Julien Gracq: History in the Making

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In the French educational system, history and geography are conceived as a single discipline and are usually taught by the same teacher, on the assumption that one cannot understand the history of a country without understanding its geography, and vice-versa. In French fiction, Pierre Vernier, the professeur in Michel Butor’s novel Degrés (1960), whose dream of total knowledge drives him to a nervous breakdown, is a tragi-comic exponent of that assumption. Among French writers themselves, no one subscribed to it more enthusiastically than Louis Poirier (1910-2007), a teacher in a Paris lycée who wrote under the name of Julien Gracq. The pseudonym combined Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, which Gracq claimed to know almost by heart, and the Gracchi, the Roman brothers who had controversial political careers in the second century BCE. These high-minded and intransigent figures were apt role models for Gracq, a somewhat aloof, Olympian figure, who turned down the award of the Prix Goncourt for his third novel, Le Rivage des Syrtes (1951), refused to allow his books to appear in paperback editions, and kept faith with the small publisher, José Corti, who had first taken a chance on him.

Gracq was the history-geography teacher par excellence, and all his work, both fiction and non-fiction, is steeped in a sensuous response to landscape: scenery is never just background but takes on virtually the nature of an extra character. Some of his locations are actual, some imaginary, but all are described in minute detail and with a specialist’s vocabulary (I have never had to look up so many words up). His treatment of history is complicated by his fascination with myth, and by such eclectic influences as Stendhal, Jules Verne, Wagner, and surrealism. He was at one time close to Breton, on whom he wrote a brilliant critical study, André Breton: quelques aspects de l’écrivain (1948). Breton’s 1922 slogan—“Lâchez tout! Partez sur les routes!”—appealed to a Bohemian side of Gracq which was not obvious from his disciplined way of life and immaculate appearance.

In his study of Breton, Gracq discussed surrealism’s attitude to history, noting that the movement was sympathetic to both Freud and Hegel, but with reservations. The “reality” of surrealism would accept dream-experience as having its own authenticity (descriptions of dreams occur in all Gracq’s novels) and would thus be drawn to myth as a literary embodiment of dreamlike symbols. The twentieth century, Gracq argued, needed a new kind of myth in the absence of common systems of ethics or morality which traditional myths, the creations of  whole societies, had previously furnished. As for Hegel, his dialectic, strictly applied, ran the risk of being mechanistic, but its emphasis on the dynamic character of historical change was welcome. Arthurian legend, German romanticism, the work of Novalis and Nerval sat alongside an interest in primitivism and the irrational in Gracq’s mind, remaking the past in response to Rimbaud’s call to “change one’s life.” This was not a religious conversion; Gracq’s commercially unsuccessful, but conceptually intriguing, play, Le Roi pêcheur (1948), reinterprets the Perceval story in secular terms, the chivalric quest being for perfect self-knowledge rather than for spiritual illumination.

Gracq’s first three novels, Au Château d’Argol (1938), Un beau ténébreux (1945) and the previously mentioned Le Rivage des Syrtes, attracted a small but discriminating readership. They were written in a lyrical-poetic mode, lush with metaphor, freighted with symbolism. Their atmosphere of brooding menace, nameless fears, and overcharged emotions was a heady mixture. The first two of these works are, in my view, flawed experiments as Gracq finds his voice and his tonal balance, and I shall leave them aside here. Le Rivage des Syrtes, Gracq’s best-known novel and by common consent also his most successful, introduces his favorite theme of tension between two imaginary countries, ancient enemies whose state of uneasy truce finally erupts into war. It would seem superfluous to search for an historical source for this situation, but there is a specific literary one. Gracq had been a longstanding admirer of Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), whose novel Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs) appeared on the eve of war, in 1939, just after Au Château d’Argol. Set in an imaginary country, Auf den Marmorklippen tells the story, through the eyes of a scholarly botanist, of the destruction of a highly civilised and cultured province by the barbaric tribes who inhabit the surrounding forest and become the mercenaries of the sinister Great Forester, who never appears in person but whose malign presence is pervasive. (Given the date, Jünger is more likely to have been thinking of Stalin than of Hitler.) Eventually, the narrator and his associate, who have survived a final apocalyptic battle, retire to a high mountainous region to continue their scientific investigations. In a 1959 radio talk, Gracq suggested that Jünger’s novel acts like a heraldic blazon or emblem, even a poem, crystallising a historical moment yet independent of actual events or identifiable location—a comment which can equally be applied to Le Rivage des Syrtes. Stylistically, however, Auf den Marmorklippen is worlds away from Gracq, who argues that Jünger creates a distance between the reader and the subject-matter; his writing haunts our imagination yet stands aloof from any immediacy with lived experience—his style is “almost inhuman, mineral.” By contrast, the quality of detachment in Gracq’s novels resides, not in their style—which compels rather than distances the reader—but in their subordination of character to atmosphere and intrigue. They are deliberately finished works of art.

Apart from Jünger, a second major influence on Gracq’s thinking about history and myth was Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) whose The Decline of the West (1918, 1922) Gracq read in 1946 or 1947 when he had already published two novels. He saw Spengler as “a poet of history rather than a philosopher,” whose sense of the factors affecting historical change was more important than his metaphysical speculations. For Spengler, “civilization” means a culture on the wane, rather than a high peak of human achievement: the spontaneous creativity of a given society has been displaced by intellectual analysis and mechanical rituals. Myth, so to speak, ossifies into history. Gracq was intrigued by historical periods when this transition could be seen happening, periods of “both twilight and dawn,” the Roman empire being a favourite example. He saw the heroes of Jules Verne as Spenglerian, Faustian transgressive figures, scientists who were also dreamers.


In contrast to the flirtations with Hegel and Kant in Au Château d’Argol, which sit awkwardly with the rest of the narrative, the presence of Spengler in Le Rivage des Syrtes is firmly integrated. Historically and geographically, the Syrtes were part of the north African coast, notorious for shipwrecks (syrtes in French also means quicksands), and the collapse of the hidebound, sclerotic principality of Orsenna in the face of its traditional enemy, Farghestan, is a process of decay from within. (Gracq is likely to have known that the island of the indolent lotos-eaters in Greek mythology was located in the Lesser Syrtes.)  Orsenna is a “civilization” in Spengler’s terms, a society on the wane, and the magnetic attraction of Farghestan for the narrator Aldo, scion of an old Orsennan family, is that of the unknown. His impulsive decision to cross the frontier between the countries provokes Farghestan into an invasion which will destroy his homeland. Historically and sociologically, the novel charts a time of transition: a central episode depicts a Christmas sermon by an eloquent monk (as thematically central as the sermons of Paneloux in La Peste) who sees the feast of the Nativity poised on the cusp of the death of one world and the birth of another, and who denounces those who persist in spiritual oblivion, heedless of the call to act. The long speech of Danielo, the high-ranking official, who admits that Orsenna’s day is drawing to a close, reinforces the Spenglerian lesson. Danielo tells Aldo that although he understands “the march of History”, as embodied in causation, necessity, and the operation of political machinery, there is one factor he can’t control: the shifting sands of change. Aldo’s decision to break the rule which forbids contact between Orsenna and Farghestan could not be foreseen by the established procedures of government and administration, according to which such a thing could not happen.


After completing Le Rivage des Syrtes, Gracq began drafting a new novel along similar lines, again depicting a conflict between imaginary countries. He worked on this between 1953 and 1956 but then abandoned it. An extract was printed in 1970, under the title “La Route”, in La Presqu’île, a collection of three nouvelles, but the whole manuscript appeared, as Les Terres du couchant, only in 2013. Gracq embarked instead on a completely different novel, Un balcon en forêt, which came out in 1958.

This marked a significant change of direction. Gracq seems to have felt that the displacement effect and the detachment afforded by myth were no longer satisfactory: the time had come to confront history more directly. The new novel was set, very precisely, in the period of the drôle de guerre between October 1939 and May 1940 (although, as we shall see, myth did not disappear from the narrative). It recounts the experiences of a group of soldiers in the Meuse, manning a defensive position before the Germans shatter the French lines. Gracq labelled the work a récit rather than a roman, implying a narrowing of focus, a concentration of structure, an expanded anecdote rather than a multi-layered narrative. The critical reception was muted. Reviewers spoke of “a minor work,” “almost a pamphlet,” thin in texture, banal in subject, disfigured by infelicities of style. Many of these critics had been born in the 1880s and had fought in the First World War: this novel was not to their taste. “The description of the mistakes and lack of foresight by governments and generals,” concluded Robert Kemp in Les Nouvelles littéraires, “is no job for a novelist.” National humiliation was still a raw memory in 1958. (Yet remarkably, when in 1960 Claude Simon published La Route des Flandres, a novel set at exactly the same time, and dealing with the same events, as Un balcon en forêt, it was widely seen as a major achievement.)

We now know more about the genesis of Un balcon than did its original readers, thanks to the posthumous publication of Manuscrits de guerre (2011). This brings together a journal of Gracq’s time in the army between May 10 and June 2, 1940, and a fictionalised treatment of the events of May 23, 24 and (in part) 25. In Carnets du grand chemin (1992), Gracq had recalled some of his military experiences from earlier in May, but the new texts went far beyond that, not least in being near in time to the events they recount. Both seem to have been composed between late 1941 and the summer of 1942 when Gracq began work on Un beau ténébreux, and thus constitute the earliest treatment of the material later drawn on for Un balcon, in which the first date to be given is the night of May 9 to 10. Bernhild Boie, Gracq’s literary executor and general editor of the two-volume Pléiade edition of his works (1989, 1995), comments that the time-lapse between the manuscripts and the composition of the novel afforded Gracq a necessary detachment. He himself said that the writing of Un balcon was cathartic, allowing memories which had long been vivid to fade away in a monochromatic blur.

The two items in Manuscrits de guerre are of unequal length, the period from May 23 to 25 occupying roughly twenty-five pages in the journal but ninety-two in the récit. If one asks why this particular segment was chosen for expansion, one answer might be that it is the first of only two occasions when Gracq came face to face with actual German soldiers (the second being at the end of the journal, when he and his men surrender). Other changes of emphasis are important. The journal, obviously, is written in the first person, the récit in the third. Its narrator is Lieutenant G., who we assume to be Gracq (although a separate Lieutenant G. also appears in the journal), and we have ample warrant for doing so since whole passages are transferred verbatim from the journal to the récit. While there is much common material, however, the tone is quite different. Bernhild Boie notes a threefold narrative “je”: the soldier, the historian, and the author “whose voice makes itself heard in counterpoint.” While the journal is contemptuous about the incompetence of the military authorities, and exhibits inconsistent sentiments—sometimes fraternal, sometimes censorious—about the men under Gracq’s command, the récit is more dispassionate.

The journal conveys a strong sense of the soldiers being on the margin of events, disdained by the civilian population as an already defeated army, sent into battle pointlessly when the cause is as good as lost. Sometimes, indeed, the writer feels intoxicated by the adventure of it all, invoking literary stereotypes: Lautréamont, Sleeping Beauty, a nod to Fenimore Cooper (another of Gracq’s favorites) with a reference to scalp-hunters in the American west. Yet the romantic image of war cannot be sustained. “Everything is false”, Gracq reflects at one point, “everything is a simulation, people behave ‘as if,’ imitating the gestures, the orders which it’s proper to perform, according to tradition, in a ‘heroic defence,’” only to “surrender politely to the Germans at Dunkerque.” The regimental flag is burnt, in a ceremony recalling 1870 and 1914, but nobody sheds a tear for what is, after all, only a bit of cloth. It’s like a Mass said by a priest who is actually an atheist, he adds bitterly.

The remnants of the Gracq’s unit are eventually taking cover in a cellar, expecting at any moment to be liquidated by the mortars of the Germans who advance from the nearby wood and on whom they are firing. But the Germans march past without noticing them. Gracq is struck by the senselessness of the situation: “these Germans passing by, on whom we’re unleashing the fires of Hell, who don’t respond with a single shot. Then nothing. Then this sudden focus on the anti-tank cannon. Then we’re forgotten…” The men in the cellar, now joined by a wounded tank operator, have no map, no information, and no apparent escape route. “Yet”, the narrator reflects, “we can’t see this as a tragedy. Instead we feel caught in a trap, victims of a grotesque farce at the bottom of our hole. There’s something of Labiche about it, that’s for sure.” As another day passes, they feel that their war is over, nothing matters very much anymore; even the Germans are not, perhaps, such a threat as they seemed, indeed they may still be capable of acting honorably. So, when the Germans finally open the door, the soldiers give themselves up.

In the récit, the literary allusions are different: Verne’s Captain Hatteras on his doomed mission to the North Pole, Grand Guignol, Jarry’s Père Ubu, Macbeth learning of the “moving grove” of Macduff’s approaching army, the comic-strip brothers the Pieds Nickelés who become saboteurs behind the German lines in World War I. Towards the end, Le Grand Meaulnes is evoked, with its magical night that makes the landscape unrecognisable. (Perhaps surprisingly, Gracq didn’t care for Alain-Fournier’s novel, finding it too artificial.) These allusions create a similar atmosphere of incongruity, even of artificiality, to those in the journal.

Manuscrits de guerre offers an invaluable insight into the development of Gracq’s art, but Un balcon is not a work of autobiography or transcription from these earlier writings. Gracq was even reluctant to call it an historical novel. It does not entirely jettison the dreamlike quality of its predecessors, despite its more chastened style, nor, as I said earlier, does it reject the dimension of myth, although its use of allusions is more controlled than in the manuscripts. In fact, from the outset, Gracq makes us aware of the cohabitation of history and myth. The novel’s epigraph comes from Wagner’s Parsifal—the exhortation of the Grail knight Gurnemanz to the sleeping pages: “Ho there, guardians of the forest, or rather of sleep, at least awake to the dawn”—and the reference to the forest, which will play such a major part in the book as location and source of imagery, reminds us of the topography of Jünger’s novel.

The narrative, told in the third person, unfolds chronologically over twenty-one (unnumbered) sections,1 with two or three flashbacks to the childhood of lieutenant Grange, the principal character, who is in charge of three other soldiers. From Section 14 to the end we follow in detail the period from the night of May 9/10, to May 13, 1940—the same date that forms the subject of the pages in Carnets du grand chemin. (Simon in La Route des Flandres concentrates on May 17.) The action takes place in a limited space demarcated not only by the nearby hamlet and town, but still more narrowly by the maison-forte or blockhouse, the anomalous Centaur-like building which is both living quarters for Grange and his subordinates, and defensive military post. (Gracq admitted to a touch of symbolism here, explaining that the building’s construction represented “the war in the basement, peace on the first floor.”) With its cosy, almost domestic rituals, the blockhouse seems a world away from the possibility of conflict. The men’s mission is to monitor and report on the movements of the enemy, and to prevent the advance of armoured vehicles from Belgium, but these seem “improbable eventualities” as normal daily routines continue for the locals, who go about their work, their children in school, the café open for refreshment, and the possibility of war unmentioned. “Obviously nobody expects anything critical to happen here,” Grange reflects. Unlike others, he never asks leave to go to nearby Charleville (Rimbaud flickers in our memory); he is happy where he is. Later, in Section 12, when he does take a spell of leave in Paris, he finds it depressing and travels to Chinon, where he feels he has escaped to the Middle Ages, and passes a happy interval.

In Section 6 there is a dramatic development. One late November day in 1939, Grange is walking home amid a heavy mist which makes the path behind and before him equally invisible:

This journey through the forest shut in by the mist gradually led Grange towards his pet daydream; he saw in it the image of his life: he was carrying with him everything he possessed; twenty paces away the world became obscure, perspectives were blocked off, there was nothing more around him but this little halo of lukewarm consciousness, this nest cradled high up above the indistinct ground.

Grange exists in a perpetual present: we know little of his past (as usual with Gracq’s characters), he is reluctant to speculate on what the future may bring, he takes one day at a time. (A similar reflection occurs in Section 9, when Grange feels “cut off from his past and his future.”)  Ironically it is just at this moment, when he is enjoying his self-sufficiency, that he espies a “silhouette” ahead of him, which reveals itself as a young girl. Her manner is that of a child-woman, naïve yet knowing, exerting a mysterious charm; she treats Grange with informal friendliness, to which he reacts with a mixture of fascination and bewilderment. It turns out that she has seen him from her house. She tells him her name is Mona, and that she made a whirlwind marriage when barely out of school, to a young doctor who died two months later, and her father rented a house in the forest for her health (she had a shadow on her lung), where she was living when war was declared. Initially Grange feels he must protect this “little girl lost in these forests of the war,” a striking metaphorical identification; to live in the forest, as to participate in the war, is a complicated, tangled experience, full of false trails, sidetracks, obstacles and unexpected outcomes. Mona’s house, with its “charming disorder of a nursery,” like “the house of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” parallels Grange’s blockhouse; it constitutes a kind of retreat, a space where escapist dreams can be indulged, if only for a while. So, far from needing Grange’s protection, it is Mona who takes the initiative, leading him to her house where they become lovers.

Grange’s affair with Mona continues sporadically until Section 13 when he tells her she must leave while it is still possible. Notations of time are flexible: in Section 8 it is late autumn, in Section 9 late December, in Section 11 mid-January, in Section 12 “towards the end of winter”. Suddenly, in Section 13, “the month of May arrived” and the break with Mona happens. The relationship has had a dreamlike quality, a kind of interlude from historical inevitability (the reader knows, even if Grange doesn’t yet, what will happen in mid-May). The French text underlines this by an abrupt replacement of the imperfect tense by the past historic at the start of Section 13 (“Le mois de mai arriva.”) With his lack of interest in development and his day-to-day acceptance of life, Grange is psychologically open to this feeling that time has been suspended, but he also knows, intermittently, that something is coming; the sensation of delayed expectation is in tension with the atemporality of his affair. Mona is like the enchantresses of Celtic myth who snatch young warriors away, returning them to their own time after what seems a day or two but may actually be many years. She refuses to take the war seriously—her main reaction to the blockhouse is that “it’s so ugly”—and Gracq bombards the reader with images which emphasise the contrast between her life and Grange’s: we have references, on her first appearance alone, to Little Red Riding Hood, or “a schoolgirl making her way home,” “a girl playing truant,” a water-nymph, “a little sorceress from the forest,” “a young woodland animal,” “a runaway foal,” “a young bohemian and disturber of birds’ nests,” “a kitten,” “a puppy,” “supple as a faun.” Evocations of natural freedom, escapism, and benevolent magic contrast with the military world of obedience, confinement, and hostility.

A change in tone comes in Section 9, most of which is occupied by a description of an idyllic excursion which Grange and Mona make in the snowy landscape. Mona admits that she dislikes it when the day draws to a close because it reminds her of death, and Grange now sees her as a Sybil pronouncing ominous prophecies. After this section, the forest becomes in Grange’s imagination the haunt of elves and the practitioners of Sabbat rites, not the home of benevolent wood-spirits it had previously been. When he meets Mona for the last time, and urges her to leave, he realises that she has now become a burden from which he wishes to free himself. History, as it were, has defeated myth. Critics who objected to what they saw as an awkward clash of modes in the novel missed this point; the fairy-tale element is there precisely in order to be shown as unsustainable.

There are fewer passages of wider reflection on historical process than in Au Château d’Argol, for instance, but Gracq the reader of Hegel and Spengler is not wholly absent. In Section 8, Grange reads the silly season trivia in the newspapers (quoting actual items from Paris-Soir of October 1939, as the Pléiade edition informs us), in which only a missing page here and there points to censorship of war news by the higher command; otherwise one might scarcely know a war was happening. Grange then recalls reading, as a child, the newspapers from 1914 which he found in the attic of his home (as Gracq had done), in which the war featured as a mad stampede set off by a starting-pistol. Now, however, far from expecting the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Grange reflects that people feel as though in free fall, at the end of their tether:

the best thing now was “the drunken slumber on the beach”; never to such an extent had France, with the taste of nausea in its mouth, pulled the sheets over its head with this angry hand.

The quotation from Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer suggests a nation sleepwalking into catastrophe. Gracq clearly addresses the reader over Grange’s head, with something of the bitterness found in Manuscrits de guerre. Another historical comparison comes in Section 9 where a contrast is drawn between 1914, when men enlisted believing they would be back in time for the grape-harvest (“It’ll be over by Christmas” as the English saying went), and 1939 when they knew they would return, if they did return, to a world utterly unlike the one they had known. Grange feels rejuvenated by this intimation of “a brutal clean sweep which was polishing off the rubbish from the earth”—or, more grimly, “the failures,” since le déchet can have that meaning metaphorically. The aged and the sick—“useless mouths” (italicised in the French)—have left the nearby hamlets during the winter, and with the disappearance of “the elders of the tribe” in addition to “fit men” who had gone to fight, the “bitter and bracing Spring of war” makes itself felt. There is a discomforting kind of Darwinism at work here.

The first hints of the fragility of Grange’s position come in Section 7. A convoy of armoured vehicles passes by the blockhouse; the theatre-of-war show is about to start (there are references to the curtain lifting and to Grand Guignol). Grange is uneasy; a phoney war situation can be coped with, but there is always the awareness that bad news is just around the corner: “The war was not happening quickly, but by small stages.” Olivon, one of his men, speculates that the big push is imminent. Grange doesn’t want to hear this, but is forced to reassess his ideas when he shows a tank officer round the blockhouse and is advised to get out as quickly as possible. Tanks, the officer tells him, are the least of his worries; rumour has it that German sappers are on the way, who will blow the blockhouse to smithereens; Grange and his men will be caught like rats in a trap.

Once Grange returns from leave—where he notices the determination of people to ignore the threatening situation, leading their lives in a twilight world in which peace is slowly dying—events begin to move more quickly, and the tone of the novel darkens. The Germans invade Norway; nearby Moriarmé seems like a town incubating plague; the wide skies become oppressive rather than refreshing, military preparations are carried on as if in a dream. After Mona is sent away, the crucial night of May 9/10 arrives. News comes that the Germans have entered Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg, and “the mist of the phoney war lifted now.” The inhabitants of Falizes, the local hamlet, leave the area; convoys pass the blockhouse and enter the forest. As the waiting becomes intolerable, Grange recalls an idyllic childhood memory from 2 August 1914, when the whole town turned out for a picnic, looking for signs of something happening (this comes from Gracq’s own first clear memory, as an infant, of the mobilisation in his home town); the contrast between that holiday atmosphere and the present tension is marked.

From this point, events move with increasing speed. The world of Grange and his men progressively contracts as orders from above fail to arrive, defensive positions are deserted, the artillery bombardment of Belgium breaks out, and the telephone line is cut off. The men move to the lower part of the blockhouse, where they witness the retreating French troops emerge from the forest, and learn that the Germans are ten minutes away. Immediately after this, they hear explosions as the bridges of the Meuse are blown up. Both Grange’s reactions and the authorial use of mythological and literary reference fluctuate wildly. Initially, as it becomes clear that the promised rescue by the cavalry isn’t going to happen (the absurdity of sending cavalry troops out to fight artillery is blindingly obvious to the men if not to their superiors), Grange feels an exhilarating sense of freedom: answerable to no-one, he can obey Breton’s injunction—“Lâchez tout!”—which is quoted in the text. Leaving his men in the blockhouse, he goes for a walk in the direction of the frontier, and comes across an escaping Belgian soldier whose village has been destroyed by the Germans. Grange offers him shelter in the blockhouse, imaged as Noah’s ark whose inhabitants confront a new world, “now populated only by dead, light, light little souls, like the tongues of fire which flicker above the swamplands.”

This feeling of release is succeeded by fear, heroic resolution, helpless isolation and even a submission to a deserved punishment. Correspondingly, Noah’s ark is replaced by “la forêt galante de Shakespeare” (whether of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It is not clear, but the Ardennes setting makes the latter more likely) with connotations of social exile and psychological readjustment, a brief glimpse of pastoral which is in turn displaced by a flight of ravens, imagined as the ravens of Wotan (whose names were Thought and Memory). The Twilight of the Gods lurks in the background, although the phrase is not used. Experience loses its coherence and intelligibility. Finally, a German tank appears and the men fire on it, killing its crew. Respite is short-lived as the blockhouse is raked by tracer bullets, then blown open by a shell which kills two of Grange’s men. Grange escapes together with the other survivor, Gourcuff, and they seek refuge in the forest. Grange, wounded, orders Gourcuff to go on without him; he himself makes haltingly for Mona’s house, to which he still has the key; there he curls himself up on the bed as though lying down on the Elysian fields, “demobilised” as he reflects with a sardonic pun.2 He pulls the sheets over his head (an echo of the earlier reference to France’s “drunken slumber”) and falls asleep, an ironic reversal of the novel’s epigraph, which summoned the guardians of the forest to awake. Grange has turned his back on the war, and on history, to take refuge in a place with mythical associations. But is his sleep the sleep of death? When Gracq was asked this question, he replied, “The book is finished, it’s the trajectory of the book which counts. What comes after that is another matter.”


What “came after” Un balcon en forêt was also another matter, because Gracq’s fourth novel was also his last. Another nouvelle from the archive, La Maison, is scheduled to appear in late 2023,3 but it is very unlikely that any more fiction will see the light. Gracq did not, of course, cease to write—or to teach (he retired only in 1970). The major sustained work of this late period is La Forme d’une ville (1985), an evocation of his schooldays in Nantes, viewed from the perspective of an adult who is aware how both he and the city have changed—a textbook fusion of history and geography. He also published several collections drawing on his notebooks: miscellanies of travel writing, reminiscence, and shrewd, unconventional literary criticism to add to the two volumes of Lettrines (1967, 1974). Entretiens (2002) collects some illuminating interviews. The notebooks continued to be quarried in Nœuds de vie (2023), but a more personal extensive batch, which he called Notules, cannot appear until 2027 under the terms of his will. The delayed encounter with History in Un balcon en forêt freed him to do other things. Like Grange, he too, but in a positive sense, was “demobilised”.


1. The sections are separated by spaces. In the separate edition published by José Corti, which is more accessible for readers than the Pléiade, the divisions occur as follows: Section 1, p. 9; 2, p. 16; 3, p. 20; 4, p. 22; 5, p. 26; 6, p. 41; 7, p. 68; 8, p. 82; 9, p. 104; 10, p. 123; 11, p. 129; 12, p, 141; 13, p. 151; 14, p. 166; 15, p. 187; 16, p. 193; 17, p. 197; 18, p. 205; 19, p. 219; 20, p. 225; 21, p. 237.
2. The reference to the Fields of Asphodel connects the novel with Gracq’s actual experiences of May 13/14, 1940, as recalled in Carnets du grand chemin. His section had travelled to Holland by train on the evening of the 13th. Their sleep had been broken by news that the Germans had crossed the Meuse at Sedan, and they had made their way in panic across country to a field where, caring nothing for the threat of enemy troops, they fell asleep from exhaustion in a field which Gracq compares to “the Fields of Asphodel for which History is now nothing but an insignificant dream.” Fiction and autobiography confront one another here only to turn away.
3. This has now been published.