Reading Writing by Julien Gracq

by Matt Cibula

24 October 2006


The Most Intimidating Book of All Time

Julien Gracq is smarter than all of us.

In France, he is famous—if not the most famous writer in the country, certainly one of the most respected. (They still brag about how he refused the Prix de Goncourt in the early 1950s. That’s France for you!) Here, however, we only have access to a few of his novels, including the meticulous and sexy The Opposing Shore. Turtle Point Press is aiming to change all that with this book, a collection of his writings about other writers, and how to read them, and about writing itself.

cover art

Reading Writing

Julien Gracq

(Turtle Point Press)

If this all sounds just a little too highfalutin for you, then you will not like this book a whole lot. In fact, there are a lot of things that might keep you away from this book. If you are unfamiliar or uninterested in the last 200 years of French literature and poetry, then most of Reading Writing will sound like alien gibberish. On the other hand, if you have read even a little bit of Flaubert or Valéry, then you will be in heaven.

Gracq is everyone’s idea of a wonderful critic. He’s thrillingly well read, and is able to masterfully discuss even minor works by every French writer that swims across his ken. He is fearless, championing populist authors such as Stendhal and Victor Hugo over much more fancy/fashionable writers like Marcel Proust, whom he respectfully but firmly dogs out at every opportunity. This is a big deal, especially in France, where Proust is often (to quote the title of one of these pieces) “considered as an end point.” But Gracq is having none of that. He slams Proust’s indifference to real life, the “descriptive bubbles” of his dialogue, and his lofty indifference to the motion and excitement that he finds in Balzac and Stendhal. Bravery like this always strikes a chord, even if you are a big Proust fan.

And Gracq’s prose—well, it’s hard to tell, because I have never read him in the original French, which I don’t know very well anyway. But if Jeanine Herman’s translation is anywhere near faithful, he is the smoothest stylist in the world. Reading Writing is loaded with the kind of sentences that demand immediate re-reading just to see if beautiful wordsmithery like this can rub off on one’s own meager talents. In an essay called “Writing,” he writes, “No verse is as heavy as Baudelaire’s verse, heavy with the specific weight of ripe fruit about to fall off the branch it is bending.” Elsewhere, discussing the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, he makes a literary pronouncement sound like deep gnostic knowledge: “No encounter is an individual adventure: each Being that emerges or appears—from Beauty, Power, or Damnation—immediately becomes symbolic, refers directly to some Genesis: as though individuality had yet to be born, with no more currency than it might have had in the Garden of Eden.”

There are blind spots amidst all this intelligence and beauty. His views about the differences between cinema and literature are a bit dated, as you might imagine, considering that most of the actual movies he mentions date from the 1920s and 1930s. And Gracq’s deep knowledge of everything can be exhausting, especially when he assumes that we know everything too. We are often plunged into passages about relatively unknown works without being told the author’s name, either in the text or in the plentiful footnotes. And some of the sentences just keep going and going, doubling back on each other, leaving us lost in the forest without even the courtesy of a breadcrumb trail.

Overall, however, this is an exhilarating book, stocked with astute literary thought presented just as gracefully as one could ask for. And if Gracq’s great learning turns Reading Writing into rather a rough slog sometimes, so be it—that’s the price one sometimes has to pay for such beautiful wisdom.

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