The Narrow Waters

Yesterday I read Julien Gracq’s The Narrow Waters thanks to this post at the excellent Vertigo blog. It’s an odd little book: too short, just long enough, direct, elusive, observational, discursive, lyrical… It describes a boat trip on the River Evre which Gracq/the narrator took many times as a child. It really is a description of the things he remembers seeing, what they made him think of and what they foreshadowed, but more to the point the book is a meditation on how memory and perception operate. The idyllic memory is

like a charged religious image, imprinted in us ages ago, where a foreshadowed life can only reveal itself in all its glory on the other side of the ‘obscure corridor’, valley of darkness, or place of exile.

The parallels between a boat trip like this an a walk are obvious; early on, Gracq says:

Why did the feeling anchor itself in me at an early age that if traveling – traveling without any thought of returning – can open doors and truly change one’s life, then that most singular of all forays, an excursion with neither adventure nor unforeseen events that after a few hours finds us home again, right before the gate of our parents’ house, has a more secret magic, like the handling of a divining rod?

(Edit: just realised that this paragraph is quoted in the Vertigo blog post – but then it’s a particularly striking quotation.) The book made me think of a walk I did with the dog last summer, round the villages I grew up in; it made me want to write about that walk, except that perhaps Gracq has rendered that project unnecessary, at least in a certain form. The Narrow Waters will take you an hour to read, an hour that it would be difficult to spend more wisely.

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