CASTLE OF ARGOL
(The Lapis Press; 1938)
This French novel is perhaps the most famous work of gothic surrealism. Many
literary-minded horror mavens all-but swear by it, and I know of one learned
essay entitled “Surrealism and Modern Horror Literature” (found in NYCTALOPS 18)
that largely confines itself to just one book--this one.
THE CASTLE OF ARGOL (AU CHATEAU D’ARGOL) certainly has a gothic flavor. Its
own author, whose first novel this was, has this to say about his “slight
narrative”: “Let there be mobilized here the potent marvels of the MYSTERIES
OF UDOLPHO, of the CASTLE OF OTRANTO, of the HOUSE OF USHER…the author will only
be paying them tribute, deliberately explicit, for the spell they have always
inexhaustibly cast over him.” I think that best sums up the charms of this
novel, whose reputation has in my view grown a bit outsized over the years.
Julien Gracq--real name Louis Poirier--is often cited as one of the finest
living French novelists (other Gracq novels include THE DARK STRANGER and THE
OPPOSING SHORE), and his abilities are in ample evidence here. The
indescribably lush, sensuous prose, brilliantly translated by Louise Varese, is
utterly distinct, related in wildly opulent, adjective-packed sentences. So
supple is the writing that one is nearly seduced into overlooking the fact that
the narrative is painfully thin.
It goes like this: a modest guy named Albert purchases an old castle
situated in a vast, suffocating forest. Soon Albert’s lifelong pal Herminien
comes to stay, together with his girlfriend Heide. Albert and Heide fall head
over heels for one another, and Herminien, inflamed by jealousy and the
elemental grandeur of the woodland surroundings, takes Heide into the forest and
kills her. But Heide’s ghost pervades the castle, driving a wedge between the
two men--hence the bloody but inevitable finale.
In keeping with the gothic aura, there’s a graveyard that figures heavily
(complete with a headstone marked HEIDE, a none-too-comforting premonition) and
a hidden passageway inside the titular abode. Such things, alas, seem conjured
more for decoration than anything else.
I’d also argue against this being an authentically surrealist text. Yes,
Julien Gracq was close to the surrealists and even dedicated the novel to
Salvador Dali. The book also has a hallucinatory grandeur that can only be
called deeply strange. But it’s in service of a fairly run-of-the-mill gothic
melodrama with little in the way of the reality distortion that characterizes
true surrealism (as exemplified by Lautremont’s MALDOROR and Giorgio De
Chirico’s HEBDOMEROS). In other words, THE CASTLE OF ARGOL is an impressive
accomplishment in its own way, but those looking for a real work of gothic
surrealism had best set their sights elsewhere.