Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chateau d'Argol by Julien Gracq

Chateau d'Argol (1938) is a curiously moody work and, in the precise phrasing of the inestimable magus benwaugh, “baroquely oblique”. One seems constantly on the verge of revelation, only to have the spectres dissolve into the mist of incomprehension. The novel has the ephemeral quality of a dream, and shares with de Chirico’s Hebdomeros (see previous review) the dubious reputation as a “surrealist” work. The narrative is gothic and atmospheric, centering on a decaying castle in Brittany recently purchased by Albert, “the last scion of a rich and noble family.” Ordinary reality holds no attraction for Albert, who shares the name of a the medieval philosopher and reputed alchemist Albertus Magnus, who was reputed to be in the possession of a brazen head. His doppelganger and secret sharer is Herminien, with whom he has pored over ancient manuscripts and shared elevated discussions. In my copy of the book, I have penciled real or imagined references to alchemical phrases, as the text is itself a kind of chemical retort where various elements are conjoined and refined, with volatile consequences.

(A crib note: we find the following under “Hermes” in the flawed but invaluable Wikipedia: “An interpreter who bridges the boundaries with strangers is a hermeneus. Hermes gives us our word “hermeneutics” for the art of interpreting hidden meaning.”)

Albert receives word of a visit from Herminien, who will be bringing a mysterious friend named Heide. Trancelike, he ponders the significance of this visitor, he know that the name is rumored to be associated with “violent revolutionary outbreaks”, and thus is a potential disruptor of the intellectual camaraderie he shares with Herminien. Wandering, he reaches an ancient cemetery, and absentmindedly scratches the name of the stranger on the decayed face of a gravestone, a dark portent.

Heide is a white-skinned beauty, ephemeral but captivating, an element of discord and potential estrangement between Albert and Herminien. As in a gnostic parable, she is an attractor, a tempting and physical being who plucks the companions from their spiritual and intellectual pleroma. Albert is captivated by her, and thus begins an uneasy cycle, played out in the isolated landscape, of degeneration, renewal, violence and death, culminating in “the icy flash of a dagger gliding between…shoulder blades like a handful of snow”.

Gracq’s writing is maddeningly voluptuous and oblique, with the concentrated potency of an alchemical process. The Pushkin Press edition is translated from the French by Louise Varese.