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.
About the Author
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.
Richard Howard is the author of seventeen volumes of poetry and has published more than one hundred fifty translations from the French, including, for NYRB, Marc Fumaroli’s When theWorld Spoke French, Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, and Maupassant’s Alien Hearts. He has received a National Book Award for his translation of Les Fleurs du mal and a Pulitzer Prize for Untitled Subjects, a collection of poetry.
"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
“A Balcony in the Forest presents Grange’s fantasies in prose that is lyric, yet precise; Richard Howard’s translation of 1959 still seems fresh.” —Nick Holdstock, TLS
“Only one writer could give expression to the venomous poetry of those months of watching and waiting, of waking dreams, and that was Julien Gracq.” —Claude Roy, Libération
“One of the very few first-class novels about the 1939 war that I have ever read.” —Norman Shrapnel, The Guardian
“His precise, meticulous descriptions are entrancing. A work at once powerful and delicate.” —Maurice Nadeau, Observateur
“Balcony in the Forest is not a ‘war novel,’ although it describes the experiences of Frenchmen in uniform during the early days of World War II. Julien Gracq has written a sensitive and analytical study of men enmeshed in a phony war—a war that would ultimately result in the tragic, dramatic fall of France.... The facile pen of the author is evident on every page, especially in the descriptive passages of the phantom forest, the seasonal landscape colors, and the beauty of nature in contrast with man’s destructiveness in wartime. These descriptions sing in the exceptionally smooth translation by Richard Howard, who, like the writer Julien Gracq, reveals a poetic sense throughout this cogitative novel.” —Max Bogart, The Saturday Review
“A series of brilliantly written descriptions of the Forest of Ardennes, the winter of the ‘phony war’ and of what it is like to be a soldier in a blockhouse there, waiting for a war one does not really expect to come.” —Kirkus Reviews
“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?” —Vertigo (blog)
“The translation, by Mr. Richard Howard, is worthy of a book whose force depends almost entirely on the quality of its writing.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“A most pleasing novel. Written in a prose that avoids all eccentricities and experiments, it moves rapidly and smoothly because each word seems exactly the one required.” —NewYork Herald Tribune