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The narrow waters: translated by Ingebord Kohn (1).

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? The steadfast security of return is not guaranteed to whoever risks venturing into force fields the Earth keeps charged with energy; more plausibly than does Goethe's beloved "celestial kiss," such journeys obliquely illuminate the course of our lives. At times it seems as though a grid inside us, older than ourselves, full of holes, and with entire sections missing, randomly decodes from these inspired excursions the influences that will shape future episodes in our lives. Just as an album of family photographs thumbed through by chance speaks to us of our past (a past that remains unspeakably personal though distinct events have been blotted out, communicating to us the vital feeling of contact with roots and the exquisite, still faintly smiling, tonality of faded things), such sites are known to mysteriously unveil the future: they already fly the colors behind which we will later rally. In contact with that earth we were somehow promised, we unfold like a Japanese flower in water: we find ourselves, inexplicably, on familiar ground, as if surrounded by the visages of a family-to-come.

Thus, the sleepy little valley of the Evre, a small, unknown tributary of the Loire about fifteen hundred meters outside Saint-Florent, encloses a privileged area in the landscape of my past more secretly, more sumptuously colored than any other--a sanctuary that remains forever attached to my earliest notions of excursion, leisure, and rural holiday. Its most singular feature seemed to be that the Evre, like certain legendary rivers of Africa, had neither source nor delta that we could visit. Close to the Loire, a submerged dam made of a jumble of bulky, haphazardly dumped quarry stones, over which we could walk in the summertime toward L'Ile aux Bergeres, prevented us from going upstream; a dense stand of ash, poplar, and willow encircled the network of the river's arms on the other side of the dam, discouraging any downstream exploration. Five or six kilometers upstream, at Coulenes, a mill's dam prohibited boats from continuing upstream. To go boating on the Evre also meant dealing with unavoidable formalities a day or two in advance: taking time to contact the woman who operated a cafe in the hamlet of Marillais to reserve the sole, ancient rowboat--rickety, dilapidated, worm-eaten, full of tar blisters, and sometimes lacking its rudder--which she kept padlocked close to the dam and allowed her customers to borrow. The handles of its mismatched oars were lodged in slings fashioned of water-willow twigs instead of oarlocks. In my memory, the sharp sensation of tangy, tepid, thirst-quenching lemonade remains inseparable from these preparations: I can taste it while rereading the story of the picnic on the banks of the Cher in Le Grand Meaulnes. There, as in Marillais, I feel it burst against my palate with some lost, exotic reminder of bells chiming on Thursday and simple village feasts.

We used to embark--I think one still does--at the bottom of a staircase of wooden boards that sloped precariously down the steep clay embankment; above the black waters of the narrow channel, branches grew into each other; we entered directly into a zone of watchful, ominous silence, a friend, like mist, of the water, broken only by large drops falling from the blades of the raised oars. After we pushed off, the boat was almost immediately struck by the hollow, deep echo from the bridge's stone arch; beyond it, the river broadened between the low-lying meadows bordered by rushes, stands of tall reeds that formed palisades as high as the chin of the occasional fisherman standing there as if under ambush, frozen to the spot and watchful like a sentinel. Here, already spreading out across the river, grew the floating green constellations of water chestnuts that we would lift up on the return trip like a fishing net to harvest the nuts with their sharp protuberances: small, spiny, vegetal skulls that harden when cooked and that produce, when split, instead of a brain, a nut tasting of sugar and mud, crumbly, grainy, crunchy between the teeth.

Nothing is as surprising in my memory as the variety of miniature landscapes that border the winding river for the first few kilometers: even though the boat glides along ever so slowly in stagnant water the color of weak coffee, they seem to succeed each other with the speed of a swift, well-oiled mechanism regulating the change of stage decor, or like those Luna Park diorama panels that fold and unfold before spectators seated inside boats screwed tightly to the floor. The intense pleasure and illusion of nearly being led astray that I felt as soon as I began to read the first pages of Poe's novella The Domain of Arnheim were caused, I think, by the sensation of perfectly still water and the steady speed of the skiff that seems to be pulled forward by an invisible magnet rather than being carried along by a current. Years later, Lohengrin's swan moving up- and downstream on the imaginary waterways of the opera scene recalled once again, momentarily, that sensation of an almost troubling happiness, caused--something I realized only at that moment--by the impression of gradual, continuous acceleration born of such fantastical navigation. We sense that there is someone calling out to us with confident urgency from within those ingenious vessels--swans, skiffs, hollowed-out logs--which, in fables, traverse the surface of still water; contrary to the malevolent associations of unidentified flying objects, everlasting happiness, wish-fulfillment, or at least supernatural help when in peril, seem to spur their silent navigation.

I am speaking of Edgar Poe, who will remain with me now on this trip, which I've taken so many times before--often with loud, happy companions--and which, nevertheless, not just in my memory but every time I set out again and all the while it lasts, has always retained something dreamlike throughout that silent, incomparably majestic boat ride where the two banks approach and part like the waves of the Red Sea, leaving me with a feeling of almost unreal slowness and, at the same time, of smooth pace, which I thought I'd found again in De Quincey's most beautiful, expansive opium dreams. The "black, heavy, shadow-devouring water" described by Gaston Bachelard, the water surrounding Fairyland, the water lying in silent wait deep inside the moat, ready to engulf the ruins of the House of Usher--so different from the treacherously violent flow that grates and rakes the banks of the Loire, grabbing the swimmer by the shoulders like a big, playful dog and overturning him as he tries to steady himself--that water was right here, immediately in front of me, with its fragrance of mud and roots, its dissolving sleep: digesting, slowly steeping the leaves that would rain from autumnal trees. I never dove into it without uneasiness: it was like entering a cold, inert mass without splashing or spraying, like diving through a filmy layer of duckweed.

Once afloat on the Evre, we entered a realm removed from the rest of the earth, to which only the boat held a key. Le Chemin Vert, a weedy path, starts at the Marillais Bridge and runs several hundred meters along one of the riverbanks before coming to an abrupt stop at the edge of an uneven meadow; just beyond it, field-dividing hedgerows extend as far as the bank, to which leads no other path. Thus, when we passed in front of La Joliviere, a farm perched on a hillside high above the bank, I was always surprised that I'd been able to reach it a few times on foot, by way of a complicated network of well-worn paths, the consecrated itinerary of the long line of faithful parishioners who, every spring, followed the little bell of the Rogation procession; those steps that descend to the river from up high separated two ritual circuits of different species that should never have met. I was scandalized, as if a mystical frontier had been trespassed, to find the farm's herd of cattle stumbling down the muddy slope to drink at the river. But this was the only disenchanting trace of plowed and planted farmlands; everywhere else, the little river seemed to zig-zag across a virgin wilderness reserve, a protected area belonging to Sundays and leisure, unscarred by toil.

The Evre is scarcely more than twenty meters wide, sometimes less; its bed is deep, with several layers of river bottom in various stages of decomposition, riddled with holes and crevices in which gigantic pike hide. Today, no doubt, pollution has taken its toll there as it has on all other rivers, but in my youth a fishing expedition on the Evre meant going after big game: its licorice-colored waters, like the ponds of Fontainebleau, were known to nourish hundred-year-old fish (and, at least in my imagination, the deep black Evre resembled that bewitched ocean in The Manuscript Found in a Bottle, in which everything could grow monstrously, even ships). After emerging from beneath the stone bridge in Marillais, the river spreads out between wet meadows covered with a profusion of buttercups and daisies in the springtime; alongside each bank, bouquets of reed-shafts rise in deep points; our oars would be constantly entangled in the submerged stems and branches of water lilies and chestnuts that leave open only a narrow navigable passage. Stands of poplars still grow alongside the river; their fallen leaves blanket the October meadows, releasing a bitter, astringent smell, redolent at times of drying varnish, which for me is the odor of autumn in the valley. The lawns, the water lilies, the decorative, feathery reed beds on both sides of the river look almost as if they were part of a spacious park, but quotidian noise has not ceased: the trotting of a horse, echoed by the stone arch of the bridge, still reverberates in my memory, and the languid, hourly bell-toll from the Marillais church tower (turning around in the boat, we could see its square silhouette rising above the reeds and clusters of sedge) travel for a long time over stretches of still water to catch up with you. But now the silence is no longer so easily broken, with only occasional echoes of a past that the curtain of poplars is beginning to hide. The marshlands, glimpsed just beyond the bridge, with its cackling waterhens and water bubbles made by frogs diving, are replaced momentarily by a wide plains river flowing leisurely between willows, like an untied scarf, steeped in sunlight, criss-crossed by the flights of kingfishes and dragonflies. Here and there, a narrow clearing in the reeds along the river-bank leads to two or three steps made of rotten boards; the tall fishing pole, leaning there permanently like the sign of a roadside bar, marks the spot where fishing gear, handed down from father to son, has been left in place. But these signs of watchful human presence, like alpine huts that give, from afar, the impression that a mountain is inhabited, are deceiving; while passing before the clearing, one can see that the space is empty and the fishing pole stuck in the mud; its owner, who from time to time walks from one spot to another, sometimes watches over four or five such spaces. This coastal artillery, so parsimoniously manned, does not extend beyond the end of Le Chemin Vert, which, shielded by reeds, begins to resemble a ramparts-passage traveled, from look-out to look-out, by unseen sentries; beyond it, the tension of walking alongside a patrolled minefield disappears, and with it any orders to remain silent. By now, the river has changed its course several times; the Marillais church tower has disappeared behind poplars; the low slopes that border the wet meadows are edging together, closing in. I've often walked to the end of Le Chemin Vert to picnic on the grass. Just beyond it, behind the bulge of a hill that borders the riverbank, lies another region that can be reached neither on foot nor by car, to which entry is restricted to certain lucky days: cloudless, balmy holidays blessed daylong by sun and accessible only by river.

Almost all initiation rites, however modest their aim, include the crossing of an obscure corridor; an excursion on the Evre is also comprised of such moments of unease in which the attention falters, the gaze is distracted. The river narrows, its characteristics become more defined; the water plants and even the reeds along the banks temporarily disappear. Along the now-steep river-banks, the exposed roots of willows and ash cling precariously to clumps of earth that seem about to detach and slide off at any moment; warrens of water rats undermine many of the small, unstable cliffs. As the banks grow taller, nothing can be seen from the boat save the narrow waterway and the colors of the mud on each side, exposed tree roots, rats scurrying on wet patches of clay, and sometimes a delicate double line forming the obtuse angle of a grass snake's wake as it crosses the river: for a moment, a kind of foreboding hangs over the decaying banks so animated by the slight shifting of mud. Very quickly, though, the view changes again, widens: the unidentifiable silhouette of a floating object--the canopy in a Corpus Christi parade, or a lilliputian pagoda?--materializes, anchored permanently to the shore. The low hull that grazes the waters, the perforated zinc roof that shades the square skiff, and the soapy streaks that sometimes lengthen over the Evre's surface hint at the boat's modest utilitarian use; however, this miniature facility resembles a public wash-shed about as much as a rowboat does a three-masted schooner. With only three spots for kneeling, it is destined for private use only, for washing the laundry of the nearby manor, whose weathervanes begin to appear across an expanse of English lawn. As a child, nothing would fill me with such utter delight as this misappropriation for private use of what I took to be a strictly public facility: I wouldn't have been any more stupefied if the lord of the manor owned a police station or a firehouse. Beyond this prestigious sign of feudal distinction, the entire course of the Evre seemed to bathe in a more rarefied, precious light. The last time I saw the wash-shed of La Gueriniere, a number of years ago now, the tops of the slender columns still held up the canopy, but it had half-sunk into a bank of clay--a pityful sight, like the Vichy fleet scuttled in the shallows of Toulon: it seemed to me as if an entire fantasy of my youth had taken a nosedive into the mud.

A new bend of the Evre finally reveals an oblique view, in lost profile, of the manor: it remains, and always shall remain, fixed in my memory at around four o'clock in the afternoon.
   Then a brick castle with corners of stone,
   Its windows tinted with reddish colors,
   Surrounded by a vast park, with a river
   Bathing its feet, which flows amid flowers.


As long as I've known these lines by Nerval, a long time before Les Chimeres (I must have been about twelve when I discovered them in a Selected Works distributed by my school library), one single image always comes to mind, which the others surround and enclose like a phylactery--the Gueriniere manor, although the description is far from accurate. The park, which could hardly be called vast, is confined to a space between the hillside and the river, and the building is perhaps not ancient at all: hardly a chateau in the Mauges region dates back further than the last century (those that might have were all burned during the wars of the Vendee). But the river is there, the wide lawn is in front of the castle, and the silence, more ancient than the building, confers upon it its nobility; the hills recede for a moment from the river to showcase it, transforming the shrine of shallow foliage, in which the manor is set like a jewel, into a kind of theater box fashioned of greenery, walled in by the crest of slopes that separates it from the pastures, where it rests in a contemplative pose before the river that flows by calmly and luxuriously, the only spectacle capable of absorbing and enchanting it.

I now quietly recite Nerval's lines. Like the Odelettes, they're minor works and foretell nothing of what was yet to come--those miraculous, orphic sonnets he wrote late in life--but their spell on me is powerful; their tinny, frail sound is that of ancient keyboard instruments: the spinet, and especially the Elizabethan virginal, reminiscent of Vermeer's most mysterious work, a painting still vibrating from the liquid sonority of a key just released by the finger suspended in midair. At their call, a slight vapor, clear yet nocturnal, rises from the river and floats over the meadows, as in the passage from Sylvie, in which Adrienne sings, and now, effortlessly, a poem by Rimbaud links up with this memory to further fuel the rustic, naive white magic: " ... the master's hand animates the meadow's keyboard; people play cards at the bottom of the pond, evocative mirror of queens and pretty girls; there are saints, veils, skeins of harmony, and legendary colorings against the setting sun." I am unable to resist these clusters of recollection, these adhesive elements that the impact of a cherished image hurriedly, anarchically condenses around itself; bizarre poetic stereotypes that, in our imagination, coagulate around a childhood vision in a jumble of fragments of poetry, painting, or music. Such fixed constellations (emblematic ties connecting the names, coats of arms, mottos, and colors of old, aristocratic families) as arbitrary as they first seem, play for the imagination the role of transformers of poetic energy: it is through connections that bind them together that the emotion born of a pastoral spectacle can extend freely across an artistic network--plastic, poetic, or musical--and traverse great distances without the least loss of energy. One of those concretions--or rather one of these interchanges, rich in intertwined images--formed itself in my mind, as far back as I can remember, around the manor and its clearing. Today, the nucleus it encloses has become as inaccessible for me as the original flower in the petrifying fountain.

On the left riverbank, before the castle comes into view, one passes the slope of a hill that plunges headlong into the Evre; its shadows seem to pour into the water like black ink, deepening the silence. There are no thickets beneath the dark yet uncrowded canopy; bare rocks, rounded like armor and resembling the sandstone formations of the little valleys of the Vosges Mountains, rise in tiers between the tree trunks. Not a single blade of grass pokes through the brown layer of pine needles and dried twigs that covers the ground: half a century ago, one could see beneath the tree branches two or three roughly hewn wooden tables, like those erected now in designated public picnic areas. Tepidly humanized by these charmless accessories, the site remains somber and heavily shaded. The half-light of the underbrush signals, menacingly: a bad place to stop, a caution evoked for me elsewhere by the infamous name of the woods called False Rests--a rendez-vous for treachery, like the one that Hagen's horn turns from day to stormy dusk. Mount Frugy, before my eyes whenever I opened the window of a room ! occupied in Quimper in 1938, whose steep, sturdy slopes I loved to look at, with its high, black line of beeches raised like an eyebrow above the still waters of the Odet (though already darkened by mountain shadow as well as looming war), later borrowed from that somber gorge the charm necessary to remembrance. So many landscapes that one by one, as the years passed, would invite me to linger, or move me, have, more than once, even when turning from light to dark, derived their suggestive power from signals addressed to them by those stations lining that liquid route beloved in childhood. The sudden bends in the Evre, the narrow field of vision procured by the river's plane once past the manor, made the appearance of successive sites seem, rather than merely a slow replacement of one view by another, slides brusquely beamed from a projector. Every image, at once an unalloyed element and a significant design, left its imprint on the blank slate of childhood. Passwords, still invalid, hermetic, and incomprehensible, like those so often encountered in Tales of the Round Table, inscribed themselves all along the way in the form of silent images that, despite their muteness, wished to speak; vividly, from start to finish, the sensation of taking a shortcut suffused the voyage.

The ear, no less than the eye, takes in the changes brought by nearly every bend in the river. Now that it is hemmed in by the hills, the faint noise of displaced water and thud of oars that accompany the boat's passage awaken echoes, grotto acoustics. Noises that travel over water--and that water, in turn, propels--have been familiar to me since childhood; as far back as I can remember, my father's boat--the long, flat, dark green vessel with its short bow, its bascule at the back that served as a fish tank, its middle seat pierced by a hole in which a mast could be inserted for a square sail--had been an almost daily sight in my life. It was moored on a bank of the Loire, thirty meters away from our front door; oars on my shoulder, oar locks in my hand, I would jump into it as easily as I would later hop on a bicycle. But the noises intersecting across the wide-open Loire--endless, monotonous small talk exchanged by the fishermen installed on opposing banks, wind rustling the leaves of the willow, a sound like foam hissing in the backwash of a wave, the clunk of the anchor dropped on floorplanks, the loud clap of little waves that join together to slap against the boat's blunt prow--awakened me even more to new sounds of the Evre itself, their singularity, their resounding solemnity, the hollow resonance that the valley, captivated by this ribbon of sleeping water, bestowed on them. Later on, the river that traverses the Argol countryside undoubtedly reminded me of the Evre's lead-like tint and abrupt darkening by shadows cast, like gathering storm clouds, from its banks. Whenever I traveled alone through these straits, I used to raise the oars for a moment or two and listen intensely, the boat continuing its roam, to an oppressive, vaguely ominous silence, as if, in the greenish half-light swallowing up the water, I had suddenly sailed past phantoms.

(1.) The Narrow Waters (N.Y.: Turtle Point Press, 2004). This excerpt is published with the authorization of her publisher, Jonathan Rabinowitz.
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Author:Gracq, Julien
Publication:The Romanic Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:3864
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