My Summer of Julien Gracq

Reading a French novelist’s examination of liminal space in a plague year

Seth Lerer
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

The odor of stasis hung over our quarantine. In spite of the political resistance in the cities, the actions of the street last summer was one of official inertia. In my hometown of San Diego, a battleship smoldered in the harbor, slowly sinking in the silt. The fire’s out now. Deck and curb have been swept clean. But in other ways little has truly changed. We’re sitting still, waiting for someone to tell us, “This was then,” to sound an all-clear.

No writer, for me, has captured this strange sense of hiatus as well as Julien Gracq. Reading his novels makes me think of Waiting for Godot restaged in a lush forest, where Vladimir and Estragon become so captivated by the leafy trees, the sounds of birds, and the meandering of a stream that they almost, just almost, forget for whom they wait..

Julien Gracq, whose real name was Louis Poirier, high school teacher of geography and history, forged his pen name out of Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, and the Roman Gracchi, the political reformers of the old Republic. I first encountered him in a yellow paperback translation in a Georgetown bookstore, one of those intimate and quirky shops that make you feel like an initiate into a secret faith. The jacket copy told me little other than that he wrote novels and nonfiction, that he had once turned down the Prix Goncourt, and that, at the time, he was close to a hundred years old. (He died in 2007, at age 97.) Opening up The Shape of a City, his meditation on the history and character of his hometown of Nantes, I found myself in sentences that circled back on themselves, as if I had become lost in some city with the wrong map, walking down streets that led to parks that led to rivers, but that, in the end, would never get me home.

This past summer, with my office locked up and bored with the books I had at home, I remembered that bookstore and those sentences that seemed to go nowhere. I ordered used copies of The Shape of a City and Reading and Writing (Gracq’s essays on literary life from Stendhal to the Surrealists), together with a couple of novels. In them I found characters who wait, who remain in forest redoubts sitting out a war that has either not quite begun or not ended, who walk village streets in search of nothing but themselves. “For the writer,” Gracq noted in Reading and Writing, “almost everything in the word is a border.” For his immobilized characters, the border is a place for waiting: something that tempts but is not to be crossed. His books are about people waiting to decide and, when they do, about how they realize that even the most trivial of decisions can reshape a family, a love, a war.

In Gracq’s novel Balcony in the Forest (published in French in 1958), Lieutenant Grange has been assigned to oversee a concrete bunker high in the French hills above the River Meuse. The bunker sits close to the Belgian border, right in the line of fire of the German attack—if it ever comes. This is the first year of World War II, those months from the fall of 1939 to the spring of 1940 when nothing seems to be happening. This is what the British called the the “Phoney War,” and the French named the drôle de guerre, the “funny war.” But, for Lieutenant Grange and his few charges, it is more like what the Germans called it: Sitzkrieg, the sitting war.

I love this idea: that just sitting is a form of war. To be a bureaucrat, to be a soldier, to be (as I was for many years) an academic dean, is to spend days in chairs. You go into these jobs thinking you’ll act and make a difference. Instead, you wait. You walk into a classroom thinking you will change your students. In the end, they change you.

The war was little by little falling asleep, the army yawning like a class that has handed in its papers, waiting for the bell and the end of maneuvers. Nothing would happen.

Gracq wrote his book while settled in his lycée, where the academic year would stretch across his classes in geography and history, and there is something undeniably schoolmasterly about the way his Lieutenant Grange attempts to maintain a shape to each day. His year of war is, in my reading, less a soldier’s than a teacher’s term, a September to May of poor supplies, truant pupils, and lost assignments. (His charges, the soldiers Hervouët and Gourcuff, are his two well-meaning but comically inept students.) Lonely in his concrete bunker, an ugly building with “torn off patches of plaster, and blackened … windows,” most days he “played the role of a janitor.” The rest of his time he spends reading a few books, dealing with paperwork, corralling his subordinates, and having an affair with a young widow from the nearby village.

About three-quarters of the way through the book, towards the close of this surreal academic year (it is May 9, 1940), the planes start flying overhead and trucks begin to move. The war is finally coming to the village. Everyone, including Grange’s lover, is evacuated. Great booms sound from the horizon. But the real sounds of war are in the bunker. “You could tell the war had actually begun,” the novel’s narrator affirms, “by the sound of grinding jaws that filled the silences.” We can also tell something has changed from the sound of Gracq’s own sentences:

During the evening, Grange decided to go up to Les Falizes for some bales of wire the engineers had left there … . The last hum of the airplanes had died away; there was a vacant sweetness in the evening air, as if the day were secretly unclasping its armor, relieved of its excessive tension; from far away came the dull hammering of a woodpecker against the oak trunks … . When Grange stepped into the clearing, the edge of the forest cast long shadows over the meadow; every pane of the rest home’s windows gleamed in the warm light. When he reached the first houses, Grange stopped for a moment, suddenly uncomfortable, sat down on a boulder that had rolled into the roadside grass, and held his breath a few seconds. He listened to the silence. It was a flat, stale silence that fell across the honeyed sunlight and seemed to stuff his ears with a soft wadding, like snow. When you took the road here, you suddenly penetrated this silence the way you might fall on the other side of a fence, a little stunned, disoriented, vaguely expecting a hand to be laid on your shoulder.

This is, to me, the heart of the novel. Boundaries will be set; and yet, the wire fences cannot hold against the sound of the woodpeckers, working away. You can almost hear the shadows.

You don’t have to read a lot of Gracq to get this feeling. But the hand on the shoulder can be welcoming or creepy. In The Opposing Shore (published in 1951), that hand is one of bureaucratic condescension. It is the hand of a superior who wants you to know that you’re new to all of this, that one day you’ll see things as he does, and until then, just settle down and sign the forms:

Old Danielo’s hand slid off my shoulder as he walked very deliberately around my chair and stared into my eyes a moment. A sudden acuity seemed to pass into the kindly smile; as I stood up, the hand returned to my shoulder with a gentleness and a remission in the gesture permitted only to someone inveterately obeyed.

If Balcony in the Forest is a tale of a displaced teacher, The Opposing Shore becomes a story of a lost student. Aldo, the scion of an old aristocratic family, has been recruited into the secret service of an imaginary nation, Orsenna, that has been at war for three hundred years with another equally imaginary country, Farghestan. Sent to a provincial maritime outpost, he encounters a variety of slyly patronizing superiors who try to instruct him in its ways: Captain Marino, all oblique euphemism; Belsenza, the official, all gossip; and the vaguely described Vanessa, Aldo’s lover-teacher, who grows increasingly impatient with his naïveté. Like Balcony in the Forest, this book starts in the fall and ends in the spring: another school year spent away from home.

In Richard Howard’s English translation, The Opposing Shore runs to over two hundred pages, and its prose is far more clotted than that of Balcony in the Forest, possibly due to the bureaucratic stasis described within: All of its characters are diplomatically evasive. But it also seems part of a design upon us readers. The book numbs, it bores. It is like being on the boat with Aldo as he goes off on a journey with his friends, not fully realizing that he will wind up crossing the invisible boundary between Orsenna and Fargestan and, in the process, reawaken centuries-old tensions:

I pushed back the bunch of dried flowers and the volumes of Nautical Instructions on the little table and unrolled the bundle of maps. Seeing once again, under the cabin’s dirty yellow light, those contours which had become so familiar to me, I experienced a feeling of unreality, so strange did it seem that these armed symbols, which I had interrogated so long in the depths of their underground reliquary, were now here, unfolded, for use … I consulted my watch, estimating the ship’s speed, and touched the place on the map where we must be by now.

The scene goes on for paragraphs like this. I try to reread them, but I get lost. Like Aldo, I have become a bad student, not paying attention, failing even the most basic of assignments.

The job of the teacher, like that of Lieutenant Grange, has been manning the borders; the job of the student, not to cross them. In this, they resemble the writer. “What controls the effectiveness of a writer’s use of words,” as Gracq put it in Reading and Writing, “is not the capacity to clasp the meaning tightly, it is an almost tactile knowledge of the layout of their property lines.” Teacher and student both fail. Their lives, like Gracq’s own sentences, become muddied, strange, and hard to read.

Stylistically, Gracq’s prose often breaks into strings of clauses joined by a colon, the punctuation mark that he had singled out in Reading and Writing:

It marks the place of a mini-breakdown in speech, a breakdown where a superfluous conjunction has disappeared life and limb in order to assure the two members of the sentence that it connected a more dynamic, seemingly electric contact: in the use of the colon there is always the trace of a small short-circuit.

Right now, in the pandemic, we too are living in the punctuation mark, a colon that marks an after and a before. This is the real genius of Julien Gracq: his ability to make you aware of living in these breakdowns of speech, of how our lives are often a string of short-circuits. He recognizes that all borderlines are artificial, that maps do not describe a landscape but impose an order on it. He reveals that most of our lives are lived in waiting. And he brilliantly shows that the written sentence is much like a map laid over life, and its marks of punctuation themselves resemble those boundary lines we assign, which do not describe the world, but create it. And to write a sentence—to write a truly good, clear, resonant sentence, in whatever language you have—is to bring a little beauty to this fallen world.

One day, the bookstores will reopen. Their corridors will fill again with readers looking to cross over. Until then, I will open up these books like private shops, running down aisles of allusion: the bits of Poe, Proust, Stendhal, Graham Greene, and Wagner operas that tease to be heard on every page. Gracq’s very pseudonym—forged from Stendhal and Roman political reformers—asks us to hold two things in balance: art and politics. Or, rather, it asserts that art is politics: that in the beauty of a sentence lies a map of understanding, even as we spend much of our lives in a sitting war.

Seth Lerer is Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego. His Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Truman Capote Prize in Criticism. He is also the author of Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage.
Originally published:
January 11, 2021


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