Going All the Way

What is on the other side?

Julien Gracq’s award winning novel The Opposing Shore is an interesting and mentally stimulating narrative of boundaries and what happens when we hibernate behind those boundaries. It has been suggested that The Opposing Shore is metaphorical for the attitude of France at the beginning of the Second World War: remember the Maginot Line?

The Maginot Line dominated French military thinking in the inter-war years. The Maginot Line was a vast fortification that spread along the French/German border but became a military liability when the Germans attacked France in the spring of 1940 using blitzkrieg – a tactic that completely emasculated the Maginot Line’s purpose. — The History Learning Site


I can certainly see how this interpretation gained credence but I hesitate to allocate Gracq’s themes to such a mundane conclusion. Although, Günter Grass has been quite successful rehashing German attitudes which resulted in the war and in fictionally roaming the world of literature in his hair shirt and flailing the country with his spiked chain.

Is Gracq’s novel simply a metaphorical retelling of the attitudes of the French that resulted in the defeat by the Germans?

The story is of a fictional country that has been at war with its neighbor on the opposing shore for 300 years. True, there isn’t any activities going on you might call war-like. The impressive fortifications that presumably guard against an attack are falling into disrepair; the fleet of ships which will launch a counter-attack are all disintegrating on the mud-flats below the fort. There is one war-ship that periodically patrols the straits between the two countries but a firm boundary line has been created that no one will cross, let alone the ship.

What happens to the country that maintains the status quo? Nothing changes and everything decays. What happens when someone suddenly crosses the boundary?


Gracq’s novel is fundamentally realistic, despite the fiction of the two countries at war. It contains few novelistic twists or postmodern acrobatics. The prose is exact and the translation excellent. I found it demanded my concentration to maintain the thematic richness despite the relative simplicity of the story. This one is definitely worth reading and everyone should put the author on their To Find lists.

Julien Gracq is the NDP of Louis Poirier. He died a few years ago and left an interesting, although not too extensive (especially if you don’t read French), bibliography. Here is the list from Wikipedia:

  • Au château d’Argol, 1938 (novel) (English translation: The Castle of Argol or château d’Argol)
  • Un beau ténébreux, 1945 (novel)
  • Liberté grande, 1947 (poetry)
  • Le Roi pêcheur, 1948 (play)
  • André Breton, quelques aspects de l’écrivain, 1948 (critique)
  • La Littérature à l’estomac, 1949
  • Le Rivage des Syrtes, 1951 (novel) (English translation: The Opposing Shore)
  • Prose pour l’Etrangère, 1952
  • Penthésilée, 1954
  • Un balcon en forêt, 1958 (novel) (English translation: A Balcony in the Forest)
  • Préférences, 1961
  • Lettrines, 1967
  • La Presqu’île, 1970
  • Le Roi Cophetua, 1970 (novel) (English translation: King Cophetua); it inspired the film Rendezvous at Bray, directed by André Delvaux
  • Lettrines II, 1974
  • Les Eaux Etroites, 1976 (Allusions, allegories and metaphors on a French river, l’Èvre.)
  • En lisant en écrivant, 1980
  • La Forme d’une ville, 1985
  • Autour des sept collines, 1988
  • Carnets du grand chemin, 1992
  • Entretiens, 2002

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