This is a 1959 novel by the French writer Julien Gracq. In this novel we find ourselves on the defensive lines between the German and French borders (or at least within the combat paths of the German army) in 1939 awaiting the imminent attack. We follow Lieutenant Grange as he commands or at least waits to command his small force guarding a French pillbox and observation post. While waiting for whatever is to come he begins an affair with a local woman named Mona. As the attacks approaches, something that we are aware as readers from the sense of foreshadowing and looming terror that overtakes the small command post, but also from a heavy dosage of dramatic irony, Grange and Mona continue their affair and begin to wonder what if any future they might have together. This last element also highlights the sheer myopia and selfishness of humans facing down mortality, to drag another person along with us in our potential downfall and sadness.
For me this novel is like several other novels, but specifically in the way of “Like ____________ but not”. So for one, it’s a lot of like A Farewell to Arms but for the actual facing down of the enemy that Grange never really shies away from. And it’s also a lot like Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe but for the sense of real danger and combat, so much as a enemyless frontier. The writing is spare and direct, and as a arrogant American (at least in archetype) a heavy reminder of the cost and sacrifices that the French people did put themselves through in WWII.
There are hours when it seems as if a heavy palm were pressing hard upon the earth, full of darkness, like the butcher’s hand as he quickly, gently, strokes the calf’s frontal bone before bringing down the felling-ax; and at its touch, the earth itself senses the blow and shrinks; as though the very light had turned sour, the morning winds blowing hot and heavy. No interpretable sign has come, but the anxiety is there, in the suddenly thickened air: all at once a man feels neither hunger nor thirst, but only his courage draining away, and he begins to breather heavily, as if the world were weighing on his heart.