Home > 1940, 20th Century, Abandoned books, Book Club, French Literature, Gracq Julien, Novel > A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq

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.

  1. June 4, 2016 at 8:37 am

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts about this, so (because I liked the one book by Grecq that I’ve read) I scampered off to GoodReads to see what other people thought, and there are mixed feelings there too.
    The blurb there says that the stranger is Death. Does that impact on what you thought about him?


    • June 4, 2016 at 8:56 am

      I suppose on a deeper level it makes sense, especially since Gracq wrote this when he was a war prisoner.

      It seemed tortured for nothing, I don’t know how to express it properly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • June 4, 2016 at 8:59 am

        It could be that (as you say) editing might have fixed it up, but perhaps the editor felt anxious about something written under such difficult conditions.


        • June 4, 2016 at 9:40 am

          The editor must have worked with Gracq at the time. Maybe he made suggestions and Gracq wouldn’t hear about them. However, the italic thing is very annoying.

          Liked by 1 person

        • June 4, 2016 at 4:30 pm

          PS : “un beau ténébreux” is the French equivalent of “Tall, dark and handsome”. I don’t know if Gracq coined this or if it existed before this book.

          Liked by 1 person

          • June 5, 2016 at 1:41 am

            Thanks! (Another one to add to my dictionary!!)


            • June 5, 2016 at 6:11 am

              It’s been decades since I read that book, Emma, I honestly don’t remember that much about it.


              • June 5, 2016 at 4:53 pm

                Perfectly understandable.


            • June 5, 2016 at 4:53 pm

              I knew you’d want to know. 🙂


  2. June 4, 2016 at 9:17 am

    Oh dear. I’m afraid I haven’t read anything by Gracq even though he’s been on my radar for a while. The bombastic style would probably be a barrier for me as well. Grant (of 1streading reviewed a Gracq fairly recently but I think it was a different one – Chateau d’Argol if my memory serves.


    • June 4, 2016 at 9:38 am

      I’ll go and read Grant’s review on Chateau d’Argol.

      Perhaps it’s less bombastic in English, curtesy of the translator? You can have a look at the style if you download an e-reader sample.


  3. June 4, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    Oh, dear, what a shame! Never mind, at least you didn’t struggle through all of it!


    • June 4, 2016 at 2:14 pm

      I couldn’t. When I start thinking about doing anything but read, it means I have to abandon the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. June 4, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    I was just on the Pushkin website trying to decide if I wanted to buy this book. I am so glad I decided to pass, especially after reading your review. I wouldn’t have been able to get through it either with the “in crowd” plot. I witness too much of that in my day job as a teacher!


    • June 4, 2016 at 4:28 pm

      Now I feel guilty. It didn’t work for me but it doesn’t mean it’s not a book for you. At least, since it’s published by Pushkin Press you know it’s a fine piece of literature.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. June 4, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    I’ve looked at this one a few times, hesitated but ended up buying a copy…
    BTW I see you’re on Hell and Gone. Did you read Fun and Games already?


    • June 4, 2016 at 4:29 pm

      I’m curious to read your review on this one. With you enjoying books in holiday resorts and all…

      I’ve read Fun & Games.


      • June 4, 2016 at 5:30 pm

        I don’t know when I’ll get to it. I just finished a Modiano I really liked set in a resort


        • June 4, 2016 at 6:38 pm

          Which one is it?


          • June 4, 2016 at 7:04 pm

            Villa Triste. The review will be up soon. Loved it.


            • June 4, 2016 at 7:04 pm

              It’s supposed to be a good one.


              • June 4, 2016 at 7:07 pm

                I think you’d like it. It’s got a splash of tarnished glamour to it.


              • June 4, 2016 at 8:01 pm

                Like Bonjour Tristesse, maybe?

                Liked by 1 person

  6. June 5, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    I recognise your description of the style from Chateau d’Argol though I felt that there it was used to highlight the dream-like feel of the story – and, of course, it’s really a novella and therefore much shorter! While I appreciated it, it didn’t make me want to rush out and read more Gracq!


    • June 5, 2016 at 4:54 pm

      Thanks for this comment. I’m not alone in this. His style is a bit stuffy, don’t you think? A strange mix of erudite and lack of confidence.


  7. June 5, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    I second Grant. I read Chateau d’Argol and while it was OK I wasn’t wowed. I liked the descriptions but I have forgotten everything about the book. Not such a good sign. Not sure how I would like this.


    • June 5, 2016 at 4:55 pm

      I think I’d better stay away from Château d’Argol. Especially if there are some dream-like elements. Not my cup of tea.


  8. June 7, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Eh, I have unread Proust. For that matter I have unread Raymond Radiguet and I didn’t even like him that much. I don’t think therefore that I have space for this.

    I can forgive italicisation for emphasis, but much more so in plot driven or genre novels than literary fiction. It’s telling me how to read after all, which is fine (to a point) if the author’s taking me on a journey to find out who did it or if the invasion from Altair IV can be stopped or whatever, but less fine when we’re not in that territory. If the novel aspires to be more than just entertainment it needs to leave space for the reader.

    Still, good review, I did rather laugh when you lost the will to live around page 99 and your fourth paragraph.


    • June 7, 2016 at 9:47 pm

      It’s safe to say you can pass on this one. Much better to spend time reading Calling Mr King.

      The italic trick really got on my nerves.

      I’m glad I made you laugh, making the reader laugh is a way to salvage this reading wreck. (Well at least I jumped ship)


  1. November 29, 2016 at 1:13 am

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