A Dark Stranger
by Julien Gracq
Very often I read books that I have some inkling about beforehand, I think we all do to a certain extent, following an author's work or a friend's recommendation, a glowing review, or even books within a favoured genre. Very seldom do I take a blind leap into untested waters but when you come to admire a publisher because of their consistent ethos it makes such a thing not only possible but also feel almost safe. Pushkin Press have made a name, amongst some of the bloggers I read anyway, for reintroducing us to some of the lost European writers who deserve more attention. They along with NYRB Classics have done a lot to resurrect the standing of Stefan Zweig amongst readers in English and their catalogue contains many other authors who might be worthy of the same focus. Browsing 'blind' is a bit like looking at a menu, knowing that it may all be tasty but not necassarily to all tastes.
Julien Gracq died only a couple of years ago at an impressive 97 years of age. He appears to have lead a life that has the word integrity running through it like a stick of rock. Himself a product of France's elite educational system, he never stopped working as a teacher of geography and history despite being part of the literary scene. A friend of André Breton the two men admired each other and even worked together but Gracq never became part of the Surrealist movement proper (however its influence can be felt in this book very clearly). This novel, published in 1945 as Un beau ténébreux, was written whilst he was interrred as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. His best known novel The Opposing Shore won him the Prix Goncourt in 1951, an award he refused, and he further distanced himself from the glittery side of literature when he refused dinner with President Mitterand on three separate occasions. He also had the rare honour of seeing his work published by The Pléiade whilst still alive.
A Dark Stranger is made up for the most part of the journal entries of Gerard, a writer who has decamped to the Hotel des Vagues in Brittany to continue his studies of Rimbaud. He is just about to leave when one of the other guests, Gregory, tempts him to stay by showing him a letter he has received from a friend who will be joining them. In Nigel Planer's hilarious spoof memoir 'I, An Actor' he talks about the technique of 'ponging' whereby a character can be developed and built up nicely, before they even make their entrance, by what other characters say about them. The mysterious Allan is built up similarly so that when he and his partner do finally arrive it is with almost operatic pomp.
Accompanied by Gregory, two new guests walked in. Him, the image of both strength and ease at once: my first thought was that he walked with genius. The only other person I've seen honour the ground with such harmony was a Slav athlete walking into the stadium during a cup final at Colombes (breathtaken, the entire stadium went "ah!") She - it's too little to say - she's very beautiful - beautiful as a dream. The second thing that occurred to me, in a sort of panic, was that what I saw in front of me was something more complicated, more astonishing than the harmony of the planets: a couple, a royal couple even. The third was... no it wasn't a thought, it was a bubbling, a fizzing in the blood, those blurred eyes, lifeless hands and dry throat you get when the great tragic actress, the Olympic champion appears decked magnificently in their symbolic attributes, and when you just say to yourself - and the whole crowd stiffens, holds up their heads at the thought alone: "There she is, it's her - there he is, it's him".
Soon after their arrival Gregory leaves but gives Gerard a 12 page letter, reading like a piece of submitted evidence, about the life of Allan. Hardly the subtlest method of exposition but from this we learn one important milestone: a night spent in a kind of bedside vigil with the body of someone who had suffered a fatal accident at school. This "diligent, all-night childhood confrontation with oblivion" is the first indication of the morbid side to Allan's character, which is at odds with the holiday season, the decadent period setting and the comfortable lives of the rest of the hotel's residents. In a similar vein there is Allan's monologue about the night, his love for it, and the time he spent overnight in a church in particular. Another epiphany of him where he realises that death need not be something that inhibits us, death can be an act too, for we can take our own lives. Gerard senses something about Allan almost immediately and as Gracq makes no attempt to disguise where his plot is heading it'll amke no difference if I tell you that one should always beware of a man who seems to blowing his life savings in the mother of all casino losing-streaks.
So if the plot isn't the important thing for Gracq, what is? I mentioned surrealist imagery earlier and the writing is thick with images, motifs and dream sequences. Sometimes this is so heavy going that it slows the reading pleasure somewhat but there are moments where the joy of writing and language is infectious. Holiday trips to Brittany are pretty common I should think for people like me who grew up in the South East, but I shouldn't think many of us would choose to describe the simple act of sitting by the sea thus:
I lay on the sand, let the dulling disaster of the waves wash over me. It's enough to occupy you completely in itself - first comes the anxious wait for them to break, for the steaming torrent (Ah! It'll be even better than the last one!) Jumping for sudden wild joy, that stomach churning joy brought on by anything that comes crashing down (the childish pleasure I felt during the war - the sole innocent pleasure - on blowing up a bridge). Then comes the savage, biting, pitiless sucking-up of sand by the salty tongue - the sound of the earth being washed, thrashed, redeemed from lethargy, from anything that isn't absolute purity of honest, upright rock, until it's grovelling, until this blonde with bone shoes is as prostrate as a figure on a tomb.
A series of bone related images follow, keeping things close to the overiding theme of mortality. This theme and indeed the whole novel takes on an entirely different hue when you learn that Gracq wrote the book whilst interred in a prisoner of war camp in Silesia during the second world war. Imprisoned with other officers from the French Army his own life was never under explicit threat, I don't mean to place this novel in any kind of holocaust literature context, but from that standpoint it makes the apparently carefree attitudes of the holidaying characters and the relative decadence of the 1920's seem not just a world away but almost unreal, indeed surreal.
So how successful was my attempt to try something new from the menu? Very, I think. Rich and challenging, Gracq's prose may not have me rushing back for more immediately but it's always good to extend one's palate and simply learning more about the life of the man behind it made it a worthwhile read. The other trick of course is to ask your waitress what's good but you'll have to wait and see what was recommended.