“Floating high on the waters of catastrophe” – Julien Gracq’s Balcony in the Forest
Assigned to a blockhouse on a hilltop high above the Meuse River deep in the Ardennes Forest, Lt. Grange at first finds his new home “perfectly improbable.” It’s nothing more than a concrete bunker comically topped by a little house where a handful of men live. It feels as if they were perched in a children’s tree house, “as if they were on a roof and the ladder had been taken away.” The time is autumn 1939. The German invasions of Poland, Norway, and Denmark seem far away and France is preparing as if this is going to be a rematch of the trench warfare of the First World War. “The war? Who knows if there is a war?”
In surprisingly short order, however, Grange adapts to the hilltop hideaway where he and his men spend their days making half-hearted efforts to walk patrols and laying out the barbed wire with which they’ve been supplied, barbed wire, it seems, that is without many barbs. They have guns that don’t work and the parts they order never arrive. But that doesn’t seem to matter. What Grange responds to deeply is the forest.
The forest breathed, more ample now, awakened, alert, its remotest hiding places suddenly stirred by the enigmatic signs of time’s reversion – an age of great hunts, of proud cavalcades – as if the old Merovingian lair were quickened by a forgotten scent in the air that made it live again.
The forest is a living entity that continually breathes, and for many months to come its breathing will manage to absorb the existence of the distant war. But for Grange, the forest is something more. Whenever he listens to the forest he hears the ocean, even though the North Sea is more than a hundred miles away, beyond Belgium.
…both men held their breath for a moment, listening to the great respiration of the woods around them that made a kind of low and intermittent music, the long deep murmur of an undertow that came from the groves of firs near Les Fraitures…
We never learn much about Grange’s prior life, but in the forest, in spite of the crude conditions and the hint of war on the horizon, Grange begins to realize that he is a changed man. “It seemed as if his life were no longer divided, partitioned…” Nevertheless, it is not exactly clear to him why this should be so – “…a question it had become urgent to understand were being asked – but Grange did not understand.” He becomes seduced by a local woman he meets in the forest one day – a woman variously described as a “rain sprite,” a “plant in the sun,” as “nature itself” or as a “witch” – and they embark on a romance that lasts until the imminent approach of the German army. In his quarters, he surreptitiously begins to study the official brochure that reproduces the silhouettes of the German armored vehicles, afraid of being caught by his men “as if he were pouring over obscene photographs.”
Eventually, as “the phoney war” inexorably becomes real and threatens the French border, even the forest can no longer repel or absorb it; the earth becomes “like a corpse beginning to smell.” Grange’s superior gives him the option of another post, far from the front, but Grange refuses. “‘I like it here.’ He felt as if he were hearing the words for the first time, astonished to have known the truth so long.”
What is it about this forest that compels him to stay here in his concrete tree house in the woods above the tiny village of Les Falizes?
What most reminded him of his exaltation at Les Falizes, where he seemed to breathe as never before, was the beginning of summer vacations in his childhood – the fever seizing him as soon as he could look out the train windows, still miles away from the coast, and see the trees gradually shrink, stunted by the salt wind – the anxiety suddenly filling his throat at the mere thought that his room in the hotel might not overlook the sea. And the next day there would be the sand castles, too, when his heart beat stronger than anywhere else just standing next to them, because he knew, and at the same time could not believe, that the tide would soon cover them.
When the motorized German army finally does appear on the horizon across the Meuse in May, after swiftly slicing through Belgium, Grange feels something akin to relief. “He felt his mind floating high on the waters of catastrophe.”
[It was] a marvelous, almost appealing terror that Grange felt rising from the depths of his childhood – from fairy tales: the terror of children lost in the woods at twilight, listening to the faraway branches crack beneath the dreadful heels of the seven-league boots.
The enemy doesn’t actually appear until eighteen pages from the end of the book, but the finale is swift. The blockhouse is quickly assaulted by gunfire and Grange and his men are forced to flee into the open, where he manages to shoot and destroy a tank. “It was intoxicating,” Grange thinks. He realizes that he has reacted without panic during his first moments of combat. “He felt somehow invulnerable.” At the novel’s end, Grange is wounded and makes his way back into the blockhouse.
Life fell back to this sweetish silence, the peace of a field of asphodels, only the faint rustle of blood within the ear, like the sound of the unattainable sea in a shell…Then he pulled the blanket up over his head and went to sleep.
Balcony in the Forest is a strange, elusive novel. Is Grange an unrealistic dreamer who takes refuge from the realities of war in the dream forests of childhood fairy tales? Or is he tapping into some primal force or existential plane that transcends the pettiness of human history?
Julien Gracq. Balcony in the Forest. NY: Columbia University Press, 1987. Translated from the French by Richard Howard.