Proust remarked about Stendhal that he may have used rudimentary and banal descriptions but that he lights up when he pinpoints an elevated place, such as Fabrizio del Dongo’s and Julien Sorel’s prisons or the Abbé Blanès’s observatory, in which the characters cast aside their cares and take up a “disinterested voluptuous life.” Julien Gracq’s descriptions are wonderfully worked, but if he had a characteristic and favorite place in which to situate his action, a place that excited all his creative powers, it would be the seashore enveloped in fog. His world is one of decaying grandeur, palaces reverting to mold and swamp, mud-silted battleships, official inertia, the odor of stasis when “the familiar rotting smell passed over my face like the touch of a blind hand.” Fog and moonlight are what might be called the emblems of his fiction.
In a 1959 essay about the mysterious German writer Ernst Jünger, perhaps his major influence, Gracq said of Jünger’s 1939 novel On the Marble Cliffs that it is “an emblematic book” rather than a livre à clef or an “explanation of our period.” Gracq prefers to invoke the lore of heraldry, images drawn from our life but resistant to interpretation, chess pieces that “burn the fingers” just to touch. Writing about On the Marble Cliffs, Gracq could be describing one of his own novels: “We could call it a symbolic work but only on condition of admitting that the symbols can only be read as enigmas seen in a mirror.” Nothing is autobiographical or political; everything is mythic.
Julien Gracq was the pen name of Louis Poirier (1910–2007). He took the first name from Julien Sorel of The Red and the Black, his favorite Stendhal novel, and the last name from the Gracchi, the ancient Roman brothers who defended the rights of the poor. In a passage from 1980 imagining the complete surprise that the French Revolution represented for the people of the day, he quoted a line from the Roman satirist Juvenal: “Who could endure the Gracchi railing at sedition?”
Gracq grew up in Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, near the mouth of the Loire and twenty-two miles from Angers in western France. He studied in Paris and became a friend of “the pope of Surrealism,” André Breton, who hailed his 1938 novel Château d’Argol as the first Surrealist novel, though the Surrealists took a dim view of most novels. Gracq himself thought of Surrealism as less a movement than a way of practicing poetry, a “dynamic, active search for all the paths and all the methods leading to a poetic state.”
As a soldier during World War II Gracq was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. After the war he taught history and geography in a lycée in Paris for twenty years; he studiously avoided publicity and thrice refused to dine with French president François Mitterrand, and he rejected the Goncourt Prize.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.