Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier’s gentle little 1913 novel, is a German novella snuck into French. It’s ancestors are not, decidedly not, Balzac or Hugo or, despite some fine writing, Flaubert. I reserve judgment, due to my ignorance, about Zola, although I suspect that Alain-Fournier is an anti-Zola, opposed to each and every Zola-esque principle.
I can see hints of Alain-Fournier in Rousseau and Chateaubriand, but I really know only one French precursor, Gérard de Nerval’s gentle little 1853 novella Sylvie. I called Nerval “the most Germanic of French writers” – Alain-Fournier joins him. Both stories are mixes of the idyllic and the ordinary; both feature heroines who are idealized to the point of unreality but also turn out to be characters with their own points of view and autonomy; both feature elaborate fêtes champêtres, country parties that take on strange dream-like qualities. The parties are crucial.
Nerval and Alain-Fournier are borrowing their structures, and those parties, from Goethe and his followers, from Elective Affinities (1809) and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), and from any number of stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann. A typical Hoffmann plot, or at least one that he used many times, involves young lovers who continually change identities, guided, perhaps, by a wizard figure. Magic is common, but is seldom quite fixed in the real world; dreams or drunkenness or excess tobacco or high spirits are likely culprits of the hallucinations and weirdness. The characters are shuffled around until they end up in the right combination, and the fête, often a literal one, a carnival or masked ball, ends along with the tale. I’m thinking of Princess Brambilla here, but The Golden Pot and many other Hoffmann stories – honestly, too many – work similarly.
Alain-Fournier moves the Surrealist party, where, in this case, the activities are planned by children, and the guests are either juvenile or elderly (except, of course, for the wandering commedia dell’arte clowns), up into the beginning of the book, and thus makes it more of a violation of the ordinary world. The dream world is introduced dramatically, and then vanishes. But somehow it seeps into the “real” world, until by the end of the novel there is no point in trying to separate them.
Silently, while the young woman carried on playing, he went back and sat at the dining-room table where, opening one of the large red books scattered around it, he absent-mindedly began to read.
Almost immediately one of the children who had been on the ground came over, clasped his arm and clambered up on his knee so that he could look at the same time, while another did the same from the other side. Then it was a dream like the one he used to have. For a long time, he could imagine that he was in his own house, married, one fine evening. And that the charming stranger playing the piano, close by, was his wife . . . (I.14., chapter-ending ellipses in original)
Readers made anxious by violations of their received notions of “realism,” beware.