WALK into any bookstore, and one of the prominent shelves will be stuffed with books on how to be a writer. College courses devoted to writing have proliferated like mosquitoes in tropical swamps. The problem is that writing isolated from reading is a sure recipe for a debased literacy. Julien Gracq does away with this disastrous apartheid in the very title of his refreshingly iconoclastic "Reading Writing."
Almost 70 years, ago Gracq published his first book, "The Castle of Argol," which was immediately declared the first truly Surrealist novel by Andre Breton. Gracq, who turned 96 over the summer, is the most important living French writer. He is singular in his literary accomplishments. His novels "The Opposing Shore," "A Dark Stranger" and "Balcony in the Forest" remain as fresh, invigorating and moving as the day they were published. Interestingly, they were, for the most part, written during the almost 30 years he was a high school teacher. In many ways, he seems far more youthful than many contemporary novelists. The scope of his interests and the intensity of his insight into the actual practice of writing are wonderful companions as one reads.
Not only does Gracq refuse to consider writing and reading isolated from each other, but he also does not isolate them from arts such as music, painting, sculpture and film. While "Reading Writing" is divided into sections with headings such as "Dwellings of Poets" and "Literature and Cinema," these reflect more our society's almost perverse need for such distinctions. Gracq is well aware of the deficiency in our educational systems: "What is missing is a department of the relationship between the arts, a department of the Nine Muses, whose goal, for each age, would be to study not only the reciprocal influences of literature, music, sculpture, painting, architecture and today, cinema, but the secret hierarchy that presided in the mind of the artists and the public over these respective influences."
A review of a book like "Reading Writing" is always a partial failure, for it can never encompass the diverse and complex richness of it. A quotation is both a distortion and hopefully an excitement to the potential reader.
The writer, student, teacher and reader are ever present in Gracq. "I have always been surprised by the misunderstanding that makes the novel an instrument of knowledge, revelation, or elucidation for so many writers (even Proust thought his glory would depend on the discovery of a few great psychological laws). The novel is an addendum to creation, an addendum that neither illuminates it nor reveals it in any way: a child of seven knows this perfectly well as soon as he places his nose in his first real book (he will have time in school to try painstakingly to forget this). That the novel is a parasitical creation, that it is born of and nourished by the living exclusively does not change anything in terms of the autonomy of its specific chemistry or its effectiveness; orchids are epiphytes."
Two passages demonstrate the necessity of owning "Reading Writing." The first is a provocation: "A great novel or poem, like an alpine pass in a cycling race, narrows the pack of its audience to start with (but eventually latecomers catch up), while a film assembles its audience from the start (only to slim it down a little). The phenomenon of the audience's gradual access to the masterpiece, over time, which is standard in literature hardly applies in the cinema: for it, neither paperbacks nor hardcover libraries of classics: the years that pass bring no new points of view, bring no unperceived potential to light; they just make it unfashionable; what a film archive resembles most is certainly a library on the one hand, but also a car museum. In such a museum, one admires wonderful models here and there whose shapes and technical advancements at times even seem able to stride over the years and predict the future, but the admiration we accord them remains bound to chronology ... everything about them aggressively resuscitates their era, different from our own and forever dated, whereas the reader of a good novel erases these anachronisms automatically."
The second is suggestive. "Nine-tenths of the pleasures we owe to art over a lifetime are conveyed not by direct contact with the work but by memory alone. How little we have preoccupied ourselves, however, with the different nature, fidelity, and intensity of forms cloaked in memory, depending on whether it is a painting, a piece of music, or a poem!"
Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."