World War 1 Anniversary: Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

translated by Frank Davison

published 1913




‘So there’s going to be a wedding,’ Augustin concluded. ‘But is this place run by children?... What a very strange domain!’

He was tempted to leave his hiding-place and ask where he could get something to eat and drink. He straightened up, and saw the second group of children walking away: three little girls in straight frocks that just reached their knees. They wore pretty hats tied with ribbon, a white feather curling down at the back. One of them, half turning towards her companion, listened while the latter embarked on a complicated explanation, marking her points with a finger in the air.

‘I should only frighten them,’ thought Meaulnes, with a rueful glance at his torn smock, and the uncouth belt that was part of his uniform as a pupil of Sainte-Agathe.




observations: This is the second entry on the book: read the first one here to get up to speed.

AS we mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, Le Grand Meaulnes is a reminder of the lost talent: the author died in September 1914, aged 27, leaving this book as his main memento - but not the only one: below is a tree planted in his honour in Paris. See the earlier entry for more details of the garden for fallen French writer-soldiers.



There are endless questions about Le Grand Meaulnes: did any of it really happen, was it just in his imagination? He is searching for something, but is it in fact his lost youth, his innocence, or something that doesn’t exist? The book title is sometimes translated as The Lost Domain, although domain (as in the extract above) does not have the same implications in English as it does in French. It is also sometimes called The Wanderer, which is the fate of Meaulnes. After the extraordinary, spell-binding opening section, parts 2 and 3 follow him and his friends over many years, with a winding plot and some dramatic events – one reasonable description of the plot is that it is ‘operatic’. (And it is undoubtedly the first third of the book that has given the book its reputation).

When I was young I assumed the whole thing was a kind of fairytale (trying so hard, now, not to say ‘he wandered into EuroDisney’): one noticeable thing is that Meaulnes takes off just before Christmas, and it is freezing cold with a glacial blasting wind, but at the lost domain there is no particular mention of cold weather, and all the young people partying are going out on the river, wearing their costumes outside, light dresses etc etc. But then, when he gets back he does seem to have the embroidered waistcoat from his party costume.

Who knows?

But do English-speaking people read it any more? When I was a teenager, it was something of a cult classic – a lot of people who did French A Level had it as a set text, and they passed it around (in English of course). But modern students of French don’t seem to know it, and when I asked on Twitter there was very little response. Apparently it comes high on any favourite books polls in France, where it is perhaps still studied in schools. (And Sophie, the privately-educated teenage daughter in Harriet Lane’s Her, is studying it for A Level.)

One side-issue: I had an exciting translation incident concerning the book.

I decided to get it onto my Kindle as well. And now I think this was a first: I paid £1.49 for a translation which had been done by a computer programme: I am fairly certain someone had merely put the text through the programme and packaged the result. My favourite sentence in the Turing Test version is this:
Then it was filled with a Chinese pencil compass and fun instruments that went by the left bank, sliding silently, stealthily, hand in hand, in the books, that Mr Seurel could not see anything.
There’s a certain found poetry element to it – if it was Joyce you’d think it was meant to be like that. (in the proper translation above, this bit reads as follows: ‘Next came a Chinese pencil-box containing a pair of compasses and other curious instruments. This too passed down the line, slipping silently from hand to hand under the exercise-books so that M Seurel would not see.’) 

Top picture by Edward Cucuel – as we pointed out in the entry on Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, he painted a lot of women in gardens.


The second picture is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent from The Athenaeum website.

Comments

  1. Kind of glad I wasn't a French A-level student. Not one for me if I'm brutally honest. Sad when you think about all those lost though.

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    1. I know - lives cut short. Even after 100 years it is still haunting.

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  2. Moira - I have to say that as a language person, I found that computer translation really funny and interesting at the same time. The does sound almost dream-like - interesting. But the main thing that strikes me is how much we really lost as a result of WWI...

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    1. Yes indeed. So many lost masterpieces, but also the lives of those who wouldn't have written a thing, but just would have liked to have had the chance to marry and work and have children...

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  3. I just can't bear to think of the incredibly talented artists, writers, musicians, brilliant minds -- and regular people -- who were lost during WWI.

    I always think of the incredible water colorists, Franz Marc and August Macke, who died during that war, one in his 20s, the other in his 30s.

    I just can't read books set during either world war. All that destruction and death and loss of so many incredible human beings.

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    1. The loss of talent is, yes, hard to think of. Particularly those who were idealistic about fighting, doing it because they thought it was the right thing to do.

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  4. I've read it. But like most people, I only really enjoyed the first bit. I think the ambiguity (real or a dream?) adds to the pleasure of it. It does seem strange that it's not read more, though.

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    1. Yes, I was surprised, and would love to be proved wrong... would also like to find out if it is still read or studied in France.

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  5. Speaking of costumes outdoors and light dresses, did you know that the girls in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, are wearing thick woolly jumpers under their summer dresses due to how long it took Sargent to finish the painting?

    An interesting note - Lily Rose, the eldest daughter in Eve Garnett's rather marvellous Family at One End Street books, is named after this painting -there's a charming passage in the beginning explaining how her parents saw the painting - which you can actually preview in Google Books here - and there's even a random mention of fur coats in it so it's on topic for you!

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=gACkUzm0PAsC&pg=PT14#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Actually, you should read them if you've not already - there's a LOT of great clothes stuff in them, including a wonderful chapter titled "Lily Rose and the Green Silk Petticoat"

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    1. Do you know, when I was looking at the Sargent I was thinking exactly that: that I first heard of it many years ago when I read the book- but I did not think that ANYONE else would share that connection! I must read it again - she tries to help her Mum doing the washing doesn't she, and the petticoat disaster ensues. Do I also remember that she proudly wears her school uniform blazer all the time, something that I couldn't understand when I was the same age.... Plenty of clothes there then!

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  6. It's her sister Kate who's proud of her school blazer and gets her school hat washed away to sea....

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    1. Yep, so have to read this one again....

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  7. Lovely images. I may want to read this book someday, although I will need a decent translation. I have a friend who wrote a YA book based on a picture by Sargent (The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit) and this post reminded me that I should read that.

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    1. Tracy I love that picture - I saw it in a travelling Singer exhibition that came to Seattle, and the grouping is also based on one of my favourite paintings of all time, the Velasquez Las Meninas in Madrid. You must tell me what your friend's book is and I must read it....

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    2. The book is: The Janus Gate: An Encounter with John Singer Sargent and the author's name is Douglas Rees (we named our son Douglas after him). I have not read it; I have read a few other of his YA books.

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    3. Thanks Tracy, I'm going to go and look that up now.

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