Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq, translated by Richard Howard / ISBN 9781681371399 / 240-page paperback from NYRB Classics
"Richard Howard’s sinuous translation...is from 1959 but feels perfectly up-to-date...The war arrives in this unexpectedly delicate story with the shadowy unreality of a dream...but it is a dream of a vastly different nature."--Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
It is the fall of 1939, and Lieutenant Grange and his men are living in a chalet above a concrete bunker deep in the Ardennes forest, charged with defending the French-Belgian border against the Germans in a war that seems unreal, distant, and unlikely. Far more immediate is the earthy life of the forest itself and the deep sensations of childhood it recalls from Grange’s memory. Ostensibly readying for war, Grange instead spends his time observing the change in seasons, falling in love with a young free-spirited widow, and contemplating the absurd stasis of his present condition. This novel of long takes, dream states, and little dramatic action culminates abruptly in battle, an event that is as much the real incursion of the German army into France as it is the sudden intrusion of death into the suspended disbelief of life.
Richard Howard’s skilled translation captures the fairy-tale otherworldliness and existential dread of this unusual, elusive novel (first published in 1958) by the supreme prose stylist Julien Gracq.
Julien Gracq (1910–2007) was born Louis Poirier in Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, a small village in western France. An excellent student and a voracious reader, he studied in Paris in the early 1930s, where he encountered the work of André Breton and the surrealists. His first book, Au Château d’Argol (The Castle of Argol, 1938) was praised by Breton as the first surrealist novel. In 1940, as a lieutenant in the French army, Gracq was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. Following the war and his release, he became a geography and history teacher at a lycée in Paris, where he remained for more than twenty years. He taught as Louis Poirier and wrote as Julien Gracq, a name that combined his favorite Stendhal character, Julien Sorel, and the Roman Gracchus brothers. Opposed to publicity and self-promotion, Gracq declined three requests from François Mitterand to dine at the president’s residence and refused the Prix Goncourt when he was awarded it for his 1951 novel Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore). Unmarried, in 1970 he retired from teaching and returned to his hometown, where he lived with his sister until her death in 1996. He continued writing throughout his life, publishing novels, plays, poetry, and literary criticism.