Monday, April 18, 2011

haggard and distraught, the gypsy in his carnival dress - the weird and wonderful Alain-Fournier

Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) is a tricky little thing.  A charismatic new boy comes to school, and our lives would never be the same, and we all remember that magical summer, and on like that.  We have all read, or seen, plenty of versions of this story. They are rarely as well-written, or as surprising, as Alain-Fournier’s little novel.

The first surprise – this one comes early – is that the magical event is not caused by The Great Meaulnes, the natural leader, the friend of every schoolboy, but actually happens to him.  The narrator has to spend the rest of the novel assembling the fragments of the story.  It is as if Mary Poppins, rather than taking the Banks children on adorable adventures,  instead disappears for a long weekend, cannot quite explain what happened to her, and is frankly never again such a good nanny, always somehow distracted.

Let’s have a sample of Alain-Fournier:

The children, waking up in fright, pressed closer to one another, saying nothing.  And while he [Meaulnes] was shaking the window, with his face pressed to the pane, thanks to a bend in the road, he noticed a white shape running along.  It was the tall pierrot from the party, haggard and distraught, the gypsy in his carnival dress, carrying in his arms a human body , which he was holding against his chest.    Then they vanished.  (I.17.)

So that’s another difference from the usual schoolboy coming-of-age stories:  Le Grand Meaulnes is really desperately weird.  It keeps shifting back and forth between some semblance of ordinary life and these eruptions or invasions from Dream-world, often with no preparation, leaving the reader, or me, at least, pleasantly disoriented.   Not that I haven’t seen this before.  Le Grand Meaulnes is one of the two most German French stories I have ever read, if you know what I mean.  Maybe I’ll explain tomorrow.  This is another surprise, another trick, since the novel begins with an invocation that reminds me of that other great French novel of 1913:

At least, this is how I imagine our arrival today; because whenever I try to recapture the distant memory of that first evening, waiting in our courtyard at Saint-Agathe, what I remember are, in fact, other times of waiting, and I see myself with both hands resting on the bars of the gate, anxiously looking out for someone coming down the main street. (I.1.)

But Alain-Fournier’s search for lost time is of a different character and tone than Proust’s.

My understanding is that Le Grand Meaulnes is a genuinely beloved novel in France, spiritual kin to The Little Prince, Little Women and The Catcher in the Rye.  Why it is not better known to American readers is perplexing.  Is it the title, just the title?  Translators always want to fix it.  The Penguin Classics edition I read, translated by Robin Buss, goes with The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes), an admirable surrender.

The Great Meaulnes would be a fine title, accurate and perfectly, ironically analogous to The Great Gatsby, but I suppose we’re still stuck with the peculiar-looking Meaulnes.  It is very close to “moan” – now slip in the “l,” but gently, please, and go easy on the “n.”  Close enough, unless I am wrong – please let me know.


  1. Beloved not just in France, but as far as I can tell in Germany and Italy too. I keep tripping across it, most recently in an essay by Umberto Eco, also an enthusiast.

    My edition is translated as The Lost Domain, but I keep putting it to be bottom of my to-read pile. A book that was loved by Beauvoir and Kafka is somehow daunting.

  2. No kidding - Kafka? But it's easy to see why. Alain-Fournier, like Kafka, was a disciple of Goethe (and Hoffmann and etc). I'll try to write about this a bit tomorrow.

    Funny how we pick up these ideas. This is not a daunting book! But, sure, you want some glimpse of what these great readers got out of it. Risky.

  3. In search of lost time indeed...

    I love this book, a standard French A-Level text in England, I think. I have seen translations recently entitled 'The Magnificent Meaulnes', which (while correct) just doesn't have the ring of the original.

  4. The Magnificent Meaulnes has a pleasing, Gatsby-like alliteration, but sounds a little affected in English. Given the theatrical theme in the novel, though, a certain affectedness is appropriate. The Magnificent Meaulnes would look good on a poster.

  5. I first heard about Le Grand Meaulnes via Simone de Beauvoir's early memoirs, and made it onto my to-be-bought-in-France list; whenever I mention it to any of my French friends they all rhapsodize about it. I'm glad you're spending a little time with it since despite all the accolades I actually had no idea what it was, you know, ABOUT. I was going to read it anyway, but a little background is always nice. Especially if it assures me of "desperately weird" elements in the book.

  6. About: alpha kid accidentally goes to a party. Things get weird. Then they return to normal. They they get weird again.

    Yeah, Emily, you will likely do pretty well with this one.

  7. Yeah, that name Meaulnes just doesn't work in English. It's too bad.

    I'm also curious why the book isn't better known in the English-speaking world. One of the women in my book group, in her early fifties, told me that she and all her friends (and the rest of France and Francophone Switzerland) went through a Meaulnes period, where they all dressed like characters in the book.

  8. Dressed like the characters!

    Alain-Fournier is quite specific about clothes, though - schoolboy uniforms, party costumes, dresses. Why not?

  9. Now I know you liked it.

    I confirm it's really a beloved novel in France, like The Little Prince or Le Diable au Corps. Perhaps a little old-fashioned though.

    The untimely death of the writer increases the appeal of the book, I think.

  10. I assume that I have a lot more distance from Alain-Fournier and his sad death than do his French readers. I am sure you are right about how his young death adds, for many readers, to the romance of his novel.

    I did not know that Radiguet's novel fell into a similar category.