French novelist who refused the Goncourt
Monday December 24, 2007
At the Lycée Claude Bernard in Paris during the 1950s a number of 16-year-olds were fascinated by their history and geography teacher, Monsieur Poirier. He was small, with short hair and dressed in a dark suit. Punctual and efficient, no one ever thought of playing tricks on him. When his teaching was over he gathered up his papers and went away. The reason for the particular interest in him was the discovery that Louis Poirier, who has died aged 97, was in fact Julien Gracq, the novelist, who had won (and refused) the Goncourt prize in 1951.
He had adopted this name from Stendhal's Julien Sorel and from the Gracchi, the Roman heroes, Tiberius and Caius Sempronius. For his pupils he was the world of creative literature. But more than this, he was spoken of as one of the surrealists. Surrealism meant eccentricity and extravagance. How could the neat and precise Poirier fit into such a movement? They followed him to the Place Bianche to see him among the surrealists, as they followed him about Paris, eating his solitary meals. He remained a subject of mystery.
In his last years it was the population of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil who observed him with the same intentness. This village in Maine-et-Loire was his birthplace and, in his 80s, Gracq gave up his Paris flat to live there with his sister who, like him, had never married. The shopkeepers knew him well. One day he left his wallet at the florists, and she phoned Poirier before he had realised that he had lost it. When he came to fetch it he presented her with one of his books. Until then she had no idea that he was a writer.
As a novelist Gracq was a creator of mystery. He set his first one in Argol on the Isle de Crozon, western Brittany. To its dark forests and deserted moors, he added a labyrinthine chateau of the title Au Chateau d'Argol (1938). In the irregular architecture of this building, where the light appears as if through a curtain of silk, the main character, who has recently acquired the chateau, is unable to respond to the affection of a guest and to break out of his coldness. Le Rivage des Syrtes (1951, the winner of the spurned Goncourt), is a haunting novel with characters marked by the shadow of a past. Only at the end, as the principal character says, does the decor fall into place. Un Balcon en Foret (1958), the most accessible of the novels, tells the story of the war which has not yet become a war, that of 1939 to 1940, when ill-equipped French soldiers wait on events. Then the waiting ends; the Germans launch their devastating attack. The ending is Wagnerian. It is typical that although the author served in the French army during this period, this book is in no way autobiographical.
He believed in the importance not so much of style but of form. As his example, he gave the sayings of the countryside. Many of them are about the weather. These sayings are accepted. No one seeks to verify whether they are accurate. It is the form that makes them authentic.
Gracq was also a lucid critic. Perhaps the novelist and the critic came together best in the pieces that he wrote about London, after a visit in the summer of 1929. For Gracq, London was unknowable. He would ride in a bus until its finishing point, in some suburb. Then he would continue to walk in the same direction. Yet he saw the Thames as a river that seemed to control London, from the sordid pubs of the Isle of Dogs to the sleepy teashops of Richmond.
His refusal to accept the Goncourt prize was based on his dislike of the publicity that he saw surrounding literature in the 1950s. He has seen his fears confirmed by the role that television has played in making authors and their books the subject of commercialism. He refused invitations to appear on French radio and television and politely turned down three invitations from President Mitterrand to dine at the Élysée.
In his solitude, his sister died in 1996, he would spend the evenings watching television, particularly football. He continued to read.
· Julien Gracq (Louis Poirier), novelist, born July 27 1910; died December 22 2007