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The passing of Julien Gracq

December 31, 2007 |  3:53 pm

With the death of Julien Gracq last week in France at 97, all of "the old ones" are now dead.

That refers to the writers who shadowed our recent years and wrote long before the beginning of World War II: Ernst Junger, Julian Green, Francis Stuart, Jorge Luis Borges, Nina Berberova, Nathalie Sarraute, E.M. Cioran, Edward Dalhberg. These were writers who one knew, who one read and who one learned from. They were writers not shaped by the world they found themselves in but by the genuine ancient classical sources they touched to create works of literary art that sustain us still.

Gracq lived a life of utter discretion, not subject to gossip, not participating in the world of publicity, known only for his written work and as a refuser of any sort of public recognition--prizes, grants--for his work.

Four of his novels--"The Castle of Argol," "The Opposing Shore," "Balcony in the Forest" and "The Dark Stranger"--have been translated and are available in various second-hand editions. They are singular achievements: disturbing, delicate and written in a classical style that is endlessly sensuous and inviting. For those so inclined, Andre Breton hailed "The Castle of Argol" as the only surrealist novel ever written.

Thanks to Turtle Point Press, four other books--each distinct in form and content--are in print: "The Narrow Waters," a meditation on memory and travel; "King Cophetu," a brief fiction of loss during World War I; and my two particular favorites, "The Shape of a City" and "Reading Writing."

"The Shape of a City" is a model for how to write about one’s home place which, for Gracq, was the provincial city of Nantes, where he was raised and went to school. It should be required reading for anyone setting out to describe their home place. "Reading Writing" is probably the best book about these twin activities which all too often are stupidly separated. Consider the following quotes from "Reading Writing":
"At ninety, no writer, if he is still writing, can hope to maintain all the quality of his production. But in painting, Titian and Picasso--others, too, no doubt--manage perfectly well. No writer is brilliant until full adolescence at least. But, in music, Mozart--others, too, no doubt--was. Which tends to corroborate physiologically the hierarchy of the arts as promulgated by Hegel (which is fine by me).

"Historical counterproof would provide the same result: of all of the arts, literature was the last to appear. And one day, no doubt, it will be the first to be eclipsed."
"The creative artist who steps back and tries to understand what he is doing stands before his canvas as before a green and intact prairie: for the writer, the literary material he would like to recapture in its freshness is already similar to what passes from the second to the third stomach of a ruminant."
"The bad novelist--by which I mean the skilled and indifferent novelist--is the one who tries to bring to life, to animate from the outside and on the whole faithfully, the local color that strikes him as specific to a subject he has judged ingenious or picturesque--the true novelist is the one who cheats, who asks the subject, above all, through oblique and unexpected paths, to give him access once again to his personal palette, knowing full well that, in terms of local color, the only kind that can make an impression is his own."
These quotes not only give you some indication of the incisiveness of Gracq’s intellect: Perhaps they also suggest why he will be missed.

Thomas McGonigle

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."