For an author with so much stature, Julien Gracq led a quiet life. He was thoroughly disillusioned with most of the literary movements, schools of thought, and politics of his time: he handed back his Parti Communiste membership card after the German-Soviet pact of nonaggression; he criticized Sartre and Camus and their littérature engagée for being a “littérature du non,” and quietly refused the Prix Goncourt in 1951. Instead of embroiling himself in all that, he taught geography at a lycee in his small hometown, and wrote.
He’s probably best known for his novels, especially among English speakers. The Opposing Shore (Le Rivage des Syrtes, the novel for which he won the Prix Goncourt) might be the most famous, though all four are worth reading. The rest of his works — essays, poetry, novellas, criticism, a play — revolve around and enlarge upon the same themes that haunt his novels. 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.
During the second World War, in 1940, Gracq was captured by the Germans and put in a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. When he was released, owing to illness, he went straight back to his home town and spent the rest of the war writing. His publisher, José Corti, had had to flee to Switzerland, so Gracq published nothing until he returned, but after the war he published a novel, a book of poetry, a work of literary criticism, and a play in quick succession. The war years were fertile for Gracq, and considering his themes, you can see why.
The play, Le roi pêcheur (The Fisher King), retells the story of Perceval’s encounter with the wounded king Amfortas during Perceval’s quest for the Holy Grail. Gracq’s version is structurally similar to the Parzifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach or the Parsifal of Wagner: the young man comes to the wounded king and his cursed castle, fails to ask the correct question, and therefore fails to win the Grail. It’s Gracq’s additions, subtractions, and final twist that make the material his own, and also make it relevant to the war he was living through when he wrote it.
The most obvious departure from the original material is that, for Gracq, the Grail is not a Christian object. Perceval’s quest is about desire, not religion; hope and yearning, not faith. Gracq explicitly purges any Christian association with his Grail, both in his foreword to the text, in which he lengthily discusses the Grail’s origin in Celtic myth, and in the play itself. For Gracq, Christianity was a closed system, a dead end, a great “no” that punished people for efforts to escape. Gracq loved the medieval “matière de Bretagne,” seeing it as a system open to all kinds of fertile creative play, and ignored what he saw as later Christian accretions.
Gracq’s other significant change to the play is in the character of Kundry. Kundry doesn’t originate with Gracq — she is Wagner’s creation — but it is Gracq who turns her from a simple femme fatale into the artistic and creative center of the play. (In the foreword to Le roi pêcheur, Gracq says, “C’est Kundry qui porte mes couleurs,” Kundry who wears my colors, as in a tournament or a joust.) It was Kundry’s seduction that caused Amfortas’s wound, and therefore the corruption and death of the castle and the surrounding country. She knows that when the Pure One arrives to find the Grail, she’ll be utterly annihilated. So far from fearing this, however, she longs for it: “Plaise à lui! Il vient en conquérant.” (“As he pleases! He comes as a conqueror.”) It is the satisfaction of desire she wants, desire that is made for satisfaction as thirst is made for water, and she doesn’t care what has to be destroyed to get it. This is a profoundly Surrealist and poetic aesthetic, and yes, you can see Gracq peeking through.
The overall tone of the play, however, is not triumphalist but pessimistic. Most people aren’t like Kundry. Most people, whether they are the grizzled, wounded king who has become accustomed to his wound, or whether they are the young, naive knight who has become addicted to his quest, desire only the status quo. Gracq doubtless saw a great deal of this around him in Vichy France as it collaborated with the Germans in order to maintain a French identity that was rapidly becoming obsolete. His act of rebellion, once he made it out of the prison camp, was to write, and write, and write: he never thought that other acts of rebellion were worth a tinker’s damn.
Gracq’s goal was to write works that, because they were so profoundly attached to the French language, were nearly untranslatable. Still, about half of his works have been translated into English, including all his novels. Le roi pêcheur has not been translated yet, and I’m not sure it will be: it might fall into Amateur Reader’s category of works that are not for everyone. But seek out some of his other stuff. The Castle of Argol, The Opposing Shore, A Dark Stranger, A Balcony in the Forest — all strange and doom-laden and a bit mystical and marvelous.