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

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game