Martin Amis once said, that “the 20th century novel belongs to America” but nothing could be further from the truth, for no American has ever written such deeply elegant prose as Henri Alain-Fournier, who, at the time he penned this novel of love, the love a boy has for a girl that eventually becomes irretrievably lost, was barely out of adolescence. Fournier, whose life was to be tragically cut short, when, at the beginning of the Great War, was killed in action on the Meuse near Vaux-lès-Palameix. His death left the world thinking what could this young man have achieved, if he had lived?
In the literary world, there is often immense stigma attached to the ‘Romance novel’ and with great justification, for as the majority fall headlong in to the mawkish vats of sickly Mills & Boon brand treacle, becoming nothing more than literary kitsch, Le Grand Meaulnes could not be further away. First published in 1913, it has remained a pleasure, rediscovered by generation after generation; stirring both thought and emotion with its immensely rich and illustrative vocabulary. Seductive and arresting settings, themes and characters; all developed to the point of perfection by Fournier, dispelling the slightest verisimilitude which may lurk within its pages.
Narrated by a young boy, François, a close friend of the protagonist; the seventeen year old Augustin Meaulnes, a charismatic, anxious and restless adolescent, who has been removed from the city and all that he knows, and sent to the quiet country idyll of Sologne, which Fournier portrayed as an enchanted island; secluded, untouched, almost on another plain of existent to the rest of the world. Quite the fish out of water, Meaulnes grows increasingly frustrated and impatient with his eternally docile environment, though swiftly becoming quite the fascination with the local school boys, who bestow him with the nickname “Le Grand” (The Great) for his magnificent height. He is in constant need of adventure, and one day, he happens to meet two actors, who take him along to a masquerade ball on an enchanted estate; it is this episode, which becomes the life changing catalyst for Meaulnes, the moment he see’s the ethereal Yvonne de Galais, who is of a much higher class than the urchin like Meaulnes. He becomes infatuated; an epiphany of the heart propels him into another state of mind, of which he is never to recover. Putting aside the desire for frivolous adventure and becoming a boy possessed by the desire for love.
Meaulnes, drifting into dreamlike somnambulation, overcome with a most important mission to find this girl again. Giving one of the most poetic, impassioned and heart wrenching lines, in the book:
“I’ve kept a single image of that time, and it is already fading: the image of a lovely face grown thin and of two eyes whose lids slowly droop as they glance at me, as if her gaze was unable to dwell on anything but an inner world.”
What makes the novel even more touching, it is said to be based upon the experiences of Fournier himself; a girl with whom he met with briefly in the summer of 1905, and was to never see again. One would like think is true, but may just be a simple apocrypha, to give a greater sense of attachment for the reader. But, true or not, Fournier was a man with an undeniably deep intellect and sensitivity, and his writing can not be surpassed.
Le Grand Meaulnes is a novel best read by a man of youth and innocence, as it would be impossible for those who have become immune to life’s tragedies, where the rawness of that first lost love has faded into the mists of time, to ever resonate quite so deeply and fall under its spell in such a tremendous way.
Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier is published by Penguin Classics (2000)