PARIS - Julien Gracq, 97, a celebrated French writer known for surrealism and solitude and for having turned down France's top literary prize, died Saturday in the western city of Angers, hospital officials said yesterday.

Infuriated by criticism of some of his early works, and tightly defensive of his privacy, Mr. Gracq turned against French literary circles and rejected the Goncourt Prize, for which he had been chosen in 1951 for

Le Rivage des Syrtes

(

The Opposing Shore

), his best-known novel. Mr. Gracq published 20 works - novels, essays, plays and narratives.

"Far from fashions and society circles, he constructed original thought and a powerful body of work," President Nicolas Sarkozy said, calling Mr. Gracq "one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century."