For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week Molly Dektar, whose story “Ethel” appears in the Fall 2020 issue, examines a passage from The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq.
Published in 1951, The Opposing Shore, a French novel by Julien Gracq, was the best surprise discovery of my reading life. Though the book and its author aren’t exactly obscure—Shore won the Goncourt Prize (though Gracq refused it!), and A Balcony in the Forest was reissued by NYRB in 2017—I rarely see mention of The Opposing Shore. But I was enraptured by this haunting story of a nobleman in the decadent, fading, fictional land of Orsenna, who is compelled—out of arrogance, yes, but also with nightmarish inevitability—to drag his country into war.
The book, translated in my 1986 edition by Richard Howard, is full of mist—metaphoric and otherwise. The young narrator, Aldo, is stationed at a naval base, and the heavy themes of waning nations, inane war mongering, and geopolitical doom intermix with flourishing descriptions of sea and sailing. At the book’s midpoint, Aldo goes out on a boating trip with the alluring (and perhaps double-crossing) Vanessa:
I remember that crossing as one of those days of plenitude when the warm flame of joy flickering within us devours and calmly assimilates all things to itself, seemingly kindled by the mere transparency of sky and sea, as if they had been some enormous lens. The sun had scattered the mist: the warm and meditative amber of late autumn, like a delicious exudation of the earth, was to summer’s heat like the warm flesh of the fruit you bite compared to its burning skin. The fierce little waves of the Syrtes sea sent up countless spirals of foam; around us, flocks of sea birds hovered, then flew off over the shifting surfaces of the water, as in the calm evening over ploughed fields. Everything around us ascended, gently aspiring toward a paradise of feathery efflorescence: long muffled wingbeats of the gulls interspersed with raucous cries, soft feathers snatched from the foam, the wind’s throbbing plumage in our faces, the vacillation of the swell lifting the boat as though on a swan’s back.
—Julien Gracq, “The Opposing Shore”
This is hardly a pivotal passage of the book, but it is so characteristic—I love how overwrought it is, how packed with metaphors. This trip with Vanessa reminds me of Woolf’s The Waves because it is both personal and associative, painted in vivid, exuberantly disjointed strokes. In the midst of the book’s grand tragedy, we get these sparkling moments of visual and physical experience.
A blurb on my edition refers to The Opposing Shore as “science fiction,” which struck me as a mistaken genre match at first, but like science fiction, the novel grapples with and fictionalizes society’s structures and politics. At the same time, the book resembles an allegory but not a straightforward one; especially in Aldo’s relationship with Vanessa, the novel takes the form of psychological realism. The book is also a travelogue—particularly of note is the crumbling, unearthly version of Venice—and a rip-roaring fantasy adventure.
Unlike the intense emotional clarity offered by some of the novel’s descriptive passages, many of the conversations, characters, and motivations in the book remain inexplicable. Through Aldo’s actions, the book seems to advance a tipping point theory of epochal change—all of Orsenna is thrown into disaster because of Aldo’s thirst for novelty. But the book also counters its own theory with its constant devolutions into miasma and mist, which often stand in for Aldo’s confused motives, the obsolescence of his nation, and the suffocating atmosphere of history. At its heart, the book is an enigmatic work of geopolitical surrealism. Its symbols do not add up; it is full of secrecy without any secret. To me, all of this is in the service of that feeling of inevitability. People move in their airless and incomprehensible trajectories.