One by one, each guest is fatally drawn to Allan. And, as the hazy August heat fades and summer comes to an end, they gravitate towards self-destruction.
Rich, lushly poetic, A Dark Stranger is a dreamlike portrayal of lives lived on the edge of the abyss.
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About the Author
Staunchly avoiding the French literary scene-he refused the Prix Goncourt in 1951-he is one of the few authors to have been published in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade during his lifetime. He died in 2007 aged 97.
Julien Gracq's Château d'Argol is also available from Pushkin Press.
Read an Excerpt
A Dark Stranger
By Julien Gracq, Christopher Moncrieff
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1945 Editions Corti
All rights reserved.
This morning, a walk to Kérantec. Quite deserted around the pier in the little harbour, the beach that stretches away to the left totally empty, dunes running beside it covered in dried rushes. There was heavy weather out to sea, an overcast grey sky, great leaden waves crashing on the beach. But between the piers the silence of the swell against the stone side-walls was incredible; great big tongues, urgent and rough, yet agile, unsettling, shooting up suddenly like anteaters' tongues as they reached the sea wall without warning, exploded in mid-air in an ice-cold spray. I had lunch in an empty restaurant all on its own in the middle of the dunes, the raised floor made a hollow sound, the vast dining room (the local youth must dance there on Sundays) with its strings of cheerless paper flags, its varnished pine boards, reminded me less of parties than of a ship's wardroom, the Sailor's Rest, everything which, as so frequently in this part of the world, (lifeboat sheds for barns, outdoor pantries built onto every house in the street) brings with it that unavoidably gloomy, mean, rule-bound character that so often gives the Breton countryside a mournful look.
As I came back along the path by the shore I ran into some youngsters from Kérantec walking in pairs, coming for the dancing. Serious, almost solemn — the girls' hair flew in the strong wind — hands in pockets; it wasn't warm. A lonely pathway nonetheless. In the distance, from the dunes that hang over the track, above the low line of the roof of Le Retour du Pêcheur you could see foam flying with the sea's every salvo. An unusual pleasure spot. Then, among the muffled bombardment of the waves, in a brief ray of sunshine I heard the tinny sound of a record playing which — above the uneven bass note of the tide, in the midst of this great echo chamber of clouds and water — wasn't in any way offensive. Yet one girl followed along the seashore all alone in the opposite direction to the stream of ants. Idle, slow, indifferent, occasionally bending down to pick up a shell, a piece of driftwood — or just looking vaguely out to sea, and at those moments her hands always shifted stupidly to her hips — what thought was there in that rustic head that was genuinely her own? In real landscapes just like in paintings I'm constantly intrigued by the idlers who appear at midday or twilight, spit in corners, throw stones, hop and skip or ferret out blackbirds' nests, sometimes darkening a whole area of the landscape with gestures as unfathomable as it's possible to be.
After strolling back I had dinner alone — the in crowd had already left for the casino.
After dinner, stretched my legs on the beach for a moment. A fine beach, melancholy and magnificent, the windows on the seafront set ablaze by the sunset like an ocean liner lighting up. The empty sand, still warm, like a beach of human flesh which you want to walk over, cover, to soil as artlessly as it does itself. And yet the air is so pure, so purely cold, so clear, as if constantly washed by unseen showers. A gentle gurgling in a furrow in the sand (the tide is going out) tries hard to turn the ground into a flooded landscape — the almost human sound of channelled water cutting into it like a woodsman's axe. I took a deep breath. Ah, what a mouthful! Sand drifted across the dunes, the air snapped like great banners, standing up against the cutting edge of the wind with a feline flick of the tail. And out on the horizon the hurried toing and froing of the waves, always this commotion of foam, this riotous churning, a confusion of clouds lined with squalls and sunshine, this fierce train of swells, the unfailing impatience of the sea in the background.
The hôtel des vagues gets under way, like a ship sailing through summer. There are enough people here now for you to feel the jostle; a makeshift state of mind sets in in this little holiday world. Seen from my window this morning, Jacques tacking off for a swim. Every day there's an early bustling from his room above me — the way you walk into the wardroom unselfconsciously, laugh loudly with that bold upside-down intimacy of bunkmates. But any lack of awkwardness always stops outside Christel's door; no one would dream of knocking on that door until her majestic appearance — the young princess in a towelling bathrobe — gives the signal. In every little group of human beings, each vaguely-constituted unit, there's always the one people seek advice from, who they consult with a sideways glance before loosing the hounds.
Christel rules this little world with one heavy eyelid voluptuously closed — so much so that you can't imagine more perfect peace of mind, rejuvenation, than in this precise setting — with its perfectly-formed jaw (the jaw that conveys so well any excess or lack in a person, that jaw so often tactless), perfectly right. Once she closes her mouth there's no point wondering whether to expect another word. An extraordinary sense of measure and control. The essence of tranquillity, restfulness.
Christel interests me. She interests me because she plays — and enjoys playing. But among the informality of the beach I sometimes catch her eyes shining with reserve. What a lovely word! Which suggests to me — and I'd like it to to her — much less the restraint of a good education than the somewhat perverse amusement of watching yourself play your part so well. Rather like, on the level of this mini-theatre, the "Am I a god for them?" of Conti in Béatrix — into which Balzac, a born actor, couldn't help but put all his self-satisfaction.
She isn't a goddess for me — but as from tomorrow I intend giving her the chance to prove she's an intelligent person to talk to.
It's a long time since I opened this diary with such impatience, such a longing to write. I open my window on the night breeze — I've been pacing up and down the room for ages, strong and vigorous, clear-headed like after a bath, alert and bursting with bright ideas, all of them conceited, fleeting. This evening I had a most unusual conversation with Christel.
I already sense how inept I'm going to be at expressing the colour — the nocturnal, moon-like atmosphere in which my memory constantly bathes her. To do so I need to conjure up Poe, that aura of birth and remembering, of a time still obscure, a sequence that can be reversed — an oasis in the desert of time:
'Twas night in the lonesome October Of my most immemorial year ...
... I couldn't start writing straight away. I walked up and down the room again. Out the window the bay is all lit up, a vast arc more than eight kilometres across, it seems as small as a kindergarten paddling pool, the beach shimmers and in the troughs the sea is inky black — now and then a wave breaks with a slip of its oil-black, silent tongue. The arc lights raise a motionless song, upright as a flame, to the planets above, while out to sea the signalling of the lighthouses brings peace to this great expanse of mist and water. The night, calmer than morning, at rest beneath phalanxes of stars.
Christel is a princess. At every moment her presence, a gesture, a word, brushes aside any doubt. She's can't move without creating the mirage of a train of respectful obsequiousness in her wake. Even at midnight, alone with a man in the depths of this empty darkness, she's more guarded than in a crowded room. Which removes any unpleasant ambiguity from my story at least.
Did I have any aim taking Christel off on that walk? Lodged in the corner of my being where forebodings and anxieties lurk, all I had was a profound sense that 'it would be interesting'. The day had been heavy, too warm, the deadly drowsiness of a beach senseless with sun — the pinewood was like a cage full of perfume, a vase of smells so strong as to almost make you pass out — like when I was young, going outside on a brilliant June morning where the overly-grand scent suddenly rooted me to the spot, like the road to initiation, the pathway to mystery, the Corpus Christi procession passing our front door. I'd been working, intoxicated, on my study of Rimbaud: I thought I'd identified precisely which obscure maze of rumours, which conspiracy with the worst chorus of earthly fragrances, from which there's no escape, was responsible for some of the poems in his Illuminations. This day of omens was very much the prelude I'd dreamt of to a conversation that I only remember as being vaguely steered through long silences, its sudden pauses so difficult to fill.
We must have meant to go as far as the golf course on the far side of the dunes. Vast, gently undulating like the beautiful fleece of a wild animal, almost completely hidden from the sea from which all you can hear is the great noise of the surf on the smooth, empty beach nearby, and whose plumes of spray can sometimes be glimpsed through the thistles amid tremendous thundering. At night it must have been a deserted, empty place. I've always liked walking in the moonlight in such exposed, open spaces.
Christel was wearing a white beach dress, bare feet in sandals. For the first time I noticed a small gold cross on a chain round her neck which she sometimes played with while talking. This little detail struck me, and I don't know why but I could hardly take my eyes off it for the whole of the walk — as if it had a subtle meaning whose significance nonetheless escaped me.
We'd set out towards the end of the evening. The wind had dropped, the air was divinely cool. Heading north — the direction of our walk — you soon leave the houses behind. It's almost rural there — low houses with vegetable gardens, farmyards, garden tools, sometimes a cock crowing in the daytime. Then immediately comes bare heath, a desolate landscape, almost dramatic, all the more naked for being traversed by a line of telegraph poles.
The conversation got off to a bad start. First the members of the 'in' crowd filed past without the slightest sign of benevolence from Christel. She talked to me about Jacques.
"Undoubtedly the most remarkable young man here. And yet he's still a child. I feel at ease with him, like someone from school."
I poked gentle fun at Jacques. Jacques is the hotel poet. His room is apparently full of esoteric books — and the corridors either reverberate with lavish offerings of jazzhot or the most outrageous contemporary beats. But after talking to him a few times I came to the conclusion that he does it deliberately. To be frank the boy hasn't read a thing.
"What does it matter? Jacques is only interested in difficult poetry. Of course for him it's not a question of making sense of it, but I think he's trying quite rightly to reach a certain depth. That's all I try to do too ..."
A pause, then: "I don't know why it is I like certain things. Other than that's the way they present themselves to me. And it's always something you can take or leave."
Christel is quick to turn a conversation into a monologue. I admire the easy way she seizes the dice. She belongs to that breed that can't be interrupted. Besides, when she wants to she talks with real seductiveness.
We crossed the dunes, very stirring in the moonlight, their great undulations so dignified as on the day after a battle. Grey mist hovered on the distant horizon as on the far side of a clearing in a great forest massif.
"Who'd think of going for a walk in this part of the world on a night like this? What I've always loved most in the best-known landscapes is the place that's sometimes the most difficult to find — how would you put it? — where you turn your back on the view? In Venice, in that maze of little alleyways that are so strangely muddled up with the canals, for me it was the lovely moment where the alley turned into a passageway, where you walk past doors in that suspect, slightly seedy intimacy of a hotel corridor — a cheap hotel with a jug of hot water, a slop pail — and at the end, through a dark, arched doorway, the whole of Venice is as one in a little square of black water, shimmering and twirling in the sunlight with a tireless lapping sound. It's the same here, there's nothing I like more than those long clipped lawns beyond the dunes where you turn away from the sea — so stately, so stilted, but with the great sound of the sea nearby, an endless backdrop. And in those little channels of black water where the tide comes in without a sound."
"Were you in Venice for long?"
"Yes, Venice was my early childhood in a way. We used to go back there with my mother nearly every autumn. For as long as I can remember my father has always had the curious knack for coming and going. Always weighed down with business, directors' meetings — a ridiculous life of sleeping cars, luxury hotels — a fashionable beach for a few days occasionally."
"I'd like to hear about your childhood, Christel." (I'm writing this as a kind of commentary, leaving out the parts where I wasn't keeping the conversation going. What's the point? I've always thought that most of the time dialogue is a virtually unguided monologue — in the grip of their demons one of the two always wields the sceptre, as they say in the best literary salons).
"I've got very few memories of my early childhood. But when I was twelve I do remember being in this big, depressing boarding school — long, starkly-lit corridors, chilly courtyards overshadowed by lime trees. It was a dismal time. I had very little idea how to make friends — and my week, every week (and I was a good pupil mind you) was spent waiting for Sunday morning, visiting time. After mass we'd play in the courtyard. The janitor appeared with a list of names, and it was the chosen few. I hardly ever went out, I lived in a state of permanent uncertainty. The minutes went by, the janitor's appearances got fewer and fewer as the courtyard got emptier, taking on an atmosphere of impending execution. And that was that. I remember that courtyard in the rain, enclosed, disenchanting, cut off from the world. The most isolated, emptiest corner of a wood wasn't as isolated, as empty as that feeling of abandonment. And so I'd walk under the dripping lime trees. I can still remember their glistening trunks even now, running with water, dark and hostile, soaking wet twigs lying on the ground, bark peeling off, unending torrents pouring from the branches. I was drunk on loneliness, on stifled tears. I used to watch the clouds go by in gusts of wind, sometimes a stronger gust would shake the branches, spray the sodden ground with great big raindrops. Outside were busy streets, the enchanted labyrinth of the town, cafés, theatres, the crowd, beautiful places where life takes shape, gets tangled up, leans on other lives, takes their shocks, their warmth — it was everywhere I wasn't. And yet I knew how disillusioned I was each time I went out, as if a curse followed me through the streets, a mark of banality and disinterest. Yet there was always this obsession with a thousand possibilities, a free, charmed life protected by a magic spell inside those high, merciless walls whose harsh shutterless windows all glimmered.
"Then the teacher on duty took us back to the classroom, a crippled little flock, shorn, shivery sheep, the symbol of abandonment. And how despite herself her voice got lower, more familiar, from not needing to carry so far (there were so few of us left), for me it was like a forlorn caress. I used to mutter to myself: 'Poor, poor Christel!' At that moment I felt myself becoming totally devoted, good, helpful — for a few minutes the terrible injustice flung in the face of my childhood turned me into a sister of charity.
Excerpted from A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq, Christopher Moncrieff. Copyright © 1945 Editions Corti. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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