Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Castle Argol: A Review

Julien Cracq's The Castle of Argol (Chateau d'Argol) is a Gothic-surrealistic novel set on the Breton Coast of France presumably sometime after World War 2.  As a Gothic novel it has elements of impending doom, and the noir/dark atmosphere of a dystopian novel.  It is a novel of both personal and societal decadence, doom, and decay.

Julien Cracq's was born Louis Poireir (1910-2007) at Saint-Florent-le-Old of the Loire region of France.  Published in 1938, the Castle of Argol is Julian Gracq's first novel.  An ardent Communist at the time this novel was written, he became disillusioned and turned  in his membership card prior to World War 2 (August 1939) after Nazi-Soviet (Hitler-Stalin) Non-Aggression Pact that led to Soviets being an undeclared supporter of the Germans through the early portions of the war.  Much like Malevil's author, Robert Merle, he served in the French Army (Infantry Lieutenant) and was captured by the Germans at Dunkirk.  Due to his poor health, he was released early and returned to his home. Although he wrote during the war, unlike René Barjavel who was a functionary in the Vichey French government, he had to wait for the war's end to continue publishing.  His most famous work The Opposing Shore (Le Rivage des Syrtes)(1951) frequently is listed within the cannon of great literature and shares some of the themes of this earlier work.

Cracq was heavily influenced by the surrealist movement, but is not generally included within it.

Gracq, although he did not belong to the organized Surrealist group (as organized as that pack ever got, anyway), had strong Surrealist sensibilities. His books all flutter darkly around the same ideas: waiting, yearning, mystery, the absolute, the reconciliation of two irreconcilable poles, and a sense of impending doom that makes the whole enterprise feel like Poe, or Lovecraft, if Lovecraft had ever taken his meds ((From: The Fisher King (Le roi pêcheur), Shelf Love, 18 February 2012)).

Gracq was contemptuous of the symbols and thinking of the established culture of Western Society.  Although new attempts at Democracy had replaced the earlier monarchies, he appears to have felt that a society of people, who simply followed the old rules and ways of thinking, was not likely to be any less stifling than the old ones.  Thus the complete overturning of society, as proposed by Communism, was of interest to him.  But the novel does not at all come across as being much interested in a workers paradise.  Real work, the type of work that puts food on people's plates, is not mentioned at all. This is a novel of Gothic mystery and decadence. So oddly enough it is  René Barjavel, the ardent French conservative and Nazi sympathiser, who wrote of an idealist post collapse society in Ashes, Ashes (Ravage) that comes much closer to the Communist ideal.

Much of the interest in reading this short novel is trying to pick out the various themes.  With much of the action being highly symbolic, and at the same time rather surreal, it is not always crystal clear.  Appropriately, one of the primary themes is the search for meaning, in both life and death, in a confusing, chaotic world.  Their are elements of Gnosticism in the writing, as the characters search out for the hidden meaning of the world.

Within the book, life and death are frequently shown as two sides of the same coin.  A long hard swim in the ocean, pushed to extremes, brings on extreme euphoria, but also very nearly death.  The sun gives life, while it destroys with its harsh glare.  This can be extended a little further- friendships can also be rivalries.

The dominant theme is that of the Fisher King.  The Fisher King was the holder of the Holy Grail in the Arthurian stories.  With an injured leg, he is disabled.  His infertility is projected onto his lands which are barren and desolate, and the otherwise inactive King spends his time fishing.  As told by Cracq, the Fisher King is symbolic of a society that has fallen into stasis- trapped within its own circle of impotent symbolism.  When the Knight Parcaval comes to rescue the situation, he is not given grace by the power of the Grail, but through the power of his own work:  "redemption to the redeemer" (p125).  The Fisher King was to remain one of the lasting themes of Cracq's work.

I did enjoy the novel.  It combined enough elements of over-the-top Gothic horror, with Poe-like psychological confusion, to be entertaining and even humorous at times.  It was short enough in length that the overall confusion didn't get to the point where it completely wore you down.

We have our descriptive ratings, Realism and Readability: 1 to 7 with 7 being high.

Realism?  The novel in addition to having elements of the surreal, is also very true to its Gothic nature.  What made the early Gothic novels unique is that they took the previously fantastical events of medieval fiction, and applied them to normal people.  What makes them interesting is the actions of normal people when confronted with events that are completely outside of the normal world.  Surrealism combined with Gothic, is inherently unrealistic:  a 1.

Readability?  The book is surreal.  It is particularly difficult, because the elements of Gothic horror, sometimes work counter current with the Poe-like madness that is in evidence.  It is not always clear that our narrators are particularly reliable.  The only  real actors in the piece, are the themes and symbols interspersed throughout.  The only easy thing about the read is that it is short.  That is not enough: it is a highly literary 1.

Author with surrealist writer  Nora Mitrani prior to her early death in 1969 (from here)

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