Julien Gracq: Distinguished novelist known for his surrealism and solitude who refused all literary honours


Louis Poirier (Julien Gracq), writer: born St Florent-le-Vieil, France 27 July 1910; Professor of History, Lyce Claude Bernard, Paris 1947-70; died Angers, France 22 December 2007.

Julien Gracq was the last of the great universal writers, and he knew it. In one of his books of entertaining essays on a wide variety of interesting subjects, En lisant en crivant (1980, Reading Writing), whose purity of style and precision of language both startles and ravishes with its poised beauty, he wrote: "Literature was the last of all the arts to make its appearance. It will be the first to disappear."

He knew that he was already archaic, the last of his kind, that the true writer was becoming a rare (and unprotected) species: "A writer is one who writes instead of talking, who reads rather than making public appearances, who meditates at home rather than droning away about himself on TV." He refused to make promotional tours, complaining that the writer was now doing all the publisher's work for him, had become a walking billboard for books. Gracq's life was to be one of refusals of all kinds of "prestigious" literary and academic honours. In that sense, he was a man without biography.

He was one of the few cool-headed appraisers of Oswald Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Decline of the West) of 1918. He saw the work as prophetic: its author believed the soul of civilisation is already defunct, victim of the natural process of growth and decay that afflicts all man-made institutions. Spengler saw the future as a soulless expansionist Caesarism a vision strikingly realised today in our all-enveloping nationalist, commercial and industrial "mondialisation" (the French term is so much more expressive than our banal "globalisation"). Therefore he warned that there would be no more poets and artists, only scientists and capitalists.

Gracq, whose real name was Louis Poirier, was born in St Florent-le-Vieil, in the Loire, in 1910. He was primarily a geographer and historian. He spent 23 years of his life teaching these subjects at the Lyce Claude Bernard in Paris, a meticulously ordered calling that he kept strictly apart from his creative writing, which he did not begin until he was 27, with the first of his four magnificent novels, Au Chateau d'Argol (1938, The Castle of Argol) a work whose weirdly atmospheric fantasy at once puts a spell on the reluctant reader. The favourite author in his sheltered country childhood was Jules Verne, that great fictional geographer. Gracq was a schoolboy with exceptional abilities, and among his many prizes was Les Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras, which in later life he was to declare his idol's masterpiece. As a youth, he was fascinated by Chateaubriand's Voyage en Amerique (1791) and by his Essai sur les Revolutions (1797). Gracq calls him "the awakener of French historical consciousness, and the greatest prose writer of all."

Gracq never married, and his references to women are guarded, abstract. There are no sexually provocative scenes. In an interview, he said: "I never married, you know, because I could never have endured the permanent presence of another by my side. I have too much need to be alone, and for long periods of time." There is something of the sexual ambiguity and independence of the writer Robert Walser. Gracq is also like certain Ivy Compton-Burnett males.

He did not frequent any of the many intellectual self-publicising groups with their literary and political combats. However, when his first novel appeared, he received a letter of appreciation from the magus of French surrealism, Andr Breton, and for a while he followed this master and his disciples, though only in literary, never political fields. He wrote a book on Breton in 1948 (Andr Breton: quelques aspects de l'rivian), and throughout all his work he is an inheritor of the surrealist ideal in its most creative and innovative sense. In a note to the reader in Au Chateau d'Argol, he writes of surrealism as "the one literary school to revive the exhausted delights of the eternally child-like paradise of the explorers... When it is not a dream, and, like a dream, perfectly incorporating its own truths, the novel is a falsehood".

Gracq had much in common with early German Romanticism; the works of Novalis, Schlegel, Tieck represent for him a miraculous springtime of the imagination, of the fantastic, and the castle of his title also has much in common with the Castle of Otranto and the House of Usher, all forerunners of surrealist phantasmagorias. But he could not tolerate the group activities and political adhesion the surrealist movement demanded of its members. Gracq was briefly a member of the Communist Party, but the Russo-German pact led him to tear up his card and leave the Party forever. He commented: "I believe that continual contact with politics is not a very desirable thing for a writer."

Even greater than the influence of surrealism was that of Steadhal's Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), which helped him to effect a breakthrough from his family's bourgeois background, a sedate way of life he had accepted with unquestioning docility. Other writers who influenced his style profoundly were Nerval and Claudel; and Ernst Junger was another. Like many young people on the eve of the Second World War, he was overwhelmed by the tone of aesthetic eclecticism in Junger's great novel Auf den Marmorklippen (1939, On the Marble Cliffs), 1939. He wrote: "There is in these writers a very 'stately' form of prose, a dignity lacking in present times, when literature suffers from intellectual aridity, emotional and imaginative drought. Writers are no longer obsessed with problems of language. I am not an avid reader of modern novels." His austere rejections remind us of Herman Melville's anti-hero Bartleby the scrivener, and his eternal "I would prefer not to..."

In 1947, Gracq produced one of his most distinguished works, Libert grande, somewhat in the style of Rimbaud's Illuminations. Gracq's prose poems are mainly about landscape and towns seen from a geographer's point of view. There is an amusingly sly portrait of Truro: he had spent some time in Cornwall where he had failed to penetrate the arcana of cricket.

This man with no biography persisted in a life of refusals, the most notable of which was his unprecedented refusal of the prestigious Prix Goncourt for his third and best novel, Le Rivage des Syrtes (1951, The Opposing Shore). He refused Le Grand Prix National des Lettres in the 1980s, and refused to perform on Bernard Pivot's television book show, causing a publishing scandal. At first he even disdained to appear in the monumental Bibliothque de la Pliade, but later relented: his two exquisitely-bound volumes on papier bible are expensive collector's pieces.

He always refused to let his works appear in paperback, and remained with one small publisher, Jos Corti, all his life, despite tempting contract offers from top-flight publishers. Corti's books have a certain home-made charm, their uncut pages renewing the vanished pleasures of slicing open a new work with a bamboo or ivory paperknife as one reads.

Gracq said: "I shall die with a paperknife in my hand." He is already memorialised in two websites, with unstylish appellations so very untypical of that most refined of all contemporary men of letters. But anything that helps to spread his fame after death cannot be all bad. He and his work are lessons to our expiring humanity.

James Kirkup

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