reminiscent of a de Chirico painting: a maritime outpost, Syrtes, maintained by the Venice-like empire of Orsenna in its eternal war with the Asiatic barbarians of Farghestan. To the fortress at Syrtes comes Aldo, a young representative of Orsenna’s intellectual elite. He is charged with a naval mission involving inspection of the Syrtes facilities; but he is also burdened with a special sense of fated-ness, a self-conscious, self-dramatizing awareness of his own destiny. The principal symbol of the book becomes the invisible naval boundary between Orsenna and Farghestan, a limit that is marked by the fortress Aldo is assigned to inspect. His assignment serves as the occasion for a sustained meditation on the classic question of late Surrealism: “Have you ever thought much about... the Other Side?” As corny as this question may sound, and as overheated as the book’s rhetoric may sometimes be, Gracq is never jejune or obvious in the development of his narrative.
Rather than “unfolding,” to use the hoary cliché, Gracq’s tales could be said to “unwind.” In successive encounters with the mysteries of the marine fortress, Aldo explores the reality of the invisible border with the enemy state and its power over his existence. Each of his experiences—with a map, with a landscape, with a. friend—is presented as a problem, the solution of which leads to further “involvement” with the fortress as a privileged place, and then to new clues. But these intellectual puzzles don’t offer clear solutions: their yield is one of psychological insight rather than explanation. The sum of Aldo’s meditative experiences brings us to the core of the book: an understanding of frontiers and of restrictions, of transgression and freedom, as fundamental motifs manifest in all existence.
Gracq has long declared his admiration for the German writer Ernst Jünger, particularly for that author’s On the Marble Cliffs, a fantastical account of a dream country that is obviously a disguised Nazi Germany. The marine fortress at Syrtes is poised on the line between hereditary enemies in a non-shooting war, and therefore may stand, in the same way as Jünger’s book, for France during the last years of the 1930s and the “phony war” of 1939-40. (Gracq treated the 1939-40 war in his only realistic novel, published in English decades ago, Balcony in the Forest.) Further, it may apply to the post-1945 world, divided between powers whose conflicts seem to have become hopelessly formalistic.
Gracq’s idea of underpinning The Opposing Shore with a complicated but serious game does not seem particularly noteworthy in a literary world accustomed to “difficult” novels with a great many underpinnings, and now to a critical focus on this kind of writing under the rubric of postmodernism. But, and let us admit it, very little of this sort of experimentation really succeeds, at least with a reader who expects something more than fashionable obscurity. What sets Gracq apart is, first, the gracefulness of the writing, the lucidity of the narrative, the easy flow and poetic power of the discourse, here translated masterfully into English by Richard Howard. Second, the Surrealist “magic” in the book really works: Gracq is a good enough thinker, with enough integrity and self-respect, to make the intellectual and moral maze within which his characters trace their steps seem authentic and necessary.
Every few pages, The Opposing Shore bursts forth with a phrase or a paragraph that inspires a second or third reading. “We rode along for hours on this sleepy terrain,” Gracq writes. “From time to time a gray bird exploded out of the reeds and vanished high in the sky, quivering like a tiny ball on top of the fountain at the very crest of its monotonous cry.” Like his mentor Breton, Gracq draws on an exceptional sense of the special powers of language. His ability to create landscape—not merely to describe it, but to make manifest a tableau in a way that is immediate and moving—is prodigious. For example: “A secret was attaching me to the fortress, like a child to some hiding place discovered among ruins. Early in the afternoon, under the scorching sun, an emptiness declared itself within the Admiralty at the hour when most of us were taking naps .... A long vaulted corridor, then wet and disjointed stairs led me to the inner redoubt of the fortress; the chill of a tomb immediately enveloped me as I entered the map room.”
The Surrealist theory of “verbal alchemy” which Gracq imbibed through Breton displays itself best in the many short prose strophes that suddenly emerge as autonomous, integral elements in Gracq’s text, reaching toward a culminating word or phrase with a distinct linguistic or poetic resonance. Gracq will begin almost prosaically by describing, for instance, “Marino’s gray and inattentive gaze, that gaze whose heavy intensity seemed to focus not on the face, but somewhere imperceptibly beyond, [which] again passed before my eyes at that moment like an inflexible datum to which I could not help referring in my behavior, since our first meeting, that was faltering and decisive.” But then: “There was not a word, not a gesture of this life without mystery which I would not have tried in spite of myself to conceal from him, not a moment when I had not felt, before him, at fault.... Something secret and monkish hovered about this room which had ultimately seemed to coil itself around him like a shell around its conch, and where his imposing seated figure merely added a finishing touch, consummating a remarkable masterpiece of placement.”
A certain integrity is perhaps a key component here. It is largely unknown in the United States that the Surrealist writers associated with André Breton very early on abandoned their post-adolescent forays into cultural gangsterism: they were the first writers on the Left in France, along with André Gide, to denounce Stalin, which they did as early as 1935. They settled instead into a somewhat conservative literary mode, stressing a nearly reactionary conception of beauty and an unmodernist belief in the grandeur of language and the nobility of letters. Along with a rejection of political cant (Stalinism) and literary fads (including those promoted by Sartre) there went, after 1945, a special contempt chez Breton for “the literary racetrack” as it existed then and continues to exist in France and elsewhere. In a stance that ironically recapitulated their youthful Dadaist hatred for the public, Breton and his friends firmly turned their backs on the (now leftish-tinged) glory conferred by prize committees, critics, and France’s special caste of literary and artistic journalists.
It should have been no surprise, then, that in 1951, when Gracq was awarded the Prix Goncourt for The Opposing Shore, he bluntly refused it. It was an act that followed logically from a long essay he had recently published entitled “La littérature a l’estomac,” which dissected the Parisian politics of literary corruption. (The title is virtually untranslatable, but means approximately “Literature for the Belly.”) This essay, which has endured as an example of the French literary diatribe, has also stood rather well as an analysis of the conflict between an educated taste and the influence of the “crowd state” in intellectual life. Gracq, who refers to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as a “correspondence course on sexuality” (a phrase that accurately captures the superficiality and vulgarity of the whole Sartre-de Beauvoir ménage), goes on to describe the arrival of the existential horde in the precincts of literary Paris. His account could apply equally to the conquests of critical ground by those kindred legions of today, the “structuralists” and “deconstructionists”:
A friend who used to edit a literary review confided to me one day how alarmed he was by the rising tide of shapeless Jaspersian, Husserlian, and Kierkegaardian “pieces” that beat against his door: a whole famished tribe, who had been held back at the frontier, were coming through the gap—with arms and baggage, with their own manners and customs, their own entertainments and their own language— Academic—that the inhabitants could not speak—determined to settle as conquerors on the lands of the general public, so much fatter than their own barren heaths. It is true that the gates were closed again very soon, when saturation point had been reached, but already a strange fauna with curious habits had colonised literature, which now seemed to fluctuate, thanks perhaps to some secret, sliding panel, between the outhouse and the Review of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy .... One begins to wonder if we have not returned to the days when the people venerated “sacred writings” in proportion as they were convinced that the very wealth of their obscene symbolism was in itself a proof of the presence of an esoteric meaning that would forever elude them. Contrary to what is generally thought, the provocative scatology in the modern novel could not be removed from it without disastrous results: the public looks upon it as nothing less than the sign of mystery; it is a fetish, a charm which hypnotizes, like Père Ubu’s toilet brush. And the public’s comic way of reacting to the disagreeableness of the proffered gift is worthy of inclusion in the rich gallery of specimens of insane collective behavior inaugurated by our century: its name is the “living room dance.”
Gracq’s defense of a kind of literary occultism is miraculously free of a cloying preciosity, as well as of “supernatural” affectations. In opposition to a literature with functions somewhere near those of the Roman circus, he formulates a mode of writing that fully challenges the philosophical and aesthetic capacities of an ideal reader. Like Aldo in The Opposing Shore, that reader is offered a means of participating in an interior state. Allegorically, he begins at the water’s edge (where Gracq’s invention begins) and then moves steadily to the heart of the mystery.
This process is at the core of all Gracq’s work, beginning with his first success, published in 1938, The Castle of Argol, in which a remarkable drama of individual will and desire is played out in the environs of a castle. Gracq’s settings are always exalted, even eroticized. As a good disciple of Breton he chose, through a sort of stylistic archeology, to place most of his stories in sites that are not only psychologically symbolic but also overtly poetical—for example, on the ramparts of castles like those in the original “Gothic” novels of Matthew Gregory Lewis and Charles Robert Maturin, or, as in the case of The Opposing Shore, in the surreal landscapes of the Italian “metaphysical school.”
Early in the book Marino, the master of the fortress of Syrtes and Aldo’s elderly authority figure, addresses the young adventurer as follows: “There’s no need for imagination in Syrtes, let me tell you .... We defeat it here—we end up by wearing it out. You’ve seen the birds that run across the plains down here—the ones with atrophied wings. . . . Where there are no trees to perch on and no hawks to escape, there’s no need to fly ... . That’s how we live here.” In contrast, Julien Gracq’s books themselves tell us that the bird of fantasy, of imagination, of a truly daring poetry and intellect, can perhaps survive without suffering the atrophy of its wings.
- This quotation from Gracq's essay is taken from the translation by John Weightman in Transition, number 6 (Paris, 1950).Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 7, on page 73
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