I have felt, throughout the year, an intensifying fear, an increasing discomfort, a kind of claustrophobia, as though something terrible, something unavoidable, perhaps even fatal, is closing in on me. A couple of days ago, this feeling reached an apex, and drove me out of the house around midnight, with no plan or direction in mind. However, once outside a strange sort of calm came over me. The streets were clear, the sky starless and raven black; and the cool air was like clean linen against my skin. I lit a cigarette and, as I dragged on it, I watched the tip dancing in the dark like a firefly. Then, out the corner of my eye I spotted a spider, suspended on its web; a black jewel in the centre of an ornate crown. I walked over to it, expecting to experience the usual grotesque fascination, the instinctive desire to crush, and yet, as absurd as it sounds, I was moved.
I thought about leaving, about getting on a train, a hopefully deserted train, to nowhere in particular; an attempt to outrun my existence. But of course, I did not. I went back inside; and, with a lamentable reflexive cowardice, searched my shelves for a book that would comfort or speak to me in my present mood. The one that stood out for me in this regard was A Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq. Indeed, it begins with a man on a train, Lieutenant Grange, who, as he travels, feels as though he is leaving behind the ‘world’s ugliness.’ Set in 1939, the ugliness of which Gracq writes, and which Grange wishes to avoid, is, of course, the second world war. Yet for much of the novel the war is in the background, is more a threat than a reality. It is manifested in the sound of French soldiers coming from local houses, and is evident in the flowerbeds trampled under hobnailed boots.
“This stretch through the fogbound forest gradually lulled Grange into his favorite daydream; in it he saw an image of his life: all that he had he carried with him; twenty feet away, the world grew dark, perspectives blurred, and there was nothing near him but this close halo of warm consciousness, this nest perched high above the vague earth.”
The primary focus is on Grange’s mundane existence as the commander at a blockhouse in the Ardennes forest, the post to which the aforementioned train was taking him. His days there are, we’re told, ‘pleasingly empty’, which is to say that they are relaxing and mostly free from army activity. He chats to the men under his command, he meets a woman, he wanders through the forest; he, rather comically, considering the circumstances, sits in a garden chair, sips coffee, and plunges into ‘a kind of dreamy beatitude.’ It is as though he is on a long rustic holiday, ‘slowly vegetating at one of the least sensitive nerve endings of the war’s great body.’ All of which might make A Balcony in the Forest sound tremendously dull; however, although it is certainly low on high octane thrills, it features some of the most beautiful nature writing I have read and has a stately grace to it that I found compelling.
Moreover, while WW2 is generally off stage in terms of action, it is still ever present in the mind of the reader, if not always the characters; in fact, it dominates the book by its absence, and this is what gives it its emotional punch. Everything that Grange does, specifically the way that he looks at and experiences the forest, is related to the war. There are numerous references to the silence of his surroundings, for example, and one understands that this is unusual, is out of sync with the times, and cannot, more importantly, last, for very soon the tanks and guns will shatter it. Indeed, there is a overriding sense of the unreal. The forest itself is described as being ‘magical,’ ‘endless’ and ‘unconquerable.’ For Grange it acts as a kind of ‘fairy tale’ refuge, or ‘forgotten wilderness’, which is virtually cut off from ‘the inhabited world.’ This world, the inhabited world, is, one cannot forget, about to be thrust into bloody chaos.
Before concluding, I should deal with Mona, for in the limited number of reviews of the novel on the internet she is cited as its biggest flaw. She is introduced as a figure in the distance ‘splashing from puddle to puddle’, which sets the tone for all of her [limited] appearances. When Grange catches up with her he likens her to, or even believes her to be, a rain sprite, emphasising her otherwordliness and, once again, the magic of the forest. At various points she is described as childish, or child like, as well as puppyish and kittenish. To some extent, I can understand certain readers’ irritation, for she is certainly not a rounded character; she is a male fantasy, a down-to-fuck forest fairy. However, what this kind of criticism overlooks is that it is Grange’s perception of her, not the author’s; and, as such, it is entirely appropriate, being consistent with both his frame of mind and the tone of the novel as a whole. Furthermore, no character in the book, not even the Lieutenant, is well developed; they are all essentially one dimensional.
“In this forest wilderness perched high above the Meuse it was as if they were on a roof and the ladder taken away.”
I have read three of the four novels that Julien Gracq wrote, of which A Balcony in the Forest is the last, both in terms of its publication and my own relationship with his work. Often, it is compared to his most acclaimed novel The Opposing Shore, which is itself compared to Dino Buzatti’s The Tartar Steppe. Yet while all three are about waiting for war, it differs from its more well known brothers in that they are principally concerned with impatience and disappointment. The central characters in The Opposing Shore and The Tartar Steppe yearn for a more exciting existence, while Grange wants quite the opposite; he is happy to remain inactive, to be forgotten, overlooked, left alone. This is a novel of avoidance, and the joys of isolation; it is about hiding in enchantment, about finding, and clinging to, a haven of peace and tranquility, if only for a short time. As such, it was, despite my shameful head-in-the-sand tendencies, perhaps exactly what I needed; and, looking at the unstable world around me, a world that appears to be violently haemorrhaging, it could be just what you need too.