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Julien Gracq: Un beau ténébreux (A Dark Stranger)

In his review of this book, following its 1950 publication in English in the United States, John Cournos wrote in the Saturday Review Its matter is morbid, its prose overwrought, its range narrow; it is tedious. … This is the sort of book that the Soviet critics constantly hold up before their readers as an example of the decadence of the bourgeoisie, and for once there is no answer. The author’s ability to describe landscape and its moods, however brilliant, is not enough. Cournos, an anti-Soviet Russian Jew, an Imagist poet and one time lover of Dorothy Sayers, has a point. The book is certainly morbid – death hangs over much of it – its prose is certainly overwrought (but couldn’t we say the same of Shakespeare or, more specifically, Milton?) and its range is narrow, in the sense that it takes place within a limited group in a very specific (albeit fictitious) place. However, while not to everyone’s taste and clearly not to Cournos’, it is an interesting read, not least as Gracq’s second novel and his first post-war one.

Much of the tale is narrated by Gérard, in the form of a diary. Gérard is clearly well-off, a comfortable dilettante, who spends his time writing literary articles and books though, not we feel, as a means to earning a living. He is one of those people who acts as a confidante, a second-in-command but not as the protagonist and, indeed, that seems to be his role. People tell him things, or he finds out things from them and, as such, he shares them with us via his diary and, where appropriate, with the other characters. He is on holiday in the fictitious town of Kérantec, which is in Brittany and, by what we see of the town, a generally poor town. The hotel where he is staying lodges the well-to-do who come and pass the summer there. Their time is spent in excursions, drinking, talking, partying and, for some (but not Gérard) sports.

In Gérard’s group – those he has made friends with but whom he did not seem to know before – are Jacques, a sporty type but also a poet, Christel, an attractive young woman, adored by the men, including Gérard, and the leader of the group, Gregory, who is of Scottish origin and who seems to like playing mini-golf, and a honeymooning couple, Henri and Irène. Their brief marriage is not going well, as Henri does not find Irène intellectual enough and Irène finds Henri rather boring. Both Jacques and Gérard court Christel to some degree. However, when they discuss her, Gérard comments She wasn’t made for you or me.

One of the key words in this book is the word désoeuvrement which means something like inertia, idleness. Part of this group, and Gérard in particular, feel this on many occasions. When it is clear to him that he is not going to win Cristel, this is the word he uses to describe what he feels, adding literature bores me. He decides to leave and go home (presumably to Paris, though this is not made clear.). However, when Gregory gets wind of his departure and asks him about it, he changes his mind. Gregory wants his room (one of the best in the hotel) for a friend of his, Allan, who wants to come to the hotel with a lady friend and is looking for a fairly remote place by the sea. Gregory particularly wants to help Allan.

Despite Gérard’s lack of help, a room is found for Allan and his lady love, Dolorès and we move onto a not uncommon theme: the arrival of an outsider who disrupts the group. Allan soon becomes what Gérard calls the god of the group. He is clearly one of those people who dominate whenever they enter a room. He is tall, good-looking, athletic, a very good dancer, intellectual and above all elegant. Christel and Irène fall for him, the men are either jealous of or charmed by him. Dolorès is a beautiful woman but she does not remain long, leaving Allan alone with the group and with the women, Christel in particular.

The rest of the novel is essentially about Allan and his relationship to the group, though Gérard does tell us something of himself, particularly his time as a prisoner-of-war (as was Gracq himself). Gregory decides to leave, concerned about what is going on with Allan, though, before doing so, he fills Gérard (and us) in on Allan’s life story, in a detailed letter. Allan becomes, as Gérard says, A prince. A king. However, it is clear that something else is going on. The aura of doom and death hangs over the group. They go and visit a ruined castle and Allan walks on the ramparts in a dangerous place. He talks of suicide. Gérard learns from the manager that Allan has brought a million francs with him and has already got through half of it, often by gambling recklessly. Christel, who is now hopelessly in love with Allan, has morbid thoughts about dying with Allan.

Dolorès returns and, at the end-of-season ball, the couple appear as the Montmorency lovers (link in French), a poem by Vigny about a couple who kill themselves together. They both even have a bloodstain on their clothes. Gérard, ever the gentleman, tries to protect Christel but not very successfully, not least because he himself is now in love with Dolorès and tells her so. Gérard’s diary ends and the narrator tells us what happened and why.

Pace Cournos, the story is certainly well told, even if it is, in Cournos’ words, somewhat overwrought. It is – I can find no other easy way of putting this – very French, in that a there is a high degree of intellectualism and the use of language is often flowery. People really do not speak to other people with a monologue lasting several pages (except, perhaps, in France). However, this book is meant to be literature and not Soviet realism (for which she should be grateful). Gracq will go on to write better books but this one is certainly not a bad early effort.

Publishing history

First published 1945 by José Corti
First published in English 1951 by Peter Owen