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Julien Gracq: Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore)

The Syrtes of the French title is presumably based on the Latin Syrtis that can refer to a gulf off the cost of Libya (Syrtis Major) or one off the cost of Tunisia (Syrtis Minor). The fictitious Syrtis here is an imaginary place, a part of Orsenna (another imaginary place), a once great empire but now having faded. Like other former great empires, it may not have the wealth and power but lives, to some extent, off its past reputation. The people of Orsenna all seem to have Italian names but there seems to be no other connection with Italy. In this book, of course, they speak standard French. Orsenna is the capital and major city but it has remote areas, of which Syrtes is one. The importance of Syrtes is that it is the frontier region with Farghestan, a country Orsenna has been at war with for the past three hundred years. There is no actual fighting and does not appear to have been for some time but Orsenna keeps a small detachment in Syrtes.

Our hero is Aldo, a young man from a rich and important family. To his father’s disappointment, he spends his time in frivolous pursuits, reading, waking alone and partying. Finally, he gets bored with these pursuits and gets a job as an observer (i.e. spy) in Syrtes. The journey to Syrtes is not unlike the approach to Argol in Au château d’Argol (The Castle of Argol). Though the landscape is very different, both involve a man on his own travelling through a mysterious and essentially silent landscape. There is not only no evidence of humans (except for the odd ruin) but little evidence for any other animals. The only noise is the rain. As with Albert in Au château d’Argol (The Castle of Argol), Aldo is both attracted to but somewhat apprehensive of the landscape.

He arrives at the small Syrtes port where he is based. There is a partially ruined fortress and a ship, the Redoutable. How many men there are there is not clear but we only meet four officers: Captain Marino who is in charge and his three lieutenants. There does not seem much to do. The men spend their day hunting and fishing and going for walks, though Marino often rides around the farms in the area to keep in touch with what is going on. Aldo makes reports back home (short official ones, longer letters to friends) but it is not clear on what. However, like Albert, he is strangely attracted to the area and its landscape. When the others go off for the evening to Maremma, the nearest town of any size, Aldo is happy to stay behind on his own. He is fascinated by the detailed map in the card room, which shows both Orsenna’s territories and Farghestan.

Though he gets on well with the four officers, he seems to keep himself to himself for much of the time. When he is seemingly offered a post elsewhere, he declines. Unlike the others, he does see things. He spots a ship at night in an area where there should be no ship. He tells Marino but Marino thinks it must be his imagination. He later visits Sagra, a ruined city, and sees a small boat there and a man guarding it. He says nothing.

Maremma has become somewhat trendy for the rich from Orsenna, particularly with the Aldobrandi family, a noble family but one given to bad behaviour. Vanessa, the (adult) daughter of the family, briefly visits Syrtes and Aldo is clearly taken with her but when she invites him to a party, he is visiting Sagra. When he returns, he finds her waiting for him and he is dragged off to Maremma, not too reluctantly, where he joins in the party. It there that he meets Belsenza, nominally his opposite number in Maremma but a man who has a chip on his shoulder, as he is not from an important family, and hints at strange goings-on involving Farghestan but will not or cannot give details.

The book now increasingly takes a different turn with evidence that something is not quite right, though no-one seems able to determine exactly what or why. The country has relied on its traditional way of doing things for three hundred years. The same rich and powerful families run things. Now, however, there seems to be some challenge to this, though it is not entirely clear whether this challenge is from within or without. Aldo is seeing much more of Vanessa and it is clear that she is somehow involved in what is going on. Moreover, she herself says that she wants to stir things up, not least because she is bored, though there may be something else going on. However, she is not the only one.

It is Aldo himself who seemingly does stir things up but clearly others not only support him but actively set him up. Indeed, it has become apparent that both sides have become tired of this uneasy three hundred year peace.

This is generally agreed to be Gracq’s best novel. It reminded me of Dino Buzzati‘s Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartar Steppe), which also involves our hero going out to a remote outpost of the Empire to face a mysterious enemy, where nothing much seems to be happening. Buzzati’s book was published eleven years before Gracq’s and it would be interesting to know if Gracq read it. It appeared in French two years before this book appeared so it is quite possible. I am obviously not the first to make this comparison though this site (link in French) seems to suggest that Gracq could not have read it as it was published in French after the Gracq novel. That it is quite simply wrong as as the Michel Arnaud translation was published in French in 1949, two years before the Gracq novel.

At first glance this novel seems like a typical Gracq theme, that of the hero arriving in a remote or, at least, cut-off place where things are not entirely as they seem. This is what happens in the early part of the novel. It soon becomes more or less apparent that there is something else going on, namely that people are unhappy with this three hundred year war where there is not only no fighting but little or no contact between the adversaries. There is – allegedly – an old Chinese curse which says May you in live interesting times, meaning that interesting times are bad. However, this novel takes an opposite view, namely that quiet times are bad, at least for those in the military or in some sort of position of authority. Whatever your view on that, it is clear that Gracq has used the idea to produce a first-class novel. Surprisingly enough, it is still in print in the UK and US.

First published 1951 by José Corti
First published in English 1986 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Richard Howard