“The true novelist is the one who cheats”
February 23, 2013
After reading Julien Gracq’s The Narrow Waters, I moved on to his book of essays called, in English, Reading Writing (originally published in France in 1980 as En Lisant En Écrivant). The sixteen essays have titles like Literature and Painting, Landscape and the Novel, Literature and History, Literature and Cinema, and Surrealism – titles that in no way hint at the digressive, unpredictable nature of Gracq’s writing. Like a hiker calmly ascending a craggy hill, Gracq surefootedly heads this way and that, following a path that often only he can spy. Gracq, who lived from 1910 to 2007, writes with a mission, offering an alternative to the literary criticism of his day – and, indeed, of ours.
What I want from a literary critic – and what is rarely given – is for the critic to tell me, better than I could do myself, why reading a book gives me pleasure that cannot be replaced…what it has exclusively is all that matters to me.
Gracq, then, is an intense reader and tough to please. He also openly admits that the nineteenth century – which he would say lasts from Stendhal to Proust – is his century and that it is French literature which gives him the most pleasure, especially Stendhal. For him, literature is most assuredly not a text, it is never something that can be disassembled, dissected, or understood mechanistically.
…the secret of a work resides much less in the ingenuity of its organization than in the quality of its material: if I enter a novel by Stendhal or a poem by Nerval without prejudice, I am first and foremost only the scent of a rose, like Condillac’s statue – without eyes, ears, or localized perceptions – and the artwork thereby offers me its distinctive operative character, which is to occupy my entire inner cavity immediately and without any differentiation, like a gas that is expanding. Revealing its total elasticity and the undivided immanence of its true presence: it cannot be subdivided, because its virtue resides entirely in each particle.
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 his local color, the only kind that can make an impression is his own.
The title itself – Reading Writing – implies several permutations of meaning. The book contains essays on being a reader and on being a writer, and those that are more literally on the reading of writing – i.e. on the art of literature. But of equal importance is Gracq’s insistence that literature is a kind of shared partnership between reader and writer.
The reading of a literary work is not only the decanting from one mind into another of an organized complex of ideas and images, or a subject’s active work on a collection of signs that must be resuscitated in a new way throughout, it is also the reader’s reception, in the course of a fully regulated visit, where not a comma can be changed in the itinerary, by someone: the conceiver and the constructor, now the naked proprietor, who gives you a tour of his domain from start to finish and from whose company you cannot be liberated.
In keeping with the major chord struck in The Narrow Waters, Gracq repeatedly returns to the unique role that memory plays for the reader.
In the novel reader’s mind, the whole stratification of memory is created while reading, a process perhaps like folding linear sequences of material in layers, like a piece of fabric.
Nine-tenths of the pleasures we owe to art over a lifetime are conveyed not by direct contact with the work but by memory alone.
Even when, on occasion, I failed to follow Gracq through this erudite, personal, and, at times, contradictory book, it was always an immense pleasure to read. There was always a startling and illuminating insight or turn of phrase just around the corner. I’ll leave you with one more example:
There has never existed a more terrifying waffle iron in literature than the classic tragedy in five acts.
[Julien Gracq, Reading Writing. NY: Turtle Point Press, n.d. Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.]