Gracq, Julien

Gracq, Julien
Jul. 27, 1910-Dec. 22, 2007
French novelist

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French novelist wrote: "I was born at Saint Florent le Vieil (Maine-et-Loire) of a family of merchants. I had my secondary education at the lycee in Nantes from 1921 to 1928, then at the Lycee Henry IV in Paris where I prepared for the entrance examination for the Ecole Normale Superieure. Here I studied under the philosopher Alain and was a fellow student of the sociologist Jules Monnerot, of the critic Armand Hoog, and of Maurice Schumann, who has since made a name for himself in politics. From 1930 to 1934 I was a student at the Ecole Normale Superieure where I passed the examination for the degree of fellow in history. I also received a diploma from the Ecole des Sciences Politiques. From 1935 on I held different posts in public education, in the lycees of Nantes, Quimper, Amiens, Angers, as assistant of the faculty of Caen, and finally at the Lycee Claude Bernard in Paris, where I still teach. I took part in the 1939 war as lieutenant in the infantry. Taken prisoner at the time of the defense of the port of Dunkerque, I was repatriated in 1941 to France following an illness.

"After Stendhal, Wagner, and Edgar Poe, the reading of surrealist writing was, without a doubt, a determining event in the taste that I developed rather late-at twenty-eight-for writing. Although I do not accept all the ideas of surrealism, I continue to consider this movement as the great poetic event of this first half of the century-for France at least. Considered rather as a novelist, I am far from being attached exclusively to this form of expression, and I have written essays, poems in prose, and a play. I live in Paris, where my teaching keeps me, and I spend my vacations at Saint Florent le Vieil, where I have written most of my books. I consider myself a man of the West, and long stays in Britain account for the privileged place which its scenes have in my books. I have travelled a little in the Argentine, in Central Europe, in Italy, in Scandinavia. I write relatively little, slowly, and sometimes with rather long intervals of idleness."

Julien Gracq's first novel Au Chateau d'Argol (1938, translated into English as The Castle of ArgolN) was a gothic philosophical romance full of the sublime and the grotesque, but in an impressionistic style which was meant to emphasize its allegiance to Breton, if not surrealism. Un Beau tenebreux (1945, A Dark Stranger) was more psychological. In it a group of people vacationing at a French resort are at first intrigued by a mysterious Englishman, but then become profoundly agitated by his suicide. Henri Peyre, missing the subtlety and distinction of the work, wrote in the New York Times in 1950 that "the theme is old-fashioned in its labored effort at strangeness; the style [is]…over-literary and lush. The vague characterization, the weird dreams, the conversations on Poe and Rimbaud smack too much of decadent and romantic artificiality." But his view of Gracq, while influential at the time, has not prevailed-and Gracq's collected works have been included in the Pleiade series (1991). Le Rivage des Syrtes was awarded France's highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in 1951. Gracq refused the award, and voiced his objection to literary prizes in general in his essay La Litterature a l'estomac. Translated by Richard Howard as The Opposing Shore, the novel was about two fictitious countries engaged in a centuries-long war. Gracq used the theme of war again in his most famous book outside France, Un Balcon en foret (1958, Balcony in the Forest), the story of a French officer on duty in a forest just after the outbreak of World War II. While awaiting a German assault he has a brief but passionate affair with a woman who lives nearby. The Guardian wrote in 1960: "The unreal, trancelike atmosphere which gives the commander an illusion of spiritual isolation and security is masterfully conveyed, and even when the fighting starts it still has an air of dream. [Gracq] has a great deal to communicate about one sort of temperament in action." More than a decade later Gracq gathered three novellas under the title of La Presqu'ile. The Times Literary Supplement praised the author's "intense, absorbing descriptions," his ability to "exteriorize the inner world of characters," and his "superbly sustained evocative writing."

Gracq's other works include a volume of prose poems called Liberte grande (1946) and a full-length play on the Grail legend entitled Le Roi pecheur (1948, The Fisher King). The latter was performed at the Theatre Montparnasse in Paris in 1949. He did a study of his friend Andre Breton, and collected his own critical essays in Preferences. Gracq taught at the Lycee Claude Bernard until his retirement in 1970, the year he was a visiting professor of literature at the University of Wisconsin. His most recent work is La Forme d'une ville (1985), a semi-autobiographical account of his school years in Nantes. In an interview for the New York Times Book Review in 1986, Gracq stated that his writing was "based on elements furnished by the memory" and served "to give form, stability, and precision to things that are vague in the mind." Gracq's work is now regarded as major by most French critics.

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