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Posts from the ‘Julien Gracq’ Category

The Shape of a Book

Gracq Shape of a City

Occasionally there comes a book that leaves very little trace of itself behind as I read it.  The arc of the text feels shapeless and I don’t remember what I read the day before, and so I am constantly tempted to put the book aside.  But as I pick the book up again I realize that something has compelled me to get as far as page 114 so perhaps I’ll just read a paragraph or two before consigning the book to the purgatory shelf.  And then it all comes back like a wave.

It’s the pleasure of the writing – the texture of the words, the way that ideas are interwoven – and I realize I don’t really care at all what the book is about but I just want to keep reading it, reading it.

Julien Gracq’s The Shape of a City is such a book.  Ostensibly about cities and about Nantes in particular, a city where Gracq went to boarding school and returned later as an adult, The Shape of a City is really about memory – both the formation of memory and of memory as a form of history.  If the book has a structure, I didn’t find it and I didn’t really care.  It’s the kind of book that permits you to enter on any page or, as I did, reread a chapter without immediately realizing it.

Gracq Shape of a City Photo

(Isn’t the typography on the title page wonderful?  )The book opens with two unremarkable, overexposed and slightly blurred photographs (the usual cues that “memory” is being invoked), each offering different views of the same set of columns and arches.  In one image we look out into the bright daylight, in the other we peer past a seated man who appears to be reading into total darkness.

Whoever travels back in memory to a city he has visited, either as a tourist or as a pilgrim of the arts, usually clings to some landmarks as clearly distinguishable from the mass of buildings as are lighthouses for a sailor approaching a port…

I don’t think of the city as a town dotted by famous sites but populated by places where I like to be, either physically or mentally (feelings so strong that they tend to confuse the past with the present…

Gracq Shape of a City Photo2

For Gracq, cities are natural organisms that are best left alone by planners.

The static electricity created by a city, which feeds that tension particular to city life, is linked to a powerfully contrasting polarization: this polarization, fragile masterpiece created er many centuries, has become the target of the too well intentioned efforts of modern urbanism’s collective unconscious.

Even the forgotten parts of cities, the empty lots and the rough edges, have a purpose.

I’ll never tire of exploring these empty lots, enclaves in the midst of urban developments where the wind blows freely, restored to the wilderness and the flora they sustain, land where it all seems as if salt had been strewn on the ground, as was the custom in cities like Carthage to assure that nothing would ever grown again; the air one breathes at these sites, while walking on land swept clean by the wind of memories’ suffocating alluvial deposits, has more than elsewhere a taste of freedom.

Ultimately, the true city is the mental map one has of it, a map shaped by one’s experiences, a map that eventually comes to resemble the person more than the city.

This road, enhanced by memory with a few mental drawings of adjacent, familiar sights, remains for me the true axis of the city and even more: a sort of initiatory path which became a point of departures, where many perspectives would eventually reveal their secrets, a path where I could feel the city getting closer and closer, slowly taking shape in my mind.

Gracq Shape of a City detailHaving lived a much too close symbiotic relationship with Nantes, years during which my mental image of the city became more and more detailed and extensive as I grew from childhood to adulthood, it is not surprising that I have difficulties arriving at a definitive picture.  Rather, the city’s image tends to define me: generally speaking, whatever the time frame, I never see myself other than completely immersed, body and soul plunged into a much more solid, more stimulating, and at the same time more restrictive element than what is usually referred to as the milieu.

Julien Gracq.  The Shape of a City.  NY: Turtle Point Press, 2004.  Originally published in 1985 as La Forme d’une Ville.and translated from the French by Ingeborg M. Kohn.  I have written about Gracq several times before.

“Floating high on the waters of catastrophe” – Julien Gracq’s Balcony in the Forest


Assigned to a blockhouse on a hilltop high above the Meuse River deep in the Ardennes Forest, Lt. Grange at first finds his new home “perfectly improbable.”  It’s nothing more than a concrete bunker comically topped by a little house where a handful of men live.  It feels as if they were perched in a children’s tree house, “as if they were on a roof and the ladder had been taken away.”  The time is autumn 1939.  The German invasions of Poland, Norway, and Denmark seem far away and France is preparing as if this is going to be a rematch of the trench warfare of the First World War.  “The war?  Who knows if there is a war?”

In surprisingly short order, however, Grange adapts to the hilltop hideaway where he and his men spend their days making half-hearted efforts to walk patrols and laying out the barbed wire with which they’ve been supplied, barbed wire, it seems, that is without many barbs. They have guns that don’t work and the parts they order never arrive.  But that doesn’t seem to matter.  What Grange responds to deeply is the forest.

The forest breathed, more ample now, awakened, alert, its remotest hiding places suddenly stirred by the enigmatic signs of time’s reversion – an age of great hunts, of proud cavalcades – as if the old Merovingian lair were quickened by a forgotten scent in the air that made it live again.

The forest is a living entity that continually breathes, and for many months to come its breathing will manage to absorb the existence of the distant war.  But for Grange, the forest is something more.  Whenever he listens to the forest he hears the ocean, even though the North Sea is more than a hundred miles away, beyond Belgium.

…both men held their breath for a moment, listening to the great respiration of the woods around them that made a kind of low and intermittent music, the long deep murmur of an undertow that came from the groves of firs near Les Fraitures…

We never learn much about Grange’s prior life, but in the forest, in spite of the crude conditions and the hint of war on the horizon, Grange begins to realize that he is a changed man.  “It seemed as if his life were no longer divided, partitioned…”   Nevertheless, it is not exactly clear to him why this should be so – “…a question it had become urgent to understand were being asked – but Grange did not understand.”  He becomes seduced by a local woman he meets in the forest one day – a woman variously described as a “rain sprite,” a “plant in the sun,” as “nature itself” or as a “witch” – and they embark on a romance that lasts until the imminent approach of the German army.  In his quarters, he surreptitiously begins to study the official brochure that reproduces the silhouettes of the German armored vehicles, afraid of being caught by his men “as if he were pouring over obscene photographs.”

Eventually, as “the phoney war” inexorably becomes real and threatens the French border, even the forest can no longer repel or absorb it; the earth becomes “like a corpse beginning to smell.”  Grange’s superior gives him the option of another post, far from the front, but Grange refuses. “‘I like it here.’  He felt as if he were hearing the words for the first time, astonished to have known the truth so long.”

What is it about this forest that compels him to stay here in his concrete tree house in the woods above the tiny village of Les Falizes?

What most reminded him of his exaltation at Les Falizes, where he seemed to breathe as never before, was the beginning of summer vacations in his childhood – the fever seizing him as soon as he could look out the train windows, still miles away from the coast, and see the trees gradually shrink, stunted by the salt wind – the anxiety suddenly filling his throat at the mere thought that his room in the hotel might not overlook the sea.  And the next day there would be the sand castles, too, when his heart beat stronger than anywhere else just standing next to them, because he knew, and at the same time could not believe, that the tide would soon cover them.

When the motorized German army finally does appear on the horizon across the Meuse in May, after swiftly slicing through Belgium, Grange feels something akin to relief.  “He felt his mind floating high on the waters of catastrophe.”

[It was] a marvelous, almost appealing terror that Grange felt rising from the depths of his childhood – from fairy tales: the terror of children lost in the woods at twilight, listening to the faraway branches crack beneath the dreadful heels of the seven-league boots.

The enemy doesn’t actually appear until eighteen pages from the end of the book, but the finale is swift.  The blockhouse is quickly assaulted by gunfire and Grange and his men are forced to flee into the open, where he manages to shoot and destroy a tank.  “It was intoxicating,” Grange thinks.  He realizes that he has reacted without panic during his first moments of combat.  “He felt somehow invulnerable.”  At the novel’s end, Grange is wounded and makes his way back into the blockhouse.

Life fell back to this sweetish silence, the peace of a field of asphodels, only the faint rustle of blood within the ear, like the sound of the unattainable sea in a shell…Then he pulled the blanket up over his head and went to sleep.

Balcony in the Forest is a strange, elusive novel.  Is Grange an unrealistic dreamer who takes refuge from the realities of war in the dream forests of childhood fairy tales?   Or is he tapping into some primal force or existential plane that transcends the pettiness of human history?

Julien Gracq.  Balcony in the Forest.  NY: Columbia University Press, 1987.  Translated from the French by Richard Howard.

“The true novelist is the one who cheats”

Gracq Reading Writing

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. 

And elsewhere:

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.]

Narrow Waters

narrow waters

Why did the feeling anchor itself in me at an early age that if traveling – traveling without any thought of returning – can open doors and truly change one’s life, then that most singular of all forays, an excursion with neither adventure nor unseen events that after a few hours finds us home again, right before the gate of our parents’ house, has a more secret magic, like the handling of a divining rod? – from The Narrow Waters

Samuel Riba, the self-pitying publisher at the center of Enrique Vila-Matas’ recent novel Dublinesque, refers to many authors in the course of that literature-infused book, but what was said about Julien Gracq made me take note and order some books.

[Riba had] published lots of important authors, but only in Julien Gracq’s novel The Opposing Shore did he perceive any spirit of the future.  In his room in Lyon, over the course of endless hours spent locked away, he devoted himself to a theory of the novel that, based on the lessons apparent to him the moment he opened The Opposing Shore, established five elements he considered essential for the novel of the future.  These essential elements were: intertextuality; connection with serious poetry; awareness of a moral landscape in ruins; a slight favoring of style over plot; a view of writing that moves forward like time.

It was a daring theory, given that it put Gracq’s book, usually considered antiquated, as the most advanced of all novels.

Somewhat in self-defense, I chose to begin with a slim volume by Gracq, The Narrow Waters, originally published in French in 1976 as Les Eaux  Étroites. The Narrow Waters is an exercise in memory – or, more accurately, it’s an exercise in cumulative memory.  Gracq’s narrative retraces an outing in a rowboat that he made numerous times in his youth, although he also makes it clear that he has not revisited the site in a long time.  He reimagines for us his past excursions up the Evre, a tiny tributary of the Loire River, in a manner that is both Proustian and mythical.  “Once afloat on the Evre, we entered a realm removed from the rest of the earth…”  Eventually, the river narrows and the boat’s passage through this gap becomes an “initiation rite…The crossing of an obscure corridor…”

At first, Gracq’s prose seems to originate in a hyper-intense form of observation.  Unlike a naturalist, however, Gracq is only marginally interested in the mechanics of nature.  His interest lies in the act of perception and in the relationship between art and perception, and his description of a scene presents us with a world that is no longer natural but that has been internalized and reorganized for us, as if by the eye and mind of a painter or sculptor.   The best way to show this is to quote a generous passage in which he describes a place appropriately named the Valley of No Return.

Le Val sans Retour looks nothing like what one might imagine: neither the narrow cleft, like a saber slash, which provides access to an infamous gorge nor the somber green of lowlands choked by trees whose branches rain sleep like those of the manzanilla.  It is only a rather deep ravine, wide open on both sides, that has dug itself a winding swath through a high plateau of fallow land and moors; to the west extends the forest of Paimpont, whose farthest treetops can be made out at view’s end and look like the scattered flags of some rear guard retreating behind the horizon.  From the top of the hill, the valley’s panorama, the absolute leveling of the line of the horizon, seizes the eye – a worn-down base, a planed block into which is sunk the valley’s closed-in, finger-like enclave with its short tributary ravines arranged like the veins of a leaf.  The rocky skeletal structure surfaces at each point on the slopes as well-worn, flattened, rounded, lichen-encrusted rocks of a dull white hue, a color that haunts Brittany.  A rough, sparse vegetation occupies all of the intervals; trails of dry rush, low, darker green brushloads of broom and gorse spread out like scabrous sheets, misplaced oaks, stands of dwarf fir cascading in black trails to the bottom of the ravine.  Up where the slopes reach the plateau, as soon as their angles diminish, thickets of stunted chestnut trees, roots exposed, cling to everything stiff as stubble on a shaved neck; in winter, a jumble of birches stripped of all but the tiniest twigs fills the bottom of the ravine with the soft gray of mouse down so dense it’s mistaken for mounting fog.

Only when I finished the book’s fifty-four pages did I fully realize how modern life had been effectively eliminated from its pages so that Gracq could focus the reader within it’s miniscule geography.  With the exception of two or three passing references to a car and a single mention of the Vichy government, the entire twentieth century is absent from his narrative.  Like a bell jar, The Narrow Waters consists of a hermetically-sealed landscape that contains a tiny man with his tiny boat and a boundless stock of memory and imagination.

Here, already spreading out across the river, grew the floating green constellations of water chestnuts that we would lift up on the return trip like a fishing net to harvest the nuts with their sharp protuberances: small, spiny, vegetal skulls that harden when cooked and that produce, when split, instead of a brain, a nut tasting of sugar and mud, crumbly, grainy, crunch between the teeth.

Gracq’s narrative continually flows between memories of the river and memories that the river evokes, memories that are, more often than not, derived from the books of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas De Quincey, Gaston Bachelard, Gérard de Nerval, Arthur Rimbaud, Honoré de Balzac, Jules Verne.  Like Proust, he traces the most powerful of these literary memories back to childhood.  For Gracq (and this is undoubtedly a source of Vila-Matas’ admiration for his work), memories derived from reading are just as powerful and real as memories drawn from “experience” – perhaps even more so.

I am unable to resist these clusters of recollection, these adhesive elements that the impact of a cherished image hurriedly, anarchically condenses around itself, bizarre poetic stereotypes that, in our imagination, coagulate around a childhood vision in a jumble of fragments of poetry, painting, or music…it is through connections that bind them together that the emotion born of a pastoral spectacle can extend freely across an artistic network – plastic, poetic, or musical – and traverse great distances without the least loss of energy.

Julien Gracq, Narrow Waters.  NY: Turtle Point Press, n.d.  Translated from the French by Ingeborg M. Kohn.