Julien (Pseudonym of Louis Poirier) Gracq

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Sheila Gaudon

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1732

What differentiates Un Balcon en forêt from the preceding three novels of Julien Gracq [Au château d'Argol, Un beau ténébreaux, and Le rivage des Syrtes], which are based on imaginary situations, is that it is apparently concerned with historical events, namely the first seven months of the second world war in the Ardennes forest, in the district where the decisive German offensive was to take place. The events, however, provide only a broad framework in which other forces are at play. This is clearly brought home to us by the presence of an intricate intertextual network, consisting of oblique or direct references to Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Gide, Jules Verne, André Breton, Saint-John Perse, Rimbaud, Lewis Carroll and probably many others, and by an equally powerful thematic structure giving the work a type of coherence that is not dependent upon the actual historical content of the "story".

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Among the numerous literary references, there are two that are very different from the others in their scope since they play an important part in establishing the specific tonality of the book: the Wagnerian epigraph and the allusion to E. A. Poe's Domain of Arnheim….

On the most literal level, the epigraph reflects the situation of Grange and his men who are indeed "guardians of the forest," but beyond this fact, the very name of Parsifal conjures up all sorts of connotations that tend to make us forget the contemporary setting. (p. 132)

Medieval allusions are present throughout the book, together with a certain evocation of the enchanted woods of fairy tales…. This vaguely evocatory magic provides the setting in which images of enchanted sleep find their place—the deep enchanted sleep that in Wagner's Parsifal envelops the castle and forest of the wounded Amfortas…. It is the strange heavy slumber of the guardians of the Grail, pervading Gracq's own interpretation of the legend in Le Roi Pêcheur, that dominates "cette armée au bois dormant."… Sleep, the enchanted sleep of the Sleeping Beauty, figures in its very essence waiting…. The dawn which the guardians of Amfortas' castle are waiting for is neither a positive nor a negative signal. It points neither to success nor catastrophe. It says only that something will eventually happen.

The early allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's Domain of Arnheim, an account of a symbolic boat journey to a domain where the traveller may find bliss is in itself more clearly valorized. The journey related by Poe is preceded by an exposition explaining that the individual, under certain fortuitous and unusual circumstances may be happy…. Poe's hero travels by boat to the castle of Arnheim, the ideal place he has found to seek happiness. The seemingly normal boat carrying him into the maze of enchanted streams becomes a fairy bark gliding magically into still waters in the middle of which is the splendid castle of Arnheim. (pp. 132-34)

The beginning of Grange's journey from Charleville to Moriarmé follows a similar pattern. As the author establishes firmly the geographical reality, with the train following the meanders of the river between the hills, through pastures as neat as an English lawn, through ever-deepening gorges, he is also marking a fairly specific parallel with Poe's symbolical journey…. Grange's rêverie before he sleeps at the end of the first day is the departure point for a passage to a different world…. The ugliness is being left behind to be replaced by the starry night. Is this, as in Poe's tale, progressive discovery of bliss? In any event it is clear that Grange's journey up to the "Balcony in the forest", although it is presented as a real physical journey by train and army truck, is more of a movement into self, into solitude. Movement is thus replaced by immobility. What is a reality at the beginning of the book becomes symbolical, an image of movement in the stillness, which is not without its threatening aspects.

The Poe signal takes on an added significance in the light of Gaston Bachelard's reading of the Domain of Arnheim in L'Eau et les rêves…. Poe's rêverie is that of death, and the principle vehicle of his rêverie is "heavy" water…. (pp. 134-35)

When, at the end of the winter on his return from leave in Chinon Grange takes up the Parsifal theme, and asks himself what they are waiting for ("Qu'est-ce qu'on attend ici?") the question is accompanied by images of total liquefaction…. This in itself is an answer: death is already present in the sluggish oily waters—heavy waters not yet stagnant…. Although in the war context the wait for the enemy attack intensifies as spring approaches, the water imagery clearly indicates that the real action is taking place on the personal level. This is confirmed almost immediately by the complete interiorization of the landscape…. Grange is increasingly aware of something about his own personal quest. In the limbo in which he waits he has a need for and a sense of freedom….

[As the wait for the enemy attack intensifies, the] Parsifal theme (waiting), is no longer a mere impression…. [It] is clearly woven into the texture of the "récit". (p. 135)

In the pattern of a "quest", death is an accident, a possibility that may forever separate the erring knight from the object of the quest. An "adventure" in which death and truth (or meaning) are both at the end of the road, can be read more efficiently in terms of initiation than in Arthurian terms, and Un Balcon en forêt easily lends itself to this reading….

Initiation, involving originally a body of rites "to produce a decisive alteration in the religious and social status of the person to be initiated," comprising ordeals centered upon ritual death followed by rebirth to a new condition, is a spiritual preparation for the understanding of the world of the society in which it takes place. It is based on the sacrality of the cosmos, and man undergoing the experience gains access, through his initiation, to the values of the spirit. Grange undergoes a personal form of initiation…. (p. 136)

In Un Balcon en forêt the first "initiation signal" appears in the first sentence of the book. Grange's military rank is that of "aspirant". Thus the candidate for initiation, the novice, doubles from the outset the officer-candidate. He is also travelling away from his normal environment without knowing where he is being taken, a recurrent feature of initiation patterns, where the novice may even be blindfolded….

The very setting "A Balcony in the forest", high above the Meuse evokes another essential feature of initiatory rites: in many primitive religions the candidate is led up into a forest to undergo the ordeals—he will be as near as possible to the heavens in order to reach out to the cosmos, and to be able to receive more easily the consecration sought. (p. 137)

The rupture in continuity, Grange's break with his normal life, is stressed by the total absence at the beginning of the récit to his past life and by the new rhythm assumed once the first conditions of the initiation have been established. Life in the military setting vegetates. The monotony, the semi-paralysis of the French military is englobed almost exclusively in a descriptive mode: all actions, the regular descents to Moriarmé, all conversations—even if they could be presumed to have taken place only once,—are related in the imperfect tense, thus integrating them into a background, removing from them all contours, and excluding any precision from this first season in the forest. (p. 138)

Grange does not sleep at night, and his extreme sensitivity to the night sounds echoes another characteristic of the novice's period of ordeals. He remains conscious, present in the world, receptive, while others sleep: darkness is menacing, but this is part of the trial…. Grange is semiaware of the cosmos but is unable to reach its true meaning because like Parsifal, he does not know what question to ask. His journey through the ordeals will prove whether he has the spiritual capacities necessary to make the required ontological change.

However, no change of this kind is possible without a mediator, an initiator, and it is as he is returning one Sunday afternoon from Moriarmé through the misty cloistered forest, daydreaming, that the "aspirant" encounters his initiator: Mona. Although women cannot themselves undergo the initiatory trials, they are frequently the initiators—the taking of the neophyte to a woman's hut symbolizing once more a return to the cosmic womb, and often comprising what Eliade describes as an "ambivalent sexual pantomime" involving a risk of death. (pp. 138-39)

Mona is under the sign of water, poetically symbolical of transiency…. [The] omnipresence of water imagery … gives the novel a perfect coherence on the thematic level and reinforces the link between initiation and death. (p. 139)

[When] Grange, wounded, is himself facing physical death, it is entirely on the individual level that he meets it. He experiences the release, the freedom sought, the terminal calm of a person free from all bonds. The return to the personal level is complete. One sign of this is the absence of the pronoun "on" from the final pages. (p. 144)

The final page contains both the poetic image of Grange letting himself sink into the sweet silence, the peace of a field of asphodels, and that of a weary man pulling the blanket over his head and going to sleep. To sleep, to die. To sleep, perchance to dream? (p. 145)

To see in Grange a second Parsifal, or a passenger for the Domain of Arnheim, would require, in my opinion, a serious distortion of the [structure of Un Balcon en forêt]: there is no grail to be found, no ultimate bliss to be attained. The adventure is pure movement and there is no answer to the questions asked…. His is purely a secular world, in which initiation patterns lead nowhere. This critical interpretation of the "magical" framework is … prominent in the book…. One could perhaps characterize Gracq's art in Un Balcon en forêt by this ability to convey meaning through images which break the surface of the narrative…. (p. 146)

Sheila Gaudon, "Julien Gracq's 'Un Balcon en forêt': The Ambiguities of Initiation," in Romanic Review (copyright © by the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York; reprinted by permission), March, 1976, pp. 132-46.

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