Chateau d’ Argol

by mistersoto

Julien Gracq is an author I’ve wanted to read for sometime, in vain I’ve tried to locate a copy of his novel Le Rivage des Syrtes/The Opposing Shore, (translated by Richard Howard), published by the Harvill Press, but at the moment secondhand copies remain a little beyond my price range, hopefully a publisher will reprint the novel in the near future, it seems like a criminal oversight that the book isn’t available!. Chateau d’Argol was written in 1938, this translation by Louise Varese is published by the Pushkin Press who have also recently published Gracq’s novel A Dark Stranger.

The narrative of Chateau d’Argol is mainly perceived through the character Albert, the book opens with his approach to the château which is mainly referred to in the novel as the castle, taking in the fine building, its furniture  and it’s architecture the narrative also describes Albert to some degree, we get the impression that Albert is a mixture of intellectual sensitivity and also the possessor of great physical strength and control, later in the novel he goes running in the forest, and something that almost slips by the reader is that he wrestles a boar, everything is described as being pristine as if new to the world, although the servant of the house seems not to fit this criteria.  Albert wanders the building and discovers a letter from his friend Herminien – ‘I shall arrive at Argol on Friday. Heide will come with me’. The somewhat precariously balanced relationship between Albert and Herminien is explored, as the novel progresses Heide’s presence begins to exacerbate the relationship between the two young men further. The shore is in view of the castle and the three take a swim, getting caught in the swirling currents of the waves, this seemed to act as a subtle metaphor for a moment of the three’s spiraling relationship with each other and they find themselves washed up in a cave under the chapel. Gracq’s prose blurs the sequencing of events, and at times it can read as being slightly unclear as to which episode he’s referring to and also at which point of the events he is describing, it’s not until when you reach the end of a desriptive passage that the pieces appear to fall into place and become apparent. 

Events which happen in the present tense mingle with those in slight past tense and perspectives subtley shift, and the reader can suddenly find himself removed from a described scenario’s to find themselves at the beginning of the next, Albert staring out of the window watching as Heide and Herminien stride into the  forest that surrounds the chateau, Herminien has with him a rifle, Albert sets out to follow them, the forest too takes on almost metaphorical presence, mirroring the entanglement of the three’s emotions and deepening involvement into each other. There is no straight dialogue in the novel, descriptions of communication between the characters is slight or described in their gestures through Gracq’s extended and superlative sentencing, it could be said that much in the novel is shown and much is also left for the reader to interpret, the ending of Chateau d’Argol finishes on an enigmatic note. Reading Gracq’s obituary in the Independent from 2007 it’s interesting to read that one of his favourite novels was Ernst Junger’s Auf den Marmorklippen/On the Marble Cliffs, a book that I’m halfway through, similary On the Marble Cliffs is also a novel constructed without any straight dialogue between the characters.