Goethe has distracted me from Alain-Fournier. I had hoped to pursue the Goethean thread, but I am not sure many people would understand what I was talking about, and I am less sure that I would understand it, either, so perhaps that should wait for another day.
I’ve wondered if a Goethe re-read is in order. Goethe was a titan, but I am not sure any single work conveys his capaciousness. He was, among other things, almost beyond form, meaning that his novels and memoirs and plays and poems do not look quite like novels and plays and so on should look, except that “should” is then demonstrably wrong.
Generations of German-language writers have benefitted from Goethe’s expansion of literary form. Judging by the most recent German novel I read, a Jenny Erpenbeck novel that takes its title from Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering (1821), they are not yet free of him.
Alain-Fournier borrows liberally from Goethe – form, theme, scenes, and, I suspect, images. This is what I mean – I should go back to those Wilhelm Meister novels, and Elective Affinities, and [insert long list here]. Le Grand Meaulnes works within, for example, Goethe’s all-encompassing “renunciation” framework. This is how I cope with the mass of Goethe, by the way – I reduce him to one word that I barely understand. Goethe = renunciation.
I detected Goethe most strongly in Alain-Fournier’s theatrical interlude, right in the center of the book, where I picked up whiffs of the theatrical troupe arguing about Hamlet in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and young Goethe or young Wilhelm, or both, staging puppet spectaculars. But I do not quite remember the equivalent of the clown’s “falling act” in Goethe:
And every time, as he fell, he gave a little cry, different every time, an unbearable little cry, in which distress and satisfaction were equally mixed. At the climax of the act, climbing on a heap of chairs, he made a tremendous, very slow fall, and his shrill, agonized wail of triumph lasted as long as the fall did, accompanied by gasps of terror from the women in the audience. (II.7.)
That may well be an act Alain-Fournier witnessed himself, but whatever its source, it is powerfully strange, as uncanny as Adalbert Stifter at his woozy best. What does it mean? It must mean something, yes?
This act is followed by a puppet show – I had known, per Goethe, that there would be puppets – although this puppet is actually “a little doll, stuffed with bran” that the falling clown has had hidden in his sleeve the entire time:
In the end, he made all the bran that was inside her emerge from her mouth. Then, with doleful little cries, he filled her up with porridge and, at the moment of greatest concentration, when all the spectators were watching open-mouthed and all eyes were on the poor pierrot’s slimy, tattered little doll, he suddenly grasped her in one hand and threw her with all his strength into the audience…
Suddenly, I forget where I got the idea that Le Grand Meaulnes is much like Proust, or Hoffmann, or Goethe, or any other book ever written.