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The Opposing Shore (1951)

by Julien Gracq

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
4491041,726 (4.13)44
With four elegant and beautifully crafted novels Julien Gracq has established himself as one of France's premier postwar novelists. A mysterious and retiring figure, Gracq characteristically refused the Goncourt, France's most distinguished literary prize, when it was awarded to him in 1951 for this book. As the latest work in the Twentieth-Century Continental Fiction Series, Gracq'a masterpiece is now available for the first time in English. Set in a fictitious Mediterranean port city, The Opposing Shore is the first-person account of a young aristocrat sent to observe the activities of a naval base. The fort lies at the country's border; at its feet is the bay of Syrtes. Across the bay is territory of the enemy who has, for three hundred years, been at war with the narrator's countrymen; the battle has become a complex, tacit game in which no actions are taken and no peace declared. As the narrator comes to understand, everything depends upon a boundary, unseen but certain, separating the two sides. Besides the narrator there are two other main characters, the dark and laconic captain of the base and a woman whose compex relations to both sides of the war brings the narator deeper into the story's web. For many French readers The Opposing Shore (published as Le rivage des Syrtes ), with its theme of transgressions and boundaries, spoke to the issue of defeat and the desire to fail: a paticularly sensitive motif in postwar French literature. But there is nothing about the novel tying it either to France or to the 1950s; in fact, Gracq's novel, with its elaborate, richly detailed prose, will be of greater interest now than at any point in the last twenty years.… (more)
  1. 40
    The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati (iijjaallkkaa)
  2. 20
    Gagner la guerre by Jean-Philippe Jaworski (greuh)
    greuh: Jaworski avait Le Rivage des Syrtes en tête en écrivant Gagner la guerre, tout en réussissant à s'en détacher pour écrire un superbe ouvrage qui lui est propre. Quelques "passerelles" existent entre les deux livres et la lecture de l'un ne peut que recommander la lecture de l'autre.… (more)
  3. 21
    Les jardins statuaires by Jacques Abeille (greuh)
    greuh: Gracq a beaucoup aimé le livre d'Abeille et les raisons s'en ressentent dans la plume. La phrase d'Abeille est ciselée comme un mouvement d'horlogerie, l'écume douce d'une vague puissante. Ses jardins statuaires sont un carnet d'explorateur superbe et un récit magique. Ainsi, aimer l'un, c'est au minimum apprécier l'autre !… (more)
  4. 21
    Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (Mouseear)
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» See also 44 mentions

French (6)  English (4)  All languages (10)
Showing 4 of 4
[Le Rivage des Syrtes] - Julien Gracq
Civilisations rise and inevitably fall, especially if they do not change or at least adapt to new situations: they become at risk to the barbarian outside the gates. Gracq's book retitled in its English translation as The Opposing Shore imagines a country which has been ruled by a coterie of Aristocratic families for generations from its capital Orsenna in the north. It had received a bloody nose in a war with a country from the opposing shore which lies the other side of a sea on its southern border. The war was three hundred years ago and ever since that time Orsenna has strived to have no communication with Farghestan. Gracq's novel looks at the tipping point; the time when pressures arising from this oppositional stalemate forces Orsenna into some kind of reaction. There are rumours of widespread infiltration in the southern border town of Maremma, soothsayers are predicting a catastrophe and Aldo a young aristocrat has been sent to the southern district of Syrtes as L'Observateur at a naval establishment on the coast.

Gracq's novel won the prix Goncourt in 1951. France's most prestigious literary prize for a book that is "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year" and so one can be sure that this novel is something more than a political thriller: in fact thriller would be absolutely the wrong genre with which to label the book: it is a book of mysteries and possibilities. The young Aldo tells his story in the first person: he is on his own voyage of discovery, and anchors the story, because the reader sees him as a reliable witness, coming to terms with the characters around him as the novel proceeds. The novel is full of atmosphere created by the desert like landscape that dominates almost every chapter. Characters appear to be sleepwalking to their fate, but Aldo injects life into the proceedings, he feels the somnambulism, but fights against it. The desert here is one of marshlands and waterways, mudflats, fog and mist, that seeps into the fabric of the story.

Aldo travels down to Syrtes from Orsenna and installs himself in the Amirauté. He shares the fortified base with Captain Marino and his lieutenants: Robert, Fabrizio and Giovanni, who are the crew to the warship: the "Redoubtable" Aldo's duties are to report back to Orsenna, but he becomes fascinated by the history of the war with Farghestan and discovers the map room full of naval charts. At the town of Maremma further along the coast he is seduced by Vanessa the daughter of a rival family of aristocrats based in Orsenna. She lives in a castle outside of the run down town and is hostess to some grand balls, where Aldo meets Belsenza, who is carrying out a spying mission and is becoming nervous of the strange people circulating in the town. Aldo visits the strange overgrow ruins of Sagra and comes across a suspicious character who has a boat docked in one of the hidden waterways. Aldo's fascination with the map room, and his own observations make him burn with curiosity about Farghestan and its people. The suspicion is that they have infiltrated Maremma and Vanessa's role comes under suspicion. Captain Marino travels back to Orsenna leaving the Redoubtable and crew ready for Aldo to take command of the regular coastal patrols and Farghestan is only one days crossing on the other side of the sea. The mystery deepens and Aldo's precipitous action starts a chain of events that will determine the fate of Orsenna.

Gracq's writing is dense and full of smilies and some fairly old fashioned syntax, some of which I believe is alluding to French classically inspired literature of two centuries earlier. I enjoyed the sound of the words in my head even if I had to puzzle out the meaning, which was at times as mysterious and dark as the story. This is certainly a book to linger over and one where once you know how the story ends, would bear re-reading to find out what had been missed along the way. Aldo does find out much of what is happening even if he does not understand it, but characters such as Vanessa and Belsenza remain shrouded in their own secrets. A dose of realpolitick closes out the novel nicely and the reader feels that this is a novel which has substance and integrity and reflects on Europe's position in the world in the early 1950's. A four star read for me at this time, but I suspect I will rate it more highly in the future. ( )
1 vote baswood | Mar 14, 2021 |
Ce que j’ai cherché à faire, entre autres choses, dans Le Rivage des Syrtes, plutôt qu’à raconter une histoire intemporelle, c’est à libérer par distillation un élément volatil, « l’esprit-de-l’Histoire », au sens où on parle d’esprit-de-vin, et à le raffiner suffisamment pour qu’il pût s’enflammer au contact de l’imagination. Il y a dans l’Histoire un sortilège embusqué, un élément qui, quoique mêlé à une masse considérable d’excipient interne, a la vertu de griser. […]
Quand l’Histoire bande ses ressorts, comme elle fit, pratiquement sans un moment de répit, de 1929 à 1939, elle dispose sur l’ouïe intérieure de la même agressivité monitrice qu’a sur l’oreille, au bord de la mer, la marée montante […]. C’est cette remise en route de l’Histoire, aussi imperceptible, aussi saisissante dans ses commencements que le premier tressaillement d’une coque qui glisse à la mer, qui m’occupait quand j’ai projeté le livre.
(Julien Gracq, En lisant en écrivant)
( )
  Manua | Apr 10, 2014 |
The world, including its human inhabitants, as rich geography: mornings without wrinkles, cities honeyed in their night, white dresses extinguished like flames in the night, roads you lean into because you get the feeling they lead to the ocean. This text is densely beautiful, unexpectedly tender in places that are imbued with magic, sensitivity and overwhelming physicality. This is a slow, rewarding read with an author who should be much more widely known. If you enjoy the pleasure of the text for itself, this challenging text is worth every trembling letter. ( )
4 vote jeaaron | Jul 12, 2008 |
Showing 4 of 4
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gracq, Julienprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
元雄, 安藤翻訳secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Le rassurant de l'équilibre, c'est que rien ne bouge. le vrai de l'équilibre, c'est qu'il suffit d'un souffle pour tout faire bouger
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With four elegant and beautifully crafted novels Julien Gracq has established himself as one of France's premier postwar novelists. A mysterious and retiring figure, Gracq characteristically refused the Goncourt, France's most distinguished literary prize, when it was awarded to him in 1951 for this book. As the latest work in the Twentieth-Century Continental Fiction Series, Gracq'a masterpiece is now available for the first time in English. Set in a fictitious Mediterranean port city, The Opposing Shore is the first-person account of a young aristocrat sent to observe the activities of a naval base. The fort lies at the country's border; at its feet is the bay of Syrtes. Across the bay is territory of the enemy who has, for three hundred years, been at war with the narrator's countrymen; the battle has become a complex, tacit game in which no actions are taken and no peace declared. As the narrator comes to understand, everything depends upon a boundary, unseen but certain, separating the two sides. Besides the narrator there are two other main characters, the dark and laconic captain of the base and a woman whose compex relations to both sides of the war brings the narator deeper into the story's web. For many French readers The Opposing Shore (published as Le rivage des Syrtes ), with its theme of transgressions and boundaries, spoke to the issue of defeat and the desire to fail: a paticularly sensitive motif in postwar French literature. But there is nothing about the novel tying it either to France or to the 1950s; in fact, Gracq's novel, with its elaborate, richly detailed prose, will be of greater interest now than at any point in the last twenty years.

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