Classics don’t feature too often on my list and when they do, I tend to be attracted towards the Russian and French classics, because they offer an element of the unknown and the unfamiliar. I like reading across cultures and am fortunate to live within a culture that provides me with learning opportunities every day, whether I read the literature or not. But reading it adds so much more to the experience and to interactions with local people.
I had come across references to Le Grand Meaulnes a few times and nearly brought it home with me after visiting West End Lane Books in London last October, leaving it behind on that occasion, but purchasing Brodeck’s Report, which I have since read and Alistair Grayling’s non-fiction work Friendship, of which I read a few pages and found it a little dense, not yet abandoned, but left for a rainy day.
Le Grand Meaulnes crossed my path again via NetGalley, where I learned of the centenary version below which coincides with the 100th anniversary of Fournier’s death. This version translated by Frank Davison, published by Oxford University Press.
I decided – enough – stop reading ABOUT the book and READ the book!
And then what joy, to find myself in the company of Hermione Lee who has written such a wonderful introduction filling us in on Alain-Fournier’s life, that I could almost write an entire post on the gems she shares her excellent essay. She writes of the unique captivation this book has held over generations of readers and the literary qualities that have allowed it to continue to survive as a modern classic.
“Alain-Fournier’s only novel maps an imaginary vision onto a real landscape. It is the story of his childhood, transformed into a romantic quest. It is set in real places which he had known all his life, with real names of villages and towns and shops and train stations, but it takes us on mysterious journeys to places that seem to belong to a fairy tale.” Hermione Lee.
The title itself and its translation present a dilemma, as it is not possible to translate all that it means in one expression, it is a play on words, for it is the nickname of one of the chief characters and a reference to an estate, a château that he will search for in vain.
For a man who died at 28, Alain-Fournier lead a full and dramatic life, making one wonder what more he may have accomplished had he not been killed tragically in 1914 shortly after being called up to fight in WWI. The drama continued after his death, as this one book that he wrote became a cult sensation and created a feud over his legacy, complicated further by the split between his parents, claims by his sister and her husband (Fournier’s best friend) and the married women Simone (whose husband he had ghost written a book for) whom he’d had an affair with, who aborted his unborn child.
One gets the impression having read Le Grand Meaulnes, that having addressed childhood, the author was just warming up for an entire litany of novels, drawing on the many experiences and emotions he had already encountered in such a short life.
“His longing for his childhood places and his desire to turn that emotion into writing was one of the fundamental impulses behind Le Grand Meaulnes.”
Beginning in the 1890’s, Le Grand Meaulnes is narrated by the quiet, unassuming Seurel, a boy whose life at the schoolhouse is relatively uneventful until Meaulnes, nicknamed Le Grand Meaulnes arrives and just as soon disappears, only to return again.
The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes at a small provincial secondary school sets in train a series of events that will have a profound effect on his life. Lost and alone, he stumbles upon an isolated house, mysterious revels, and a beautiful girl. Determined to find the house again, and the girl with whom he has fallen in love, Meaulnes is torn between his love and competing claims of loyalty and friendship.
It is a story of a childhood and adolescence told by one who observes, follows, understands and tries to assist, at the expense of living his own life to fulfilment. What happened to his friend in those few days he disappeared will obsess both boys thereafter, one because he wants to know what happened and the other because he wants to return there and cannot remember the way.
The books first pages are narrated when Seurel is five, the main story taking place when he is 15 and Meaulnes is 18 and will end when Seurel is almost 20. Whenever Meaulnes is present, there is an air of drama. Life and even his character take on a different aspect for Seurel when his friend is there, and when he is not, he mulls over what has passed and tries to make sense of it, and at times even do something about it.
“Meaulnes gone, I was no longer following in the footsteps of a visionary path-finder; I was once more a village lad like the rest of them – a status which demanded no effort and concurred with my own inclinations.”
It is a nostalgic read, somewhat melancholy, infused with an air of pending tragedy – and reminiscent of the life of the author. It creates an ambiance of short-lived joy and then loss, one that is repeated often. We don’t read for the destination, but for the journey and its distractions, for the differences between characters facing the same situations. In this, it is a microcosm of humanity on a small scale during one phase of life, youth.
It is symbolic, not just of the end of childhood and romantic notions, but the end of an era of narrative style, published at the same time as Proust’s Swann’s Way, hailed as something new and a sign of the way forward for French literature, part of the new modernist movement, whilst Le Grand Meaulnes represented the end of the romantic tradition.
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.