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A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq

June 4, 2016 30 comments

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq (1945) Original French title : Un beau ténébreux. English translation by Christopher Moncreiff.

gracq_beau_ténébreuxA Dark Stranger is set during the summer 19.. in Kérantec, a fictional seaside resort in Britanny. A group of idle young people are staying at the hotel Les Vagues. They go to the beach, swim, walk, play tennis, chess and read. The novel is mostly a diary written by Gérard who has an unconventional point of view. He spends time with this group but he doesn’t really belong with them. He has firsthand material to retell what’s going on and still has the outsider’s point of view.

The group is classically composed of Jacques, a happy-go-lucky man. He’s uncomplicated, loves sports and is a bit in awe with Christel. She’s the queen bee that all men gravitate around. Even Gérard is intrigued by her. There’s a married couple, Irène and Henri. They are the go-between to organize outings. Bored, Gérard is about to leave when Grégory, another member of the gang, announces that one of his childhood friend is about to arrive. Curiosity pushes Gérard to stay and meet with Allan and Dolorès, the new couple in the hotel.

Allan rapidly becomes the center of attention. He’s the dark stranger of the title. He seems to have it all, athletic, cultured, attractive. And yet, Gérard lets us understand that something is off in Allan’s behaviour.

That’s where I stopped to read. I was page 99 out of 255 and I couldn’t stand to read one more page of this. I took a lot of irritated notes while reading. How the group sounded a bit like a teen movie with the popular and the others. How it seemed a poor remembrance of Balbec with the tortured narrator trying to get in the pants of the pretty and elusive girl. How the picnic on the ruins in the Brittany countryside reminded me of the epic picnic in Emma by Jane Austen only without the wit. I wasn’t interested in this group at all.

See the teen movie vibe:

En quelques jours Allan était devenu le dieu de la bande “straight”. Within a few days, Allan had become the new god of the in crowd.

Gracq_pushkinStraight is the name of the group of young people staying at the hotel and led by Jacques. Until Allan’s arrival, that is. The name is mentioned right at the beginning of the novel and I kept wondering what it meant in the pre-AIDS & Gay Pride era when us French started to learn about the other meaning of straight. The mystery was solved later. Christopher Moncreiff, the latest English translator of A Dark Stranger, chose to translate it as “in crowd”, which comforts my impression of high school drama.

In the end, what made the book unbearable to me was the style. It’s bombastic, full of complicated words for no reason at all. I noted that I was page 21 and he had already called upon the manes of Poe, Balzac and Rimbaud. The pages seemed crowded, all of a sudden. I don’t like this kind of name dropping. I’m under the impression that the author is not sure enough of his craft, that he needs offerings to the literary gods for their genius to coat his literature with a rain of glitter.

Then, there is the extensive use of words in italic and piece of sentences starting with “–“. It hurts the eye. I found myself scanning the page before reading to check how many of them there were. If it wasn’t obvious to the writer, what was the publisher thinking? Isn’t it part of their job to edit books to avoid things like this? Page 96, there are NINE “–“ and THREE words in italic. Again, it leaves me with the feeling of a writer unsure of himself. A writer doesn’t need to emphasize words like this all the time. Either it’s the right word and no italic is needed or he ought to pick another word. And Gracq could have done it, his vocabulary is as wide as a dictionary.

Granted, Graq’s descriptions of Britanny are marvelous and poetic. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the rest. There are the oneiric parts, the walks and picnic at night that didn’t appeal to me at all. It reminded me of Le grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier, a book I really don’t like despite its literary merits.

Gracq wrote this during WWII and he was a war prisoner in Silesia. I suppose that he wanted to write something as far as his quotidian as possible. After all, Romain Gary wrote Education Europénne, set in the heart of the cold Polish winter when he was roasting in the Middle East. He needed the idea of the snow to escape his reality.

Of course, since I didn’t finish the book, I can’t give a fully informed opinion about the plot. Someone’s going to die, that’s for sure, we know it from the preamble. To read a better informed and more enthusiastic review, see here.

To make a long story short, it’s probably a great piece of literature but it’s not my cup of tea at all. Sometimes it’s a question of a bad timing. Here, the book is just not for me.

I’m dying to hear about someone else’s opinion on this one. So don’t hesitate to comment.

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