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Julien Gracq: Au château d’Argol (The Castle of Argol)

This was Julien Gracq’s first novel. He submitted it to Gallimard, who turned it down, but José Corti took it on. You can see why Gallimard turned it down. This is not to say that it is bad novel – it certainly is not – but it is certainly overwrought and probably not for everyone. Indeed, I could say that it is very French and I can think of very few English-language authors of the last hundred years or so writing in a similar style. Indeed, the only one that comes to mind is Wilson Harris and he has not had a great deal of commercial success with his fiction.

Gracq starts off with an introduction which tells us that the book is very much influenced by Wagner (as are some of his other books). Though he does not specifically mention it, the novel clearly owes a debt to Wagner’s Parsifal, an opera which some people adore and many do not. It also owes a debt to Hegel, who is the favourite author of Albert, one of the three protagonists of his novel. In style, however, it is clearly influenced, as Gracq himself says in his introduction, by the Gothic novel, such The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Fall of the House of Usher. I would also add, as an influence, German Romantic authors such as E. T. A. Hoffmann.

The book opens with Albert, the last in the line of a noble and rich family. We later learn that he spends his time as a dilettante, travelling around Europe, attending various universities and visiting art galleries with his friend Herminien. He is clearly very well-off, as he has just bought the Castle of Argol, in Brittany, sight unseen. He is now going there for the first time, a month later. The overwrought description starts right at the beginning and continues throughout the book. Gracq’s style is to apply layer upon layer of colourful description, replete with multiple adjectives, often archaic or, at least, uncommon. More importantly, we get this vivid picture of a Brittany, where nature – a dominating though not, at least at this stage, a particularly threatening nature – reigns supreme. Indeed here, as throughout the book, the presence of humans (the three protagonists apart) and, indeed, apart from the occasional bird song, of other animals is almost non-existent. It is as though humans are completely irrelevant.

Even when Albert arrives at the castle, there is only one servant to meet him. We will see him briefly later, asleep on the floor. We will not meet any of the other servants or, indeed, anyone else apart from Albert and his two friends, though they must exist. The castle is imposing both on the inside and outside and Gracq does not hesitate to give us a detailed and highly technical description of it. It appears to have few windows and they seem to be at different levels, giving no indication of how many floors there are in the castle. Its raison d’être is unclear, as it seems to have no nearby inhabitants and, though it is near (but not next to) the sea, the coast seems to be completely deserted, with no boat ever seen during this book. We learn nothing of the history of the castle, except that it appears to be very old and has a history, not revealed to us.

Albert wanders through the castle and is amazed by it. The bedding seems to consist of furs and nothing else but, at the same time, there seems to be some rare and fascinating items, such as beautiful wood carvings, old furniture and an interesting library. As he wanders around (apparently on his own), he is struck by the size of some of the rooms, the splendid views and the play of light, both caused, first by the sun, and then by the inevitable thunder storm. He can see a huge forest and, in the distance, the sea.

Albert is enjoying his time at the castle but soon learns that he is to receive a visit from Herminien, his best friend, and Heide. Herminien is man with a wide-ranging curiosity but has not been too successful with women, not least as he is inclined to be particularly sarcastic with them. Albert knows little about Heide. He assumes she is female (she is) but is unsure. He does know that she seems to have a revolutionary spirit. When they do arrive, Albert is immediately taken with Heide. She is clearly beautiful, dressed all in white, and also very educated. In no time at all, Heide and Albert seem to have fallen for one another.

Heide seems to spend the day with Albert, while Herminien spends his time in bed (alone). However, the three get together in the evening, where Herminien seems to pull the strings in what Gracq calls a grand jeu. We follow them as they explore the mysterious region, including the coast. On one occasion, they go out swimming together and seem determined to keep on swimming, going too far to return safely, though they – just – do manage to return. They find an old chapel in the forest, covered in undergrowth, but with a functioning clock.

Eventually, however, Herminien simply disappears. Albert and Heide make no effort to find him, though he could have been lost or injured. We later learn that he has been to some archives to find out more about the history of the castle. Albert and Heide do find him, injured, having been thrown from his horse. They nurse him back to health, without any medical intervention. When he recovers, he reveals that he has learned of the existence of a secret passage in the castle.

The three live in a world entirely cut off from anyone else. Time has no meaning. Though we vaguely follow the change of seasons and the difference between day and night, there is little indication of how long the events described last. That things end badly is not surprising. Focussing on just the three, coupled with the lavish description of the castle and the area around, completely cut off from the rest of the world, enables Gracq to heighten the emotional play between the three protagonists, as though they were the only three people in the world. Sadly, as we know, two’s company but three’s a crowd. I thought this is a fascinating and highly imaginative work but it is perhaps not for everyone.

Publishing history

First published 1938 by José Corti
First published in English 1951 by Peter Owen
Translated by Louise Varèse