Some time after leaving university I was in a club; and at one point in the, er, festivities I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around, and there was an attractive blonde girl. She spoke my name; I stared back at her blankly. ‘Don’t you remember me?’ she asked. I had to confess that I didn’t. ‘Nicole,’ she said. I was about to embarrass myself further, and admit that I still could not place her, when it came to me. Ah, Nicole! Of course! She had been in the same halls of residence as I. We didn’t take any of the same classes, and we hadn’t spoken all that often, but our paths had crossed once or twice in the corridor or at parties.
As the night wore on we danced and we chatted and we kissed; and when the club closed we set out on a walk, with Nicole in the lead. I know my home city well, but being drunk, with my attention elsewhere, I had no real idea how we came to be in the place where we ended up. As I remember it now, and as I remembered it the next day, it resembled some kind of stone arena, with high walls, and lights all around, some of them hanging from trees. Of course I doubt this was the case, but that is what I see when I cast back into the past to try and dredge up that night. I don’t know exactly how long we were there; it felt like hours, but it could only have been thirty minutes or so.
In any case, before Nicole and I parted, she asked for my telephone number. Unfortunately, I did not know it by heart [I still don’t] and I have never carried my mobile with me on nights out. ‘Tell me your number,’ I said, gallantly, ‘and I’ll remember it.’ Foolish boy! Of course, when I woke up the next day the number was entirely lost to me; it was as much an irretrievable part of the night as the kisses and the fantastic stone arena had been. Yet I didn’t initially let it bother me too much, being used to hooking up in clubs and also being of the belief that I would sooner or later bump into her again.
However, over the following months, even though I frequented various clubs in the city, including the one in which we had met, and although I kept something of an eye out for her, I found no trace of Nicole, by which I mean that she never herself turned up, and nor did any of the people I had seen her with that night. The longer this continued, the more interested I became in the situation, the more mental energy I devoted to it. Who is this girl, I thought to myself, whose life briefly merged with mine only to suddenly disappear? At the end of each night I would leave the club and go in search of the arena, hoping that being in the same state [i.e. very drunk] would somehow jog my memory and lead me there. By this stage, the whole incident had taken on the qualities of a dream – I felt as though I was searching for someone and a place, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate to myself, which had, in fact, never existed anywhere except in my imagination.
Now when I think back to that time and wonder why I so wanted to see Nicole again it strikes me that it wasn’t the girl herself that I was chasing, that I was looking for, but a part of myself, the part that had only been possible when I was with this particular girl in that extraordinary place; I found it hard to let that go.* This is not, of course, unique to me; many of us want to reclaim or relive our pasts, many of us hanker nostalgically after certain experiences, and this, at least partly, is what Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier’s beautiful French novel, is about.
“This was the setting in which the most troubled and most precious days of my life were lived: an abode from which our adventurings flowed out, to flow back again like waves breaking on a lonely headland.”
Le Grand Meaulnes begins with the arrival of a young boy, Francois Seurel, in Sainte-Agathe. He is accompanied by his father, a teacher, and his mother, who he describes as the ‘the most meticulous housewife ever known.’ It is, then, made immediately clear that Francois’ home-life is rather conventional, and, well, perhaps a little boring. Moreover, the boy himself is both ‘timid’ and, due to a problem with his knee, ‘weak,’ and so does not, or cannot, play with other children. Then one day Augustin Meaulnes – who is, of course, the great or grand Meaulnes of the title – enters his life. The circumstances behind their first meeting are significant: it is a Sunday, a day traditionally of rest, the dullest of dull days, when one would not expect anything exciting to happen. However, when Francois returns from church he finds a woman gazing through the window of his house. It turns out that she has ‘lost’ her boy, who is, well, I think you’ve probably worked that out already.
It was clever on Alain-Fournier’s part to introduce Meaulnes in this way, not with his presence, but by the absence of it, thereby revealing an important, or the defining aspect of his behaviour or character without him even being ‘on stage.’ Having given his mother the slip one understands straight away that this is an adventuresome boy, who does things his own way, who is, in contrast to Francois, unconventional. Indeed, his physical entrance into the novel confirms this impression, as he comes down the Seurel’s stairs to announce that he has been rooting around in their attic, quite without permission of course, and has found some unused fireworks. He then takes Francois outside and sets them off. This is, in effect, the symbolic and literal start of a more exciting existence for Francois.
In order to be able to enjoy Le Grand Meaulnes one must accept its limitations. There is, for example, no character depth; everyone is ‘one dimensional,’ is, essentially, a symbol, or a type, of one sort or another. Meaulnes is shown in the beginning to be adventurous and brave and independent, and that is how he remains; all of his actions – like taking Fromentin’s horse and cart on a long drive in order to pick up Francois’ Grandparents – are further proof of these qualities. Francois does not develop either; sure, he gets into more scrapes than he would have done without Meaulnes’ friendship, but he does not take a very active part in them; he is, in effect, an observer or bystander or, at best, a sidekick. Indeed, no one behaves in a way that would surprise you, and no one’s thought processes, aside from the narrator’s, are engaged with; all of the characters are straight forward and predictable [even Meaulnes, whose unpredictability is itself predictable].
I also ought to mention that the plot is often derided as unbelievable and silly and too reliant upon coincidences, particularly in the second half. Responding to these specific criticisms is difficult, because silly and unbelievable are subjective terms. All I can say in that regard is that I don’t agree or that all literature is unbelievable if you bring a cynical attitude to it [and this book more than most requires you to be open-minded, because, for the greater part, the prevailing atmosphere is one of awe and wonder]. In terms of coincidences, yes, there are some, but I have never understood why this bothers readers as much as does. Life is full of coincidences, so it is not as though we have no experience of them ourselves. Besides, I would argue that, flawed or not, the plot is tremendously gripping and moving.
Superficially, Le Grand Meaulnes is a kind of fast-paced mystery novel. As noted, Augustin one day leaves to pick up Francois’ Grandparents, but he fails to meet them, and doesn’t come back for three days. When he does return, he fails to provide an explanation, seems distracted and aloof, and appears to be working on some sort of map. Naturally, if one has not read the book before, all of this is intriguing. Where has Meaulnes been? What is the map for? What happened to him? Whatever the boy experienced clearly had a profound effect upon him and one is eager for an explanation. [Furthermore, even once the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, there continues to be twists and surprises, such as the identity of the gypsy boy, and the nature of the relationship between Frantz, Valentine and Meaulnes].
One is always told to avoid spoilers in one’s reviews, but, as far as I am concerned, this is absurd, that any review that avoids spoilers isn’t actually worth reading because it cannot have engaged with the book in any meaningful way. With that said, I have no qualms about revealing that when Meaulnes leaves with the horse and carriage to pick up Francois’ Grandparents he gets lost and eventually comes upon a remote house, where a fete is taking place. He infiltrates the party and subsequently meets a beautiful girl, Yvonne. Now, what is so brilliant about this idea is that, for a novel about adolescence and adolescents, it actually taps into so many popular, seemingly immortal and universal, aspects of adolescent fantasy, such as the idea of getting lost, the prospect of discovering some magical place hitherto unknown, the opportunity to pretend to be someone other than yourself and, in the process, meeting a beautiful girl [or boy, depending on your preference, of course] with whom you fall in love.
However, to give the impression that Le Grand Meaulnes is nothing more than a kind of teenage fantasy or fairy-tale, or even a pacey mystery, is to undersell it. What elevates it to the level of a masterpiece is that it is, much like Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, a perfect synthesis of gripping plot and philosophy, adventure and romance and ideas; it is, despite its apparently simple characters and whimsical story, a sneakily complex little novel. It is important to remember that Francois, from some distance in years, in narrating the tale, is, with fondness and some sorrow, looking back to his own childhood. Le Grand Meaulnes is, then, like Marcel Proust’s opus, on one level about memory, about how we remember important events or periods in our lives. Indeed, he admits within the first couple of pages that his memories are somewhat confused or have, in a way, merged, so that what may have been numerous days or experiences seem like, have become, only one.
I think this is subtly profound writing, because it is exactly how memory works – memories do not come to you in a linear fashion, as a straightforward or precise narrative; days do not follow in sequence; and so what you remember is likely to be an amalgamation of various memories or days. If you try to picture an event, let’s say your first day at school, certain aspects may be as it was then – that it was a Monday, say – but it is also likely that you will misremember or confuse certain details, that, for example, you will recall the walls of the classroom being grey when they were actually cream, that it was, in fact, the walls of a different classroom, years later, that were grey. Moreover, one sometimes cannot help but place important people in places where they cannot have been, or one feels their presence hanging over certain incidents that they were not part of. On this, perhaps my favourite passage in the book is when Francois tries to conjure up the first night in the new house in Sainte-Agathe, and sees Meaulnes’ tall shadow moving across the wall, to and fro, ‘restless and friendly,’ even though it would be ten years before they would actually meet.
As one progresses through the novel one comes to realise that there is a satisfying mirroring going on vis-à-vis Meaulnes and Francois, that while one is trying to go back to the place where he met Yvonne, the other is trying to go back in his memories [in fact, both could be said to be going back in their heads]. Bearing this in mind, one could see the lost domain as not only a real, physical place, but as childhood itself. This is given further weight when one considers that the domain was characterised by a kind of gaiety or freedom, and was full of children who, on at least one of the days, were in sole charge. Throughout the book both the older Francois and the young Meaulnes are trying to recapture something ephemeral, something that therefore cannot be recaptured.
“Weeks went by, then months. I am speaking of a far-away time – a vanished happiness. It fell to me to befriend, to console with whatever words I could find, one who had been the fairy, the princess, the mysterious love-dream of our adolescence.”
“I’m sure now that when I discovered the nameless domain I was at some peak of perfection, of purity, to which I shall never again attain.”
One might argue that this interpretation overlooks the love relationship between Meaulnes and Yvonne, that it was her who he was desperate to reclaim or rediscover, not some mythical idea of childhood, but I don’t see that. It is telling, for me, that Meaulnes, once he and Yvonne are reunited, feels deflated or disappointed and actually leaves at the first opportunity. Of course, his leaving is explained as being part of some promise or pact, but Isn’t it really the case that Meaulnes was more in love with the idea of Yvonne and the lost domain, than with the real woman and the real place? Let’s face it, he did not have to abandon her; he had a choice and he chose to go, to follow the dream rather than live with reality. To return to Nicole and my introduction, like me it was not the woman that he wanted, but how she made him feel, what she was part of.
*For anyone interested in my story, I never saw Nicole again, but I think I may one day have stumbled upon the stone arena, which, if I am correct, is part of a large park or botanical garden that is roughly ten minutes walk from the club, although it does not, except in the most vague or rudimentary fashion, align with my memory of it.