Julien Gracq (1910-2007) was the pseudonym of Louis Poirier, a geography and history teacher whose first novel, Au Chateau d’Argol was dubbed the first surrealist novel. Balcony in the Forest (Un Balcon en forêt) his final novel, published in 1958, is poetic in intent rather than surrealist.

Although he was widely revered, not least by fellow writers, the French novelist and pedagogue shunned publicity and self-promotion, declining no less than three requests from President Mitterand to dine at the presidential residence. The celebrated author also refused the Prix Goncourt which he won for his 1951 novel, Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore). In 1970, Gracq retired from teaching and returned to his hometown of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil in Western France, where he lived with his sister until her death in 1996.

In 1940, as a lieutenant in the French army, Julien Gracq had been captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. Balcony in the Forest draws to some degree on Gracq’s war experiences, though there is no imprisonment for his reflective protagonist, Lieutenant Grange.

The action takes place in the French Ardennes on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Four French soldiers are posted to a blockhouse (a small fortified dwelling, consisting of  a simple two-story structure from which defenders can fire in various directions) at Hautes Falizes, close to the actual village of Les Falizes, near the Belgian border and the Western Front. The men are, as Gracq would have it in one of his lightly erudite descriptions, billeted in a "still intact canton of luxuriant Gaul."

The eponymous forest is central to the story, the peculiar essence of its silence, the aspect of the high trees through the autumn and winter, the atmosphere generated by the icy weather. Gracq - who is a kind of heir to Ivan Turgenev - allows free rein to his gift for nature writing in what is a philosophical pastorale that strives constantly for a painterly effect.

It is in the forest too, on a wet evening that Lieutenant Grange meets the wraith-like young widow, Mona, with whom he subsequently enjoys a strangely unreal or phantasmagoric affair - this wood nymph is the very opposite of the kind of carefully delineated, sharp-edged femme fatale you might find in Sartre's Chemins de la Liberté triology.

Aside from his amorous adventures, Grange engages in desultory talk about the German advance on obligatory Sunday lunches with his tetchy, gnomic superior, Captain Vanier, down in the town of Moriarmé (based on Monthermé, around which the river Meuse languorously loops). A supply truck regularly travels up the hill from there to the blockhouse unit, who are allocated generous rations, including grog. All four have their own occupations and duties; they tend to stay out of each other's way, and war seems remote, an unlikely prospect. For a nine-month period after the declaration of war between Germany and the Allies, hostilities were in fact suspended.  

So, while there are the inevitable rumours and noises off, as it were, the impending conflict itself hardly impinges until the closing sections. Even then the author seems to put a brake on the potential for fast-paced narrative. Rather than being scared out of his wits, Grange is enraptured by the sight of the red glow effected by a bombing raid in distant skies. Fear does set in later, as the Germans get nearer.

It is a tribute to Gracq’s mastery that he can take the dead time of the so-called 'phony war', or Drôle de Guerre and slow down time in this 213-page classic, translated by Richard Howard.