A Balcony in the Forest by Julian Gracq

It should come as no surprise to readers of my novel The Fortress At The End Of Time (Tor.com, 2017) that I have read and enjoyed The Opposing Shore, a novel about a battle of waiting for war, of wondering what is happening past the horizon, and of seeking change at terrible cost. It is a widely-praised classic, and it led me to seek out a later work on a similar theme. The Balcony in the Forest is a novel about waiting for war to come. It is set in a distant wooded place in France, near Belgium, and the protagonist of the narrative, the young Lieutenant Grange, is stationed to a gun block near the border during World War II. In this doomed war, that will spell the end of French society, he and the three enlisted men in his command wait for the war to come to their little corner of the country, and live in a concrete blockhouse as the seasons turn in the Ardennes, and Grange lives inside his head, flooded with memories of his childhood and an adoration of this beautiful landscape, and his new life that he loves where the war seems unreal and very far away.

The great war stories of our time are too exciting, too much about the camaraderie and bravery and glory of battle. Reading Graqc, a veteran of war and a lifelong history teacher, one senses that the experience he depicts is much more visceral. A young man is taken out of his known world suddenly, prepared for this state of violence and terror, and then cast into the ranks of soldiers. Everything is new, different, and perhaps even better and more beautiful than where they were before. Imagine in American experience, the thrill of Paris to the Midwestern soldier who had never seen a city larger than Cincinnati. Imagine the California desert dwellers who were sent to the verdant jungles of Vietnam, to walk among an ancient culture, where beauty is everywhere. Yes, the war, the killing, the death, the terror. Yes. But, there is time before the killing, sometimes lots of it, and these young men are in a new place locked inside their heads as they wander around these unfamiliar avenues. Their uniform gives them a purpose to be in this place, and protection from some trouble. And, these young men and women are told to prepare for a violence that they had never before even imagined in full. How could it feel real, this battle coming, to someone who had never experienced it before? In pre-television times, pre-mass media, when the war was just cable reports in a newspaper, it must have been more dreamlike. This is the place where this novel thrives. Gracq’s depiction of this young man locked in his head, gazing into the Ardennes, experiencing a rush and fullness of life in the seasons of the place he grew to adore with his whole heart, where the echoes of his childhood fill every shadow of the place, and the dreamlike gauze of disbelief colors his every move.

Then, as is inevitable in such a narrative, the great war comes.

The great beauty of the novel is marred by something that truly makes it feel like the book is from a different time and place than ours, and an alien artifact. The character Mona is so odd and off-putting that it her scenes are a great disconnect. It is no surprise that Grange, ostensibly her lover, realizes that he does not love her so much as he loves the place where she was discovered. Sylph-like in her description and mannerisms and appetites, Mona is never quite allowed to be a fully-realized person beyond just a manic pixie. The only way I could make sense of her scenes was to remind myself that we are seeing her as Grange sees her, and he has no capacity to understand the human beyond the physical acts she performs. He does not question her pains and darkness. He merely takes, as if she is a figure in his own dream landscape. To a contemporary reader, though, this figure’s depiction can be a nail in the eye. I choose to see the poor depiction as the narrator’s poor understanding of a very complex person.

Categories: Book Reviews

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