When Simon and Karen ran their 1924 Club last October I had the great pleasure of meeting Arthur Schnitzler (and Fraulein Else), so when it was announced they would be following up with a 1938 Club it seemed an ideal opportunity to make another new acquaintance. Coincidentally, another short novel from Pushkin Press seemed to fit the bill: Julien Gracq’s Chateau d’Argol. Chateau d’Argol was Gracq’s first novel, published when he was twenty seven. His real name was Louis Poirier, and he spent much of his life teaching History and Geography in a Parisian school, leading the kind of anonymous existence that Elena Ferrante can only achieve today by keeping her identity secret. More than once he refused a literary prize, and he stayed with the same small publisher throughout his life – which ended surprisingly recently, in 2007.
“When it is not a dream, and, like a dream, perfectly incorporating its own truths, the novel is a falsehood” he said, and his first novel is indeed dreamlike (it is easy to see why he was associated with the Surrealists, though he was not a great joiner of movements). The story begins with our hero, the rich and clearly impulsive young man, Albert, arriving at the Chateau in Brittany (which, albeit he seems to have walked there, seems to be as outlandish to him as Borneo) which he has bought sight unseen:
“A month ago he had bought the domain of Argol – its woods, its fields, it dependencies – unseen, on the enthusiastic – or rather mysterious – recommendations… of a very dear friend.”
There follows an extensive description of the chateau (inside and out) and its surroundings; if you begin to find this wearying, turn back – this is a novel where every action is eclipsed by pages of atmosphere, an atmosphere which is not only gloomy, with a hint of violence underneath, but heightened emotionally to echo Albert’s striving for meaning in his life. The novel may be seventy-six years old, and the translation by Louise Varese not a new one, but Gracq deliberately uses archaic and unusual words to create a sense of intellectual and emotional ferment in his prose. The forest surrounding the chateau is given particular attention:
“From the foot of the castle walls the forest spread out in a semicircle as far as the eye could see: a wold and gloomy forest, a sleeping forest whose absolute stillness seemed to clutch the soul. It encircle the castle like the coils of a heavily inert serpent whose mottled skin was almost imitated by the dark patches of cloud-shadow as they ran over its rugose surface.”
Shortly after, Albert’s friend, Herminien, arrives with a young woman, Heide. Do Albert and Heide fall in love? Well, Gracq would never use as banal (or short) a phrase as that, but they do develop a close relationship:
“It now seemed to Heide that, at very instant, the world died and was reborn to the joint reverberation of their footsteps, and that, light and vacillating, her whole life hung on Albert’s arm.”
Heide’s sexual longing, described at length by Gracq, is, however, not reciprocated by Albert:
“All her blood would stir, awaken in her, fill her arteries with an overwhelming ardour, like a purple tree sending out its shoots in the heavenly shade of the forest.”
But, though she lies on the ground before him, “her body in the consuming heat…about to open like a ripe peach,” he remains “insensible.” Albert’s paralysis is mirrored in the novel’s reluctance to plot, its momentum created by changing emotional states rather than actions.
This particular scene takes place in a walk in the forest and each time the characters enter a place (often the forest) it feels like they are entering a dream. In one instance, however, it is the sea they enter – “with exultant cries, they encouraged each other in their flight.” Soon they realise they have swum out too far:
“Beyond life and beyond death they now looked at each other for the first time with sealed lips, and through transparent eyes plumbed the darkness of their hearts with devastating bliss – and their souls touched in an electric caress.”
Death is never far away from our protagonists – on another forest visit Herminien is found thrown from his horse – and is frequently described with an erotic appeal.
Chateau d’Argol is an unusual novel and will not be to everyone’s taste. At times its intensity and abstraction (not to mention lack of humour) can be wearying, but equally there are moments where you feel you have read something new and unique.