A dark stranger… Un beau ténébreux… the very title of Julien Gracq’s second novel symbolizes the complexity and startling obliqueness of a book that, on its publication in 1945, was described by Edmond Jaloux, writing in Psyché, as “a black diamond” whose dark brilliance set it apart from the literature of its time.
Gracq got the idea for the book while a prisoner of war in a camp near Hoyerswerda in what was then German Silesia. It was inspired by an obscure poem of Vigny’s, “Les amants de Montmorency”, in which two lovers make a suicide pact. In Carnets du grand chemin he describes how he wrote it in bed in the prison hut, not just for lack of a table; they were so ill-fed they only got up for a few hours a day so as to save energy. It was his job to divide up the daily ration of black bread. Never had the Lord’s Prayer – “give us this day our daily bread” – seemed so relevant.
A Dark Stranger is the product of this period of captivity, its ascetic routines. Arresting, prescient, it rises from the forest plains of Silesia only to be transposed onto the thundering tides of Brittany. Much influenced by Ernst Jünger and German Romantic literature, Gracq sets the story in another place where poetic traditions are strong. It resembles both the wild Breton coastline and the Silesian plain: sombre, unceasing, moving in cool sensual waves, sometimes calm, always unsettling.
Hence the inter-war setting assumes particular significance. The 1920s were a time of insouciance, conspicuous wealth; the jazz age epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But in A Dark Stranger – as for Fitzgerald in other ways – the period has something of a lament. Its wealthy, neurotic characters seem to be in mourning: but is this for the past horrors of 1914-18 – which perhaps significantly are never mentioned – or for those to come in 1939-45, so real and immediate to the author?
The era is nonetheless determined by the tone: the then-fashionable Anglophilia is also evident in the protagonist, the repellent and equivocally chivalrous Allan Murchison: his glamorous Anglo-French parentage, his quotes from Wilde, his monocle, Eton bow ties and English suits. Englishness plays a particular role in the novel that that operates on several levels. Allan’s parentage gives him cachet, explains his icy, derisive elegance, perhaps even his supposed superiority over his hot-blooded Latin acolytes. Yet the situation is not without irony. Although the other characters fall short of the ideal he sets, it is their failings that ultimately put them on a higher level than him; something they, even he, perhaps realize but are unwilling to admit.
Gracq also seems to have had Anglo-Saxon leanings – not least his reserve. Yet his brand of Anglophilia is atypical. He admired English coolness while recognizing that its emotional detachment is often accompanied by a lack of intellectual acuity. Widely read in English literature, he first visited the country in 1929. His observations, not published until 1992, draw interesting comparisons. He disliked the cynicism, the destructive criticism prevalent in France after 1918, admiring the British for still having “Victorian values” – something that would stand them in good stead in 1940. He felt this was what accounted for the very different national responses to the outbreak of war. But after a visit in the 1990s he felt the English had become “more like the French …”
In Allan, Gracq creates with incisive irony a modern figure, one familiar to us. Allan is godless, supremely logical, preoccupied with the impression he makes. Materially successful, for him people are as interesting as the treasures he collects—no more, no less. While protecting his privacy, beneath the mask – the “permanent look of Werther” as Irène describes it – his aim is to provoke reaction. In Gregory’s words he “burns life at both ends” according to his own existential code of perfection. Then, like the meteor Christel sees from the train, he makes a spectacular exit, destroys the self he has created, believing in it to the last.
Gracq’s message might be: “don’t live your life like this”. Allan’s gifts are squandered in a quest for an ideal that has no more substance than his reflection in the mirror. Ultimately he is a study in failure.
At times Allan seems to be playing a vast game of chess, not only with the other characters but with the literary and surrealist themes which, through him, exert their influence on the narrative: Poe, Rimbaud, keywords, magnetic fields, vanishing points, planetary orbits. At others – although the shift in roles is barely perceptible – he acts as a form of external siphon that feeds a series of communicating vessels, an image used by Gérard in his diary. This, the interrelation of our waking and dreaming lives, how they cross-fertilize, is arguably the book’s predominant surrealist element, one that draws on Breton’s work Les vases communicants. The part played by dreams is substantial yet understated; it is often hard to distinguish dream from reality. And although none of the characters dream about Allan specifically, it is apparent that he inspires, even dictates, the content of their dreams. He inhabits both worlds, blurring the already porous boundary between them.
To French and English readers alike, Gracq’s work can seem impenetrable. Yet in a world where communication is becoming homogeneous, the clarity of his language is a reminder of the purifying power of the word; that it can reveal without blinding. In an interview with Gracq in 1986, Jean Carrière commented that his work sometimes gives the impression of being translated from another language. Gracq replied that, on the contrary, his (unfulfillable) wish was that it should remain so close to its French roots as to be “untranslatable”.
Gracq’s avoidance of the literary scene – he refused the Prix Goncourt in 1951 – seems more justified than ever today, when the self-promotion encouraged by publishers and authors alike has such a corrosive effect on the integrity of literature. The work of many contemporary writers is obscured by their public profile. Gracq, by contrast, effaces himself. It is his work that shines, not him. When he died in 2007 at the age of ninety-seven, one of the few to be published in the Pléiade in his lifetime, the press described his passing as “discreet”. It is perhaps the most fitting tribute for an author.
Michel Tournier, the well-known French novelist, once spoke about influences on his own work. Prominent among them was Julien Gracq. When asked to elaborate he had only this to say: “Gracq… read all of him”.