Reading Writing

Michael Hayward

The French writer Julien Gracq, who will be ninety-seven this year, is a living link to the era of Louis Aragon and André Breton. Gracq has avoided the kind of recognition that most modern writers crave (he refused the Prix Goncourt in 1951), and his body of work—novels, essays, a play and some poetry—is little known on this continent. Turtle Point Press hopes to change that with their publication of Reading Writing, a compilation of Gracq’s critical essays, described as “a personal meditation on the links between literature and two visual arts: painting and cinema.” The writing style is almost Edwardian in its convolutions: the sentences are built from an accretion of clauses hooked together by commas; yet it is unmistakably French, even in translation. Gracq’s gaze is firmly on the past (he admits that his century is the nineteenth, roughly demarcated by Chateaubriand and Proust), and while Reading Writing might be primarily of interest to specialists in this field, there are many images and insights that apply more generally, and that linger. Two examples are Gracq’s definition of a writer as “a person who feels at times that something is asking through his intervention for the sort of existence that language offers,” and his observation that “in every novel, a balance is established, different each time, between what is said, and the élan that allows the reader to complete things on his own.” The essay “Dwellings of Poets” (in which Gracq recounts his solitary visits to various writers’ homes—Corbière, Voltaire, Rimbaud) is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s themes, but on a more modest scale.

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