Sean's Reviews > The Castle of Argol

The Castle of Argol by Julien Gracq
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bookshelves: 2017, somewhere-else, weird-fiction


Julien Gracq's first novel is a paean to the early Gothic works of Poe, Walpole, and Radcliffe (freely admitted to by the author). Saturated in a heaviness that clings to the reader from the very first page, it tells the tale of a wealthy young man named Albert who purchases an ancient estate surrounded by a forest of supernatural proportions. Soon after he moves in, his old friend and soul mate Herminien arrives for a visit accompanied by the mysterious woman Heide. What follows is a feverish blur of dreams, hallucinations, perambulations through the labyrinthine castle of Argol, and treacherous forays into the menacing forest. The tripartite inhabitation of the castle by Albert, Herminien, and Heide is initially fraught with the somewhat predictable complications of what one might expect from such a situation, and yet it is also at times much more complex than a standard love triangle. It is in fact arguable whether it is the nature of the three themselves that is at the root of their difficulties, or if they are mere pawns in a perverse game played by unseen forces at a level beyond both their control and comprehension. Either way, each of these three characters meets with both pleasure and pain on the vast grounds of Argol. Throughout the book, Gracq's prose spills over with lush descriptions of the wildness surrounding the estate (in particular Gracq seems to have a fixation on hypnotic forests; see also A Balcony in the Forest), and it is this relentless lushness that most indelibly characterizes the novel. Take, for example, this excerpt from the chapter entitled 'The Avenue':
One day, through the trees, they followed a wide green avenue covered by a vaulting of branches a hundred feet overhead, whose singular character, immediately apparent to the soul always on the alert for the perpetual snares of the forest, was due to the fact that while it ran through particularly hilly country and continually embraced each slightest sinuosity, yet the rigidity of its direction imposed itself upon the eye in the midst of all the natural undulations of the ground, and, straight in front of the traveller through the dark barrier of trees at the horizon, carved a luminous and sharply defined notch—suggesting to the mind, obsessed by the impenetrable wall of trees, a door opening into an entirely unknown country which, because of the besetting straightness of the avenue traced over hill and dale as by some wild caprice, by a will royally disdainful of all difficulties, seemed to confer a gift of capital attraction.
This particular edition, a Lapis Press reprint of the original New Directions English translation, is an oversized version with cover and endpapers taken from the Swiss painter Robert Zünd's work Der Eichenwald (The Oak Forest), interior foldout landscapes from a photograph by Jean Pritchard, and a photographic portrait of a 'corpse'—a self-portrait by Pierre Molinier. The illustrations, large type, and heavy paper with hand-sewn binding combine to present a storybook look and feel while reading, thus enhancing the overall Gothic spell woven by Gracq's trance-inducing sentences. I can't claim ownership of this fine edition, as it is from the library, but copies in excellent condition are currently hovering only in the $20 range over at AbeBooks.
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Reading Progress

June 20, 2017 – Started Reading
June 20, 2017 – Shelved
June 20, 2017 – Shelved as: 2017
June 20, 2017 –
page 18
10.4% "From the foot of the castle walls the forest spread out in a semicircle as far as the eye could see: a wild and gloomy forest, a sleeping forest whose absolute stillness seemed to clutch the soul. It encircled the castle like the coils of a heavily inert serpent whose mottled skin was not badly imitated by the dark patches of cloud-shadow as they ran over its rugose surface."
June 21, 2017 – Shelved as: somewhere-else
June 21, 2017 – Finished Reading
March 27, 2019 – Shelved as: weird-fiction

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