Julien Gracq: Un balcon en forêt (A Balcony in the Forest)
After the success of Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore) (for which he won but declined the Prix Goncourt), Julien Gracq’s next novel was much shorter, based on his wartime experiences and was not such a success.
The novel starts in the usual Gracq way, with an imposing landscape, with a dense forest and imposing cliff, as Lieutenant Grange is going by train to his posting. Indeed, the opening recalls both the opening of both Au château d’Argol (The Castle of Argol) and Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore), with the hero arriving at his destination, passing through a dense and often threatening forest. Grange has been called up from the reserves at the beginning of World War II. His posting is near the River Meuse, close to the Belgian frontier and the Forest of Ardennes. Once he arrives, he is sent out to be in charge of a bunker whose purpose is to stop the advance of German tanks. He has three men under his command.
The job is very straightforward as there is nothing much to do. He regularly checks on the surrounding area, the men go out game-hunting and he has to report to his sarcastic but amusing senior officer on a regular basis in the nearest village, three kilometres away. He and the other men are aware of the Maginot Line and are sure that it will keep the Germans out.
However, there is a feeling that things might not be so straightforward. His commanding officer shows him some photos, to be seen only by officers, not men, of the German Siegfried Line, which he is told he and the French army will never see. We learn that the local mayor has been telling families to move their children to the interior of the country. Finally, one day Grange and his men receive the visit of a French tank commender whose vehicle has broken down. He looks at the bunker and assures Grange that the Germans will have no problem getting through.
One day, while out walking in the forest, Grange sees a girl wandering around. He follows her and soon discovers that she is a young woman, not a girl. When he meets her, he learns that she knows perfectly well who he is and has been following him. She is a widow called Mona. She had come to that part of the country as she had a shadow on her lung and was sent to the area to get rest and recuperation, together with a maid, Julia, and was there before the war. The couple soon start an affair though, as Mona states, it was she that seduces him.
Gradually, we get a suggestion that the war that is not happening might start happening. The Germans invade Norway. There are alerts, which turn out to be nothing. Grange is given a folder with silhouettes of German tanks so that he can recognise them. However, Grange is still living in a world where there is no war. He tries to ignore news from the outside and thinks the papers that are talking about war are wrong. When he is offered a transfer by his superior officer, he declines.
Of course, we know full well what is going to happen and when a German reconnaissance plane is spotted and then smoke is seen in the distance, it is only a matter of time.
While certainly not of the quality of Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore), Gracq tells a good story where, for much of the book, nothing much happens. He shows the waiting, for Grange, his men and their commanding officer, and what it means to them and how they react to it. He shows the war slowly but surely creeping towards them and the likely consequences of the arrival of the Germans. When it does come, while not in the slightest bit unexpected, the outcome for Grange and his men, as for the rest of the Allied forces at that time, is still well told.
First published 1958 by José Corti
First published in English 1959 by George Braziller