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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

Le Grand Meaulnes, being one of those volumes that most good writers turn to at some point in their career, is arguably one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.

Here’s a sample:

They pulled up beside a wood of firs. The passengers had to wait a moment on the gangway, pressed against one another, while one of the boatmen unlocked the gate . . . What were Meaulnes’ feelings afterwards as he recalled this moment when, on the banks of the lake, he had so near to his own the face of this girl – a face that was then lost to him! He had stared at that exquisite profile with every atom of his eyes until they were ready to fill with tears. And he remembered seeing, like a tender secret that she had entrusted to him, a little powder remaining on her cheek . . .

Once on dry land, everything happened as though in a dream. While the children were running around shouting with glee, and groups were forming and spreading out among the trees, Meaulnes walked along an avenue with the young woman ten paces ahead of him. Before he had time to think, he was beside her, and said simply, ‘You are beautiful.’

But she hurried on, without replying, and set off down a side path. Others ran up, playing among the trees, all going off in whatever direction they wished, obeying only their own whims. The young man deeply regretted what he called his clumsiness, his crassness, his stupidity. He was wandering aimlessly, sure that he would not see the delightful creature again, when suddenly he saw her coming towards him and unable to avoid them meeting on the narrow path. She was holding back the folds of her large cloak with her two ungloved hands. She was wearing open black shoes. Her ankles were so slender that they sometimes bent and you were afraid that they would snap.

This time, he bowed and very quietly said, ‘Will you forgive me?’

‘I forgive you,’ she said, gravely. ‘But I must go back to the children, since they are in charge today. Farewell.’

Augustin begged her to stay a moment longer. He spoke to her so awkwardly, but with such confused emotion and agitation in his voice that she slowed down and listened to him.

‘I don’t even know who you are,’ she said at last. She spoke each word in an even tone, with the same emphasis on every one, but saying the last in a softer voice . . . Then her face became impassive again; she bit her lip a little and her blue eyes stared into the distance.

‘And I don’t know your name, either,’ Meaulnes replied.

They were now following a path in the open and, some distance away, could see the guests gathering around a house isolated in the open countryside.

‘That’s Frantz’s house,’ the young woman said. ‘I have to leave you . . .’

She paused, looking at him for a moment with a smile, and said, ‘My name? I’m Mademoiselle Yvonne de Galais . . .’

Then she was gone.

Le Grand Meaulnes, as a title is almost exactly equivalent to Scott-Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And the similarities between these two novels don’t end there. In both cases there is the enchanted estate, the guests, the festivities, and perhaps more telling, the green lanterns. In both novels the narrator is an habitual onlooker and the hero never less than charismatic. Fitzgerald was, of course, in France (he wrote The Great Gatsby during the summer and autumn in Valescure near St. Raphael), and was obviously influenced by Alain-Fournier’s work.

The first part of Le Grand Meaulnes paints a wonderful evocation of that magic period of childhood when adolescence is, perhaps, expected, but has still not arrived. The plot, which I shall refrain from supplying here, because it would simply sound ridiculous, revolves around the concept of lost worlds. Alain-Fournier casts a spell over his readers, and we suspend disbelief willingly, not wanting the novel to end. And there is a sense in which the spell carries on working long after the last page has been read and the book consigned to its place on the shelf

Alain-Fournier’s own experiences as a young man are intricately connected with the plot of Le Grand Meaulnes:

On June 1, 1905, Ascension Day, Alain Fournier, a young 18 years student walked out of an exhibition of the Grand Palais in Paris and was suddenly faced with the girl of his dreams. He followed the young woman along the Cours La Reine, then on a boat until her home, 12Bd Saint Germain. He returned frequently to her home and his perseverance was later rewarded.

On June 10, he saw her face in a window. The young woman seemed surprised but smiled at him.

The next day, Pentecost, early in the morning, he saw the young woman leaving her home with a prayer book in the hand. He followed her to the trolley and whispered to her as she boarded ” You are beautiful “. She ignored him but he continued to follow her to the church. At the end of the mass the two had a “long, beautiful, strange and mysterious conversation”. She asked him his name and then he asked for hers. She hesitated a second, but looking him straight in the eye and with great confidence she said with pride, “My name? I am Miss Yvonne de Quiévrecourt.”

Unfortunately, she asks that he does not try to see her again as she is engaged.

This encounter changed Fournier’s life and provided the basis for Le Grand Meaulnes.

In 1906, exactly one year after their first encounter, he returned to the street where he had first seen her, hoping to see her again. He later wrote to his friend Jacques Rivière “She did not come. Even if she had, she would not have been the same girl.” That year he failed his entrance exam.

The following year, not only did he fail his exam again, but he also learned that Yvonne de Quièvrecourt had gotten married.

The Alain-Fournier Biography.

Le Grand Meaulnes offers its young protagonists a glimpse of total bliss and the dream of absolute happiness. It offers magic, briefly. This is a novel of wistful enchantment and one of the saddest books I know, sometimes unbearably so. That its young author should have been swept away by the ridiculous killing fields of World War I is both tragic and absurd.

“Once a man has taken a step in Paradise, how can he afterwards get used to living like everyone else? The things that make up the happiness of other people seemed ludicrous to me.” Augustin Meaulnes.

9 Responses to “Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier”

  1. Rachel Fox says:

    I did this book for A level and we had a fairly airy-fairy French teacher (who we mocked relentlessly of course). All I remember thinking about the book is ‘why is he so obsessed with how she looks/looked – how cheesey/boring!’ I suppose I should read it again…doubt I will though.

    jb says: I don’t know if it’s still so, but some teachers of literature have much to answer for.

  2. Rachel Fox says:

    Well, I had very good English (and Spanish) teachers…you can’t win ’em all!

    jb says: Spanish, French AND English, Rachel. Sounds like a posh school. We just got English and Globish.

  3. Rachel Fox says:

    Oh yes. I am well posh.

  4. Margaret Wilde says:

    This book was one of the 3 books discussed on Radio 4’s “A Good Read” this afternoon – – and will be repeated on Fri 4 Jun 2010 at 23:00
    BBC Radio 4.

    I heard the story read many years ago on Radio 4 and it left me with a wistful blurred recollection of not-quite-remembered memory which I remain reluctant to disturb by actually reading the book…

    jb says: Thanks for the info, Margaret. Might be nice to hear it read.

  5. Ian Greenwood says:

    I bought this book in February 1970, began reading it on the train… and then put it down. Forty years later I’ve read it at last… (forgive the ellipses – A-F has rather a lot of them and it’s catching…)

    No. I failed with it again: couldn’t get on with the ever-present symbolism (which I was unable to interpret very easily), the plot-holes and coincidences, the tricks whereby (especially near the end) the narrator has to tell us stuff he can never otherwise have known, maybe the translation even. Those ellipses seem merely portentous, signalling to us that something important but unsayable is afoot – but I don’t see why it is unsayable, except that had he lived, A-F might very well have found ways of saying it in his maturity. As it is, we are left to admire the ‘unsayable’ as if it were a literary virtue. I’m not convinced.

    I suspect there’s a French sensibility at work here which conflicts with something essentially English that is more prosaic and down-to-earth. This may sound like a simplistic ‘national characteristics’ approach, but what I know of French literature (too little) and cinema (a bit more) bears it out, at least on a personal level.

    The whimsical, capricious, often utterly wrong choices made in adolescence and recalled as rueful, mysterious nostalgia are fertile ground for the writer or film-maker. Le Grand Meaulnes reminded me (same period, different continent) a little of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and rather more (entirely different period) of Lindsay Anderson’s film If…. (those ellipses again!). My critics will doubtless reprove me for my inability to make serious literary parallels – but that’s been a weakness of mine ever since I first bought this book, thinking it would enlighten me in the great matter of my own Yvonne de Galais of those times!

  6. Cyrille says:

    I was lucky to read Le Grand Meaulnes at the age of 43, when most French people are forced to read it whilst at college. I found it both enchanting and saddening. I don’t know whether it has anything to do with my “French sensibility,” I sure have a taste for nostalgia.
    If you fall for that kind of cocktail, then I cannot recommend enough the poems and novels by Andre Hardellet (1911-1974), whose characters also spend their lives searching for lost, probably imaginary geographies, not unlike Marcel in La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I don’t know whether Andre Hardellet has been translated into English but if you know some French, his books shouldn’t been too difficult to read. If you give it a try, please let me know what you thought.

  7. Sarah says:

    I absolutely loved this book. It was recommended to me by a chap in my local waterstones and I couldn’t put it down, it was such a beautiful read!

    I’m desperately looking for more beautiful books to read so if you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.

    Personally I’m a big fan of a lot of the Persephone Books and in particular Little Boy Lost which is another charming and emotional story.

  8. Stephen Kirby says:

    I just listened to a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on AF from last Thursday. It was interesting and enjoyable, and googling found your blog. Many years back a friend pulled this book from a bookshop shelf and asked if I had read it, which I hadn’t. He insisted I buy it and read it, saying it was the sort of book that changed one’s life. I shall be forever grateful, and I have given it as a present to friends and relatives on about 6 occasions. They all, like me, fell in love with it. I plan to re-read it now. I love the evocation of place in the story, and the way the pace picks up as it goes along, and also as you said I never wanted it to end.

  9. Bill Saunders says:

    Dear John Baker:
    I learned of “Le Grand Meaulnes” from the “Economist” article
    of Dec. 22, 2012. When I think of all the years I studied French
    literature in school I am surprised I never encountered it. I
    bought an English translation and read it with fascination. At length I was disappointed with the events that followed Augustin’s enchanted evening at the lost estate. Fournier began with a tantalizing idea for a mystery that captivates the reader
    but then it seems to me let it dribble off into banal recitation of schoolboy trivia, illogical and inconsistent behavior improbable coincidences and finally a thoroughly unsatisfying ending. I think it looks like the first work of an inexperienced
    25 year old author. I wonder what Fournier might have done with it had he lived longer and published it later in life.