Bastille Day: A Great French Novel

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

translated by Frank Davison

published 1913






Meaulnes was feeling his way towards further inquiries when a charming couple appeared in the doorway: a girl of sixteen in a velvet bodice and flounced skirt, and a young man in a coat with a high collar and trousers with foot-straps. They danced their way across the room; others followed them; then more came running, screaming, chased by a tall pierrot with whitened face in trailing sleeves, wearing a black cap, his toothless mouth stretched in a grin. He ran with long clumsy strides, half leaping, waving his empty sleeves. The girls seemed a little afraid of him, but the young men shook hands with him, while the younger children, thrilled ran ater him with piercing cries…

In the passages groups were forming for round dances and farandoles. Somewhere strings were playing a minuet…



observations: To mark France’s national day, Bastille Day, a French classic of the last century.

On a recent trip to Paris I came across something I had
never seen before: the Square des Ecrivains-Combattants Morts-pour-La France – a little garden in the 16th arrondissement created to honour the French writers who died while fighting in the First World War. (I had also never come across this French use of the word ‘square’, which is similar to the English.) It’s a pretty spot, beautifully looked-after though not apparently much used. I was expecting a list of the dead writers, perhaps pictures or statues, but there is just a noticeboard, and a tree that was planted in their honour in 2010. Only a couple of writers are mentioned at all: the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and this author, Alain-Fournier. Le Grand Meaulnes is his only substantial work, and he died in the early days of the war (September 1914) aged 27.

It’s quite difficult to describe the book, which I read and loved as a teenager. Le Grand Meaulnes (it’s a bit like being called The Great Gatsby) is the 17-year-old Augustin Meaulnes, friend of the self-effacing narrator, both at school in a small French town. One day he takes off, disappears for a couple of days. When he gets back he is mysterious and restless, he is searching for something. Eventually he tells the narrator: while lost and disorientated, he came upon a country estate, where a fete champetre was going on. It was a young people’s party with music, entertainers, fancy dress costumes. He fell in love with a young woman, spent some time with her, became involved in the story of her brother. He would like to return to this magical place, and see the magical woman again, but he never succeeds in finding it.

You never know with these things: sometimes a book you loved in youth will be shockingly bad when re-read at an elderly age. I did not have very high hopes when I started it on my return from Paris. It has to be said that the CiB chief Guest Blogger, noted for his delicate touch with a literary phrase, has this to say about the book:
I read it about once a year for good while. Never read it again after the scales fell from my grown up eyes - over the course of two or three rereadings - and I realised the narrator's normal and Meaulnes is a selfish irresponsible dickhead, rather than Meaulnes being great and the narrator being a bit of a wimp, as one feels when one's a teenager.
But I absolutely loved it (while still rather agreeing with the GB) – it completely entranced me and pulled me in, I couldn’t put it down, read the whole thing. It has such a strange and memorable atmosphere.

In fact, there’s so much to say about this book that it’s going to spill over into another entry…

With thanks to PW, the perfect Parisienne hostess, who took the modern photo.

The painting is by Jules-Alexandre Grun from the Athenaeum website.

Comments

  1. Moira - What a lovely garden you discovered! That's wonderful. I really like finding little places like that. About the book? It's an interesting premise, that's for certain. And I had to laugh at CiB's Chief Guest Blogger's description of Meaulnes. Funny isn't it how perspectives change as we mature...

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    1. It was a real Paris adventure Margot, I was delighted with what I now think of as my garden. And it was a pleasure for me to find that I still like the book a lot, unlike the Guest Blogger!

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  2. I expect I would take a revisionist view of Meaulnes and the narrator if I read it again now, with a few decades and an almost-grown-up son's worth of perspective. Maybe the staid narrator could learn a bit more than he does from Meaulnes' sense of adventure.

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    1. I mention Great Gatsby above, and there are some people who feel that Fitzgerald must have read this book, and that it influenced GG (other people think this idea is ludicrous). But I think the role of the narrator is equally problematic in both books.

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  3. I think I'll stick to Garnier and Izzo for a slice of France.

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    1. I know who Garnier is, though haven't read, but haven't even heard of Izzo. I'll have to go and look it up.... been on your blog?

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    2. Jean-Claude Izzo - I think he is another "deceased" author. I have his Marseille Trilogy - unread, of course. You wouldn't have expected me to buy them and read them would you? That's not how I work.

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    3. Yes of course, highly unreasonable. I looked him up in your blog, and you mentioned him in the same entry as Prayer for Owen Meany, and I was obviously so excited at finding an other fan of that book that I missed the Frenchman....

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    4. I'm surprised you found him TBH. I'm a lazy blogger in that I don't have tags or labels or an index... maybe I ought to do so going forward. (Or employ a secretary - while I read!)

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  4. This looks interesting (and not very long?). I read a review that compared it to Catcher in the Rye (for a different generation of course). What do you think?

    I read the first book in Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy and it is very noir. My comments at the time I read it (on goodreads) were "A lot too hard-boiled for my personal tastes. I liked reading about the racial tensions in the city and getting a (different) picture of French life. The book is well written and kept me interested. But I probably won't read the rest of the trilogy." Have reconsidered since but don't have the other two so... who knows.

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    1. Well - given the length of the current pile AND list I probably won't be looking at Izzo any time soon. Maybe if it turns up somewhere. At the moment I'm having a real go at the TBR pile....

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  5. Speaking of France and clothes in French novels, are you familiar with The Killing by Zola? The heroine, if such she can be called, has some of the most stunning dresses I've ever seen described -- and that's only in the first few chapters. I see what you mean about Meaulnes, though I still think it's a great novel.

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    1. Oh great tipoff Harriet, thanks very much. I have not read much by Zola, and will certainly seek that one out. And yes, overall my old-person's verdict on the Alain-Fourner was still good!

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