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.
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.