A Balcony in the Forest

Poetry / to stage

How do I introduce this to you?
A Balcony in the Forest is a book – we’re not very advanced.
A book by a French author: I hope you are reassured.
A 20th century author – you can worry – but not too much yet.

I don’t know if it’s a novel or a long poem, or a kind of reportage with a very strange writing.
On the cover, it says: novel.
But inside, between the pages, you will find a kind of reportage with a very strange writing, very visual, so visual and sound that the words disappear in favor of images and sounds: hence the poetry.

Wait, let me start again –
Un Balcon en Forêt/ A Balcony in the Forest is a novel by Julien Gracq that is so bizarre and curious and strange that it is -still- a book that has not interested anyone.
Not intellectual enough to be taken to the top by our fussy French elites – when you understand – and I do – it’s necessarily that the book is pretty bad. As an intellectual book, Gracq wrote better: read his The Road and come back to talk to me about intellectual stuff.
A Balcony… is not novel enough to pass in the general public
Not poetic enough – besides, in France, you say poetry and everyone runs away. It’s a bit like introducing garlic to a vampire.

So here we are – again! – with something that is impossible to create on stage and even more impossible to sell.
If it doesn’t look like that, it’s no fun.

And then I cheat, of course. I’ve already played this game with this book – that’s the advantage of being a teacher, you have to invent things so that the students madly love what you make them do.

The point of attachment of all these young people with this book, it is of a legendary simplicity: it is the war.

I said it was a strange story and it is.
Perhaps – if you are not French it is very unlikely – you knew that France, in 1939, listening only to its courage, had declared war on Nazi Germany.
The great war machine was launched in the autumn of 1939: general mobilization, sending the troops – just out of childhood and barely trained – to the front.

And it is there that history and narrative begin to intertwine.
France has declared war, it’s true, but in fact not so much.
It was mostly to say that our leaders were not big cowards.

And here are all our young Frenchmen, dressed in new clothes, sent to the eastern borders of France and what do we do now? Well, now we wait.
We wait and then that’s it.
We wait for the orders.
We wait for the Germans.
In short, we wait.

Then they waited.

The main character finds himself, with three other boys, in a kind of shack, in the middle of the Ardennes forest. In front of the shack: a forest road, made of dirt.
Around them: the forest, vast expanses of forest.

At the beginning, everything goes well – well, they are ready and equipped. The army provides food and the orders are: wait – watch the road – go and see what the Germans are doing, they must surely be opposite.

Soon enough, the food arrived more slowly.
Nothing happens – nothing at all.
While going to watch what the Germans were doing, the boys discovered a small hamlet with some pretty girls.

The weapons start to rust – most of the boys didn’t know how to use them at all, so how to maintain them?
They all try to explain to the French High Commander that this situation is a little too absurd.
Nothing to do – in France, when the leaders decide, they are unquestionable.

Winter is coming – it is a harsh winter in the Ardennes.
Ah well, as all leaders are deaf and pretentious fools, nobody listens to what they say anymore.
Here are the young boys in search of human warmth – they are going to participate in the activities of the few inhabitants of this immense forest. Chopping wood, bringing in wood, helping the horses up the slopes, feeding the small livestock, flirting a little, getting in exchange the quite delicious food that is cooked there.
The Germans ? still not a single one.
This story is even becoming a joke for the very young French soldiers, who were not at all military, not at all trained and of course not at all helped by their command, which was itself not at all listened to by the great French leaders.
This was called in France the “drôle de guerre”, the strange & bizarre war, the war without war, the war of those who decide nothing and want to decide nothing.

The whole book is about that: this strange war, where young people live a human experience that no one had yet dared to imagine.
I’m not going to tell you that there are no actions: there are actions, of course, but not war actions. Well, not real war.
This book is exactly about being one of those boys and feeling like you’re living a madness that just happened, without warning, and you don’t know how to get out.


He is on the small balcony of the window of their shack and every day he looks at the road where nobody comes.

He and his buddies go out hunting – go out to pick what there is to pick – go out to get food – go out to flirt – go out to the creek to wash clothes, in short, try to get by, and there is always one who guards the post – but without any way of telling his buddies.
Besides, the means to warn the command in case there were Germans, then… they also arrive.
With the Germans, no doubt.

As you know history, you know that France was swept away in May 1940.
And when you have read this book, you understand so well why France was swept away

This is the end : of the novel, of this part of the Second World War : German panzers in a small forest road, in the Ardennes forest, on May 12, 1940.

It is the youth, the war, the absurdity, the revolt against all those morons hiding behind their desks, that are the real hooks of this text. And I can assure you that these hooks work very well.

Why stage it?
Because it’s one of the most visual books I’ve ever read
Because the action is centered on one main location and there is no need for a movie,
Because this story is told by the voices of the characters and it is so easy to give their words to actors.

And then… frankly…. me who doesn’t like politics at all – this text, it’s perfect.

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Featured Image : a German bunker in the Ardennes Forest.

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