King Cophetua, Julien Gracq (Ingeborg M. Kohn trans.). Turtle Point Press, 2003. 96pp, 12.95
“When I think of the time that marks the end of my youth, nothing seems more oppressive, more troubling, than the memory of those months during which ripened, without anyone realizing what was happening, the decision that brought World War I to a head,” begins Julien Gracq’s small novel King Cophetua. The line is spoken by an unnamed narrator, a former soldier who is looking back over the years after his discharge from the trenches of World War I. Injured in the Battle of Flanders, he has been unable to escape the mental pain of his life at the Western Front.
Gracq is the pen-name of Louis Poirier, a man who fought in World War II and was captured at Dunkirk I 1939. When Gracq died at 97 last year, he was one of France’s most celebrated Surrealists. His first novel, The Castle of Argol, was written under the influence of Andre Breton’s Nadja and published in 1938. (Breton was an admirer of his writing.) Gracq made headlines when he refused the Goncourt prize in 1951, an act that did little to detract from his place in France as one of the nation’s great stylists. King Cophetua, published in French in 1970, has recently been published in English by Turtle Point Press.
The novel takes place over the course of one night, three years after the narrator’s reintegration into civilian life as a parliamentary journalist in Paris, as he travels deep into the French countryside on the night before All Saints’ Day, 1917. He has been invited to a friend’s remote country villa (a place so gothic as to seem straight out of Poe), only to discover that the friend, a wealthy pleasure-seeker and pilot named Jacques Neuil, is nowhere to be found. Over the course of the night, and while distant bombs fall, the narrator will begin an affair with a woman, the villa’s servant and only other occupant. It is in this brief liaison that the he is able to move past his traumatic memories of the war. 1
What is beneath the narrator’s account of his journey is a manner, on a symbolic level, of delving into his innermost thoughts, away from his experience of the war, while at the same time engaging with and lessening the hold the war has over him. The cloistered location of the villa to which the narrator travels is treated within the story as a place almost outside of reality, and as the train draws nearer to the villa and away from Paris the feeling of separation is so profound that the narrator feels as though he has crossed a barrier of “pristine forests standing guard against the encroachment of city life like a curtain of initiatory silence.” When his host Neuil fails to arrive, it is as though he is kept from the villa not only by the disasters of the war but also by the symbolic distance of the war as it recedes from the narrator’s consciousness, as though his host’s arrival would be akin to the damned walking out of hell and into purgatory. (The narrator tells us that “The idea that Neuil could arrive suddenly seemed absurd. It was impossible to believe that anything alive could come forth from that cataract of noise, that horizon about to disintegrate”).
As night falls the unreal quality of the villa becomes even more profound; the lights of the house are knocked out by a storm, leaving the narrator in total darkness. In an ethereal candlelight, the seclusion of the villa and its dark, surrounding countryside comes to remind the narrator of Goya’s etching La mala noche: “In the trembling twilight of the candles, images slipped in and out without resistance; suddenly, the memory of an etching by Goya blotted out all others . . . [an etching in which one is] confronted by the savage anonymity of desire.” Later, finding his way through the house by the light from a candelabra, the narrator will come across a painting symbolic of his experience of this night: it depicts the story of King Cophetua, overcome with passion for a beggar girl (in this instance as told by Shakespeare).
The narrator gazing over the depicted story of King Cophetua is a potent moment, one that expresses a sort of metamorphosis of artistic creation that mirrors the structure of Gracq’s novel itself: the narrator looks at literature transformed into a painting, which is then transformed back into literature by the narrator’s account, and in a wider sense by Gracq’s composition of the scene. The narrator’s existence, as well, is like that of a character within a painting, and even the servant woman takes on the quality of having been inscribed into the surroundings, as though she has been etched into them like one of Goya’s figures: “she seemed attached to the darkness surrounding her by some lifeline which sustained her entire being: the luxurious mane of black hair, the shadow obliterating the contours of her cheek, the dark clothes she wore at that moment did not differentiate her from, but rather made her one with, the night.” In fact, the villa itself is treated as though it houses only the ghost of the narrator, rather than his person: “I suddenly had the feeling that everything experienced that evening was unreal: as I went from room to room, the doors seemed to close behind me, the objects returned to their fixed places automatically; there was no trace of myself passing through them, my presence was not being acknowledged.”
It’s as though each detail in the novel is unified in a contrapuntal opposition to the narrator, as in a painting designed around a center subject. The villa, the servant woman, the countryside, are all inseparable, are one and the same, a mirror of the narrator’s subconscious mind. The namelessness of both the narrator and the servant woman, and the overall silence of their communication, reinforces the dream-like quality of their meeting. The narrator notes that with her there “were no accounts to be rendered, neither by her nor by me. Simply: this is how things are. . . . I was thinking that one could follow Orpheus very far in the somber kingdom, as long as he did not turn around. She never turned around.” Indeed, although the narrator is dominated by his earlier trauma (“civilian life had reclaimed me, memories of gunfire had already receded into another world, but each time the autumn rains returned, I felt the trenches in spite of myself, like someone afflicted with rheumatism in his inflamed joints”), in the villa he is purified by his existence within the present.
The next morning the narrator awakes to find the servant woman gone from his bed, life having “returned to its old order.” In his brief love affair the narrator momentarily transcended the burden of traumatic memory imposed by the war. It is this feeling of having become separate from one’s memories, while at the same time coming to terms with the emotional anguish brought to bear by them, that is paramount within the novel, and, one feels, for Gracq as an artist. Through an expression of desire, the narrator balances his life between the past and the present, between memory and immediate experience, just as, perhaps, Gracq found relief from his own wartime memories in the descent into the subconscious afforded by the composition of his novel.
Jordan Anderson is a writer living in Oregon. He has written on the work of Thomas Hardy and on contemporary literature.
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