Interviste scrittori

Consigli di lettura

Come scrivere un romanzo in 100 giorni

Conoscere l'editing

Back Catalogue #2 Julien Gracq, “Le Rivage des Syrtes” (1951)

Back Catalogue, Julien Gracq, Le Rivage des SyrtesOne of the most haunting and enigmatic novels to grace the twentieth century canon, Julien Gracq’s Le Rivage des Syrtes has enjoyed a strangely capricious fortune over the last sixty years. Never licensed to third parties for budget paperback editions (a standard practice in France), it has been reprinted for over half a century in the exactly same format – typos included – by the original advocate of Gracq’s talent, the small but highly discerning Parisian publisher José Corti. (The sole exception being its inclusion in the pantheon of French literature, Gallimard’s prestigious “Pléiade” collection.)

If you buy it new, you will need to cut the pages by hand, and possibly to check the colophon (and rub your eyes) to make sure that your copy wasn’t printed back in 1982 or 1964: by the looks of it, it could as well be a precious remainder or a family relic. Under the tang of fresh ink and white paper lurks a faint, lingering smell of old things. How appropriate! At the same time, the circulation of Gracq’s most beloved work is much less esoteric than it sounds: every French bookstore, even in the “province”, is sure to have copies on display. It has never been out of print since 1951. The overall sales figures might have easily reached into the hundred thousands by now. Still, its international status is somewhat uncertain.

The American edition, The Opposing Shore, has a smack of academic exclusiveness (it was published by Columbia University Press), but it was able to seduce a small public of enthusiasts (five stars with honors on Amazon). The Spanish and German translations are growing old, but they are still commercially available. Unsurprisingly, the exception is the Italian market: translated in a matter of months by Mondadori in 1952 and reprinted once by a Neapolitan publisher in the early 1990s, La riva delle Sirti has disappeared from sight. As things stand today, virtually no work by Julien Gracq can be purchased at Italian online or physical bookstores. For once, there might be a reason: back in the day some have claimed that Le Rivage des Syrtes was a clone of Dino Buzzati’s Il deserto dei tartari. Now disproved by philological as well as biographical data (if such a proof was at all necessary for perceptive readers), these allegations may have weighted on the rapidly dwindling fortunes of Gracq’s masterpiece this side of the Alps. Another factor might be connected with the novel’s heavy reliance on the phonetic exoticism of pseudo-Italian names and toponyms: without a linguistic contrast, part of their magic is inevitably lost.

The action, if such a term is at all appropriate to describe the novel’s extraordinarily static plot, is uncannily simple: a young aristocrat from the social élite of an once affluent but now decaying city-state called Orsenna (read: Venice) is assigned on diplomatic duty to the remote Admiralty of the bay of the Syrtes, on the shores of what is possibly the Mediterranean. For three hundred years, the principality of Orsenna has been technically at war with a mysterious country beyond the sea, the state of Farghestan, but in practice, hostilities have long been suspended. Over the decades, time has ceased to flow at the stone Fortress of the Admiralty: the patrols have become rituals, the marines have turned into peasants. Still, a strange fever has reawakened in the upper echelons of the city-state, including the inmates of the sickly seaside resort of Maremma (!), not far from the Admiralty. In a torpid climate of whispers, intrigues, deceit, and self-destructive drives, the aristocratic élite of Orsenna, spearheaded by the fascinating and decadent female lead, Vanessa Aldobrandi, is machinating for war. Times are ripe for a change, even if change must be synonymous with the downfall of Orsenna. The protagonist, Aldo, will be instrumental to this highly ambiguous reawakening of the sleeping principality – the ephemeral vivacity that precedes agony.

If the literary phrase that is sometimes employed to describe late-antique Latin poetry, “jeweled style”, should be applied to twentieth century prose, Gracq would certainly qualify for this description. His writing is extraordinarily rich, sophisticated, and luxuriant, an unrelenting cascade of ornately textured brocades with no fissures, no contrasts, no pause. The tone is invariably solemn, epic, almost hieratic, the imagery is highly metaphorical and exceedingly polished. The odds against such a convoluted piece of work being enjoyable or even readable were enormous (its byzantine lushness would make the hair of today’s commercial editors stand on end), but Gracq’s talent has worked miracles. Balancing on the razor’s edge of literary extremes, between embellishment and enigma, he has delivered a true poetic masterpiece. It is true that the chapters do not “flow”, as modern chapters should, but they do better: they undulate and slosh like they heavy waters of a dead sea, creating a thousand shimmering light effects, carrying a saline smell of mysterious distances, burning themselves into the brain in the form of a slow, hypnotic rhythm.

Julien Gracq, Le Rivage des SyrtesReading or re-reading Gracq in 2013 is a guilty pleasure, like eating a kilogram of fine chocolates in bed at night. In its 320 pages, Les Rivage des Syrtes manages to subvert just about all received truths about the modern novel, and to do it with such a sovereign indifference that it takes time to realize the full extent of its contrariness. Hemingway and Colette would get a sore arm before they were finished striking out all the “superfluous” adjectives. Henry James would marvel at the length and articulation of some sentences. At the same time, Gracq’s private rebellion does not point to new possibilities for literature, but creates and exhausts a one-book literary genre. Le Rivage des Syrtes stands alone, it fills a one-book vacuum: nobody else could get away with such a story, or with such a style. It is one of those late, solitary, overripe fruits that sometimes grace an autumnal season of decay. Later imitators have not fared that well.

At the same time, Gracq’s work has evident ties with the French avant-garde. His dreamlike palette of silence, shadows, and gargantuan masses lurking in the distance (the Fortress, the volcano…) is sometimes reminiscent of metaphysical and surrealist imagery. Every gesture seems to hide a secret meaning of unfathomable depth, every word seems pronounced to be carved in marble or written in gold. Even the chronology is puzzling: the city-state of Orsenna is a travesty of seventeenth-century Venice, and people mostly live accordingly, but a few details seem to hint at the existence of electric lights and motorcars. Again, the enmity between Orsenna and Farghestan has a Renaissance quality to it (nothing says “the Turks are coming!” like a hostile power with -stan in its name), but it simultaneously alludes to the precarious political equilibrium of pre-1939 Europe. In a sense, Le Rivage des Syrtes is a tragic allegory of civilization as a self-destructing order. Prosperity will lead to peace, peace to boredom, and boredom will beget war.

It takes more than just a few hints to suggest the unique qualities of Gracq’s novel, the magic of its characters and locations, the Proustian opulence of the language. As suggested above, the rich pleasure it delivers is somewhat illicit, if not downright regressive. It is too pure, romantic, and unabashed to be easily reconciled with the asceticism and ironic self-control of modernist poetics. It takes some discipline and inner abandon to accept the terms of this literary pact. Still, Gracq pulls it off with mastery, and by sheer talent alone fortifies his work against criticism. Refusal, disbelief or rejection of this literary monad would be understandable, even respectable, but any attempt to “improve” or “simplify” a single paragraph would be just as foolish as rewriting the Book of Revelations or editing the Iliad.

Even in translation, it is a work for experimented connoisseurs with an armored stomach. If at all possible, however, it should be read in French. The beauty of the phonetic texture, the mesmerizing prosody, the singing archaism of the syntactic construction require an additional effort, but they amply reward it. The aftertaste is that of a dream; the effect on the mind is soothing and sobering.

An old bottle of port translated into a story.

Il tuo voto: Nessuno Media: 5 (1 vote)

Il Blog

Il blog Sul Romanzo nasce nell’aprile del 2009 e nell’ottobre del medesimo anno diventa collettivo. Decine i collaboratori da tutta Italia. Numerose le iniziative e le partecipazioni a eventi culturali. Un progetto che crede nella forza delle parole e della letteratura. Uno sguardo continuo sul mondo contemporaneo dell’editoria e sulla qualità letteraria, la convinzione che la lettura sia un modo per sentirsi anzitutto cittadini liberi di scegliere con maggior consapevolezza.

La Webzine

La webzine Sul Romanzo nasce all’inizio del 2010, fra tante telefonate, mail e folli progetti, solo in parte finora realizzati. Scrivono oggi nella rivista alcune delle migliori penne del blog, donando una vista ampia e profonda a temi di letteratura, editoria e scrittura. Sono affrontati anche altri aspetti della cultura in generale, con un occhio critico verso la società contemporanea. Per ora la webzine rimane nei bit informatici, l’obiettivo è migliorarla prima di ulteriori sviluppi.

L’agenzia letteraria

L’agenzia letteraria Sul Romanzo nasce nel dicembre del 2010 per fornire a privati e aziende numerosi servizi, divisi in tre sezioni: editoria, web ed eventi. Un team di professionisti del settore che affianca studi ed esperienze strutturate nel tempo, in grado di garantire qualità e prezzi vantaggiosi nel mercato. Un ponte fra autori, case editrici e lettori, perché la strada del successo d’un libro si scrive in primo luogo con una strategia di percorso, come la scelta di affidarsi agli addetti ai lavori.