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Phony War, Phony Peace

Julien Gracq's Balcony in the Forest finds its protagonist mired in an anxiety-ridden dreamworld

Julien Gracq is not a household name and never will be. Born Louis Poirier in 1910 in a small village in the Loire Valley, he was a history and geography teacher at the Lycée Claude Bernard in Paris. During his long, largely uneventful life, he wrote some twenty books, including novels, plays, and essays. All his books were released by Editions José Corti, one of the best small publishers in France, devoted to the sorts of writers for whom the beauty of a sentence is its own justification. Even in the language of Flaubert and Proust, Gracq’s prose stands out for its virtuosity and gracefulness, and he is credited for effecting a merger between surrealist imagery and gothic storytelling. Here’s but one example from Balcony in the Forest (1958), his last published novel, rendered into English by the incomparable Richard Howard, and recently rereleased by NYRB Classics: “He glanced around him as if to look for the mortal wound that made the morning so pale, draining this dim chamber to the point of death.” For most writers, even very talented ones, sentences like this one are exceptions to the rule, a calculated flash of lightning made more brilliant by the emptiness of the surrounding sky. But a novel of Gracq’s is all lightning.

An intensely private person, Gracq strongly objected to the alliance between publishing and publicity, which turns the writer into a celebrity and his work into an afterthought.

Gracq saw combat during the Second World War, and was taken prisoner at Dunkirk, but he only references this experience obliquely—even as it also furnished the basis for two of his novels. He is best known, if one can put it that way, for what he did not do. An intensely private person, he strongly objected to the alliance between publishing and publicity—and particularly the way the biography and persona of the author were pimped out to mass media like television and radio, turning the writer into a celebrity and his work into an afterthought. In 1949 he wrote a pamphlet entitled La Littérature à l’estomac, a withering critique of the vapid fashions and commercial values of the Parisian literary establishment. Two years later, that establishment gave him the opportunity to put his money where his mouth was, awarding him the Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, for his novel The Opposing Shore. He refused it.

After his retirement from teaching, he returned to the Loire Valley of his youth, where he lived with his sister—neither ever married—until her death in 1996. His stance on publicity never softened: he persistently turned down requests for interviews and even a dinner invitation from a notable admirer, François Mitterand, the president of France. According to his obituary, he spent his last ten years alone watching football on television and reading.

If anything, the rampaging monster of literary fame has grown more heads since Gracq first went to battle with it in the late forties. Perversely enough, it seems clear that without the ballast of his distinctly gnomic biographical interest his books would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean of literary renown. But for him, Yeats’ choice between the “perfection of the life, or of the work” was a clear one. The most important events in his biography were the books themselves, as it should be.

If Balcony in the Forest is, as critics agree, Gracq’s most accessible novel, it’s because alone among his fictions, it can be placed in a concrete geographical space—the tiny villages of the French Ardennes—during a concrete historical period—the so-called drôle de guerre, or “Phony War” as it known in English. This period was marked by an  uncanny lull between the formal declaration of war on Nazi Germany by the Allied Powers in September 1939, and the commencement of hostilities between Germany and France in May of the following year. And the formal onset of war with Germany of course led, after just over six weeks of fighting, to France’s humiliating defeat and subsequent occupation.

The novel’s historical background represents the best opportunity for NYRB Classics to begin its campaign of reviving interest in his work among English speaking readers. In a literary climate that no longer recognizes a book’s quality as  a sufficient argument in its favor, perhaps a certain topicality will succeed in helping Gracq’s work garner the attention it deserves.

Balcony is, for all that, a highly atypical war novel. It is crafted from the same lush materials as his earlier, “less accessible” novels, The Castle of Argol (1938), written under the influence of André Breton’s surrealist classic Nadja, and A Dark Stranger (1945), a gothic romance about a suicide pact at a seaside hotel. Like those forerunners, Balcony is written in oneiric prose that perfectly suits the increasingly absurd situation of its main character, Lieutenant Grange, who commands a small company of infantrymen on the French side of the Belgian border. Thematically, Balcony covers much of the same territory as The Opposing Shore (1951), with its lonely male protagonist stranded at an isolated outpost on the border between two countries that are notionally at war. And both books gradually move out of the realm of pure allegory (in Shore, the two rival powers are called Orsenna and Farghestan) into a more ambiguous space where history and fantasy contaminate each other. If Shore is the phony war as seen through the looking glass, Balcony is the same war seen through a glass darkly.

As his rank suggests—lieutenant, or lieu-tenant, which, as Howard insightfully observes in his forward to the novel, can be interpreted to mean “one who occupies a liminal space,” literally a “place-holder”—Grange is a man in suspension, as he awaits the German advance with anxiety, dread, disbelief, boredom, terror, longing, and finally relief. Gracq, who is as skillful a landscape painter in his medium as Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner are in theirs, gives us the Ardennes as an enchanted forest, a paysage moralisé. His version of the Ardennes is fit for a fairy tale of Perrault, a comedy of Shakespeare, or an opera of Wagner—a primordial space both out of time and yet soaked in the blood of the tens of thousands of soldiers who fell there in August 1914. The blockhouse at the edge of the forest where Grange is stationed is more of a spiritual “house of detention” than a military fortification. Indeed, Grange’s wooded redoubt effectively takes him captive, even though he is made aware, from the very beginning, that it is ill-equipped to hold off armored cavalry, and is doomed to fall once the expected invasion materializes.

What exactly holds him there is the novel’s central mystery. It is certainly not duty, or patriotism. For a few chapters, it is the body of Mona, a young widow he meets on patrol, who is mythologized and botanized even as she is eroticized by Grange. Twenty-first century readers—for whom realistic psychology, especially that of female characters, is as much a matter of morality as it is of taste—will probably find this the least congenial aspect of the novel. To the lieutenant, Mona is an inscrutable “rain-sprite” who belongs to “a fabulous species, like unicorns,” a “child-sibyl” whose movements are compared to the tropisms of the plants that surround the stone house where she lives, along with her maid Julia, the mute shadow of a garrulous transparency. More than Mona, though, Grange finds himself held in place by the “sleeping sickness” with which France, and for all Grange can tell, the whole world has suddenly been “infected” thanks to the phony war. The sickness’s every permutation is played out in the conscious and unconscious minds of the soldiers and civilians on the front lines during the interminable passage of time before the first shots are actually fired.

The result, as Gracq describes it, is a paradoxical kind of inertia that is experienced as free fall. Sleep, in all its variations, from this metaphysical sleeping sickness to the sleep of death, achieves the status of a Wagnerian leitmotif in Balcony. (The first lines of Parisfal, in which Gurnemanz, a grail knight, exhorts the guardians of the forest and sleep to awaken, provides the book with its epigraph.) As befits a placeholder, Gracq’s lieutenant is also a sleepwalker.

While he prepares for the German advance, Grange patrols the area, lays mines, stockpiles ammunition, radios headquarters, checks the escape routes, drinks coffee and cognac with his comrades in the blockhouse, and goes to bed with Mona. Amid these somnambulist rounds of a soldier’s life, he finds it all but impossible to imagine the violence that is imminently traveling in his direction from some perpetually deferred point in the future. In time, he becomes convinced that the war is something he has dreamed up himself. “Who knows if there even is a war?” he wonders, shrugging his shoulders. “If there were, we’d hear about it.” His anticipation of the unpreventable catastrophe that never quite manages to arrive doesn’t help his situation become more tangible; if anything, it makes it all the more unreal. Grange goes on leave to Paris, but the war is on everyone’s lips there, so he takes off for the countryside to put himself beyond the reach of newspapers and the radio—only to return to the front where everything is, maddeningly, the same as before he left.

Grange calls his emotional state “twilight nerves.” It’s also, tellingly, a state with which the same twenty-first century readers who will object to his depiction of Mona have grown uncomfortably familiar. The psychological presuppositions of the realist novel, whose characters are distinctive individuals who make rational decisions based on likely outcomes as they navigate a set of complex, but stable social institutions and normative codes, are appropriate to ordinary times. But neither Grange, who is, like Mona, something less than a character in this sense, nor his current readers find themselves in ordinary times. Who wouldn’t recognize our own world in the following descriptions of Grange’s? “It was a fragile world hanging over a void on all sides, but somehow its machinery managed to function nevertheless.” “[I]t was a world where there was no longer any good news: you survived by ignoring all extremities, concealed by guilty stratagems that shifted with every wind, from minute to minute, at the thought of what might happen . . .” “Everything around him was anxiety and vacillation, as if the world men had woven was unraveling stich by stich. There remained only a pure, blind waiting . . .”

When institutions collapse and norms are discarded or turned on their heads, when time at once speeds up and slows down and the future becomes too unpredictable to plan for, exceptional mental and emotional states arise that can only be conveyed in exceptional prose like Gracq’s. Ours may not be a phony war, but it is a phony peace. And it is a time of historical rupture all the same. For Gracq’s “German advance” substitute an extreme weather event, a superbug pandemic, the full authoritarian takeover of a democracy, the balkanization of a nation state, a mass shooting, a spasm of political violence, or the blundering of our objectionable rulers into an economic crash or a nuclear war.

Each and every one of these calamities is a possible future with one foot firmly planted on either side of the present horizon, and viewed from this contemporary vantage, the disfigurements of reality caused by Lieutenant Grange’s “pure anticipation” become instantaneously recognizable. Like him, we take whatever actions are within our power to return our situation to its previous semblance of ordinariness, but mostly we carry on as if the status quo ante were in fact real. We thus elect to confront or ignore the evidence to the contrary according to the energies we have to expend on any given day. And so, like him, we wait. And wait. And wait. With dread.

The use of the figure of the sleepwalker to describe how the citizens of a country mechanically march down the path to inexorable ruin did not, of course, originate with Gracq. In The Sleepwalkers, the novelist Hermann Broch had already used it to describe Germany’s position in the years leading up to World War I. The Germans lost that war because, among other reasons, they were too wedded to the military strategies that had led them to victory in 1871; similarly, the victors of the First World War prepared for the second as if it were merely the logical extension of what had gone before. The French army is “thirty years behind the times,” Gracq observes at one point.  The lackluster French opposition to the German invasion failed to take into account how the novelties of the situation—Nazi ideology and developments in military technology—had fundamentally changed the aims and possibilities of the war, and could transmute old blunders into new successes.

Gracq knows that the trope of semi-conscious blundering through an epic global conflict is somewhat inexact, and he deploys it, in the lieutenant’s case, ironically. Grange’s appraisal of the military situation is flawed, not because he has failed to learn the lessons of history, but because he has learned them, all too well. He is blind to the dangers to the blockhouse because he thinks that the Germans would not likely try to invade through Belgium again. “Once was enough,” or so he believes; the Germans would instead go through Switzerland or try to breach the Maginot Line. In this latter scenario, the war would become another “academic artillery duel” like 1871, this time with tanks and fighter planes. But as with Stephen Daedalus, history is the nightmare from which the lieutenant never awakens; he goes to his final resting place with the sense that the war “in the least detail, was imitating something, without being able to decide what it was.”

It is hard not to sympathize with his position. After all, reliable or not, history is the only guide we have to the future, even as we acknowledge that what we are experiencing is unprecedented. Our own phony peace has already outlasted Grange’s phony war—by three months to more than a year, depending on how you’re counting. But in that time, there has been no shortage of attempts, in essays like this one, to read in history, literature, and philosophy the tea leaves of our current derangement. Hundreds of thousands of words have been generated by the hive mind of our search engine-enabled hyperconsciousness to show how we are in fact reliving what has happened before. Google formulae like “How X predicts Y” or “What X can teach us about Y,” or “Y is a modern day X,” where Y is “Donald Trump” and X is defined as any “historical, literary, or philosophical personage, text, or theory,” and you will get the following (not even close to complete) list of results for X: Plato’s five regimes (multiple times); Thucydides’ account of Cleon; Nero; Caligula; Machiavelli’s Prince; Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard III; Robespierre and Napoleon I (and III); Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; Gogol’s Dead Souls; know-nothingism and nineteenth century populism; Alfred Jarry’s proto-dadaist play Ubu Roi; Hitler (almost obligatorily) and the rise of fascism; Carl Schmidt’s friend-enemy distinction; Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities; Father Coughlin; Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here; Orwell’s 1984; post-literacy; The Manchurian Candidate; pseudo-events; George Wallace; Nixon, Watergate, and the Saturday Night Massacre; postmodernism; Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America; identity politics; and, for the sort of person who can find meaning even in the number of letters in the names of Lincoln, Kennedy and their respective assassins, Ingersoll Lockwood’s 1896 novel The Last President, which stars a character called Baron Trump. 

If, in the final analysis, Grange is sleepwalking into a farcical disaster, it is not because he lacks historical awareness.

Adding to this list an obscure novel by a largely apolitical, art-for-art’s-sake writer, whose clear ambition was to give aesthetic pleasure in any time rather than to be topically relevant in ours, will therefore strike some as, at best, interpretive overreach, and at worst, contributing to the very problem I appear to be criticizing. Where the former objection is concerned, my argument is not that Balcony in the Forest reveals something about the present historical rupture in particular, like the aforementioned articles do, but about the existential structure of states of historical rupture as such—of which, these articles, taken in their totality, are a symptom. Balcony shows how, as a result of their exceptional nature, such ruptures swallow all of previous history into their vortex, indexing everything to the current crisis, and making it impossible to distinguish difference from repetition. When France’s phony war finally turns real, the fact that it is imitating something “in the least detail” is precisely what makes Grange unable to “decide what it was” imitating. Because if it is imitating everything, it could be imitating anything. That the future is entirely unpredictable to Grange is not because he cannot foresee what will happen, but what amounts, in practice, to the same thing: he cannot predict which of the million possible events he has already foreseen, during the months he spends in the blockhouse of his own anxiety-ridden dreamworld, will be the one that actually comes to pass. If, in the final analysis, Grange is sleepwalking into a farcical disaster, it is not because he lacks historical awareness, as the trope would seem to imply; rather, it’s because he has it in spades.

So, where the latter objection is concerned, I am, unfortunately, guilty as charged. For I am a sleepwalker too. Can I possibly be the only one?