Remembering Le Grand Meaulnes on the centenary of its author’s death.
“There is no doubting the classic status of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes,” the novelist Julian Barnes wrote in the Guardian in 2012, having revisited the novel in his sixties to see if it retained its “youthful enchantment.” “A poll of French readers,” he noted, “placed it sixth of all twentieth-century books, just behind Proust and Camus.”
Those two are widely known to English-speaking audiences, and yet Le Grand Meaulnes and its mysterious-sounding author are not. I asked twenty self-admitting Francophile friends if they had ever heard of Fournier; most of them hadn’t. It doesn’t help that the novel—the only book Fournier published in his lifetime—has had at least seven different titles in English: The Wanderer (sometimes with the subtitle Or, The End of Youth), The Lost Domain, The Land of Lost Contentment, The Big Meaulnes, The Magnificent Meaulnes. The most recent translation, from 2007, is called The Lost Estate, with Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses.
Originally published in 1913, the novel only barely predated Fournier’s death on the front lines in the first months of World War I, on September 22, 1914—a hundred years ago this week. Fournier was, at twenty-seven, one of the war’s first literary casualties. “His unit strayed accidentally behind the loose German lines in a forest of the Hauts-de-Meuse,” the novelist John Fowles wrote in an afterword to the book in the early seventies. “They found themselves trapped at the edge of a beechwood. The Frenchmen charged. Lieutenant Fournier was last seen running toward the Germans, firing his revolver. His grave is unknown. He was presumably buried by the enemy.”
Having recently become a parent, I’ve started to cobble together a young-adult reading list to give to my son one day—which is what led me to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its affecting treatment of lost innocence and its finely tuned, fairy tale–like depiction of the “twilight world between boyhood and manhood.”
That twilight is appealing to me—I can imagine myself as one of the characters, inching along as the story unfolds. Much like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to which it’s invariably compared, Le Grand Meaulnes is dreamy and at times overly romantic as it describes one boy’s lost love for a girl he’ll likely never have. That boy is seventeen-year-old Augustin Meaulnes, a mysterious “boarder” of modest means and background who arrives one day in the small provincial town of Sologne, in the heartland of France. He immediately captures the attention and enthusiasm of his classmates, especially his host family’s son, Francois Seurel, who narrates the novel and so resembles Gatsby’s Nick Carraway; one might be tempted to see him as a stand-in for Fournier himself, but if he is, then so is Augustin Meaulnes.
Le Grand Meaulnes remains, despite its age, superbly modern, and especially charming for young men. Meaulnes—whom Fournier refers to as “Admiral Meaulnes” at times, imbuing him with a kind of authority—has a Ferris Bueller–ish quality in that he’s almost astonishingly likable; he becomes the center of attention as soon as he arrives on the scene. His fellow students seem to hang on his every word.
On a misguided attempt to pick up his host family’s grandparents by carriage at a nearby train station, Meaulnes disappears into a forest. When he reappears a few days later, he recounts a fantastic tale: On his journey, he says, he stumbled on a majestic, if dilapidated, French chateau, which hosted a magnificent costume ball. It was there that Meaulnes met the girl of his dreams, Yvonne de Galais, who lives in the house with her brother, Frantz, and their widowed father.
When Meaulnes returns to school, he’s a changed young man. He becomes restless in his attempts to regain the lost chateau, and Yvonne with it. “That breath of fresh air coming from the deserted playground,” Fournier writes, “the bits of straw which could be seen clinging to Admiral Meaulnes’s clothing, and above all the look he had as a traveler, tired, hungry, but thrilled by wonders, all gave us a strange feeling of pleasure and curiosity.”
From there, the narrative gets a bit too cooperative: another mysterious boy shows up in town, and he turns out to be Yvonne’s brother, Frantz, in disguise; he’s reeling from a broken engagement. Meaulnes, fearing he’s lost Yvonne forever, then flees to Paris to find her, leaving Seurel in his wake to piece together the backstory, still untold.
Toward the end of the book, in Fournier’s crescendo, it’s Seurel, not Meaulnes, who eventually finds Yvonne. He reunites her with Meaulnes and they’re finally married, but that’s not the happy end—a few days after the wedding, Meaulnes, feeling he owes a debt of gratitude to Yvonne’s brother for unexplained reasons, flees once again, this time on a quest to help Frantz find his lost fiancée, leaving Seurel to serve as kind of a surrogate husband to Yvonne. Meaulnes is like the front man of an indie-rock band who walks out on his honeymoon to tour the West Coast instead of chilling with the girl he’s been dreaming about for years.
Yvonne remains in the “lost chateau” alone. Though the book never describes any kind of sex or physical intimacy, she gives birth to Meaulnes’s child and dies two days later. They never see each other again.
Seurel inherits the house and sits idly by waiting for Meaulnes to return. He stumbles upon a handwritten secret journal—composed in a student’s composition book—which fills in the blanks of a rather convoluted story. Turns out Meaulnes felt so guilty about Frantz’s lost fiancée because, years earlier, before he knew Frantz or his sister, Meaulnes had unwittingly romanced Frantz’s fiancée.
In the end, it turns out that the only one left holding an empty bag is Seurel. After Yvonne’s untimely death, he delivers Meaulnes’s daughter. “The father lifted his daughter on high,” he says in the closing paragraphs, “jumping her up on his outstretched arms, and looked at her with a kind of smile. She was pleased and clapped her hands … I had stepped back a little to see them better. Rather let down and yet wonder-struck, I realized that the little girl had at last found in him the playfellow she had been dimly expecting … Meaulnes had left me with one joy; I felt that he had come back to take it away from me. And already I could imagine him at night, wrapping his daughter in his cloak and setting out with her for new adventures.”
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“In some respects,” Fredrika Blair points out in her introduction to the 1950 Anchor edition, “Le Grand Meaulnes resembles Kafka’s fantasy, The Castle. Both are allegories. The Castle is an allegorical account of the search for heaven and Le Grand Meaulnes of the search for happiness. In both of them there is the same combination of dreamlike vision and everyday detail.”
Fournier’s good friend and fellow writer Jacques Riviére, who would go on to found the immensely important La Nouvelle Revue, warned him against “falling into sentimentality,” to which Fournier replied, “I think that sentimentality is above all sloppy writing. My credo in art: childhood. To be able to reproduce it without any childishness—its depth touches on the mysterious.” The overwhelming sense that anything is possible—the optimism of youth—holds the book’s somewhat contrived plot together, and redirects the reader’s attention from unbelievable flights of fancy to the endless potential of adolescence.
Perhaps the reason Le Grand Meaulnes is a rite-of-passage novel in France today is more elementary than most of the criticism surrounding it would have you believe. The novel’s takeaway, for me, is a don’t-look-back realization most teenagers have, at some point, wherein they recognize that everything they thought was the best—or the most important, or the worst thing ever—was actually mundane, trivial. That’s a sobering feeling, even when it comes to the vagaries of young love, the ache that feels like a hole in the stomach.
Or maybe it’s the book’s sexlessness that makes it cling to the adolescent heart. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker draws attention, in his introduction to the most recent edition, to a point that helps explain why Le Grand Meaulnes endures more than one hundred years later: “The intricate and seductive fabric of romance as Fournier made it for himself there is some sheer fear of sex. We have a sense, reflecting on Fournier’s life and art, that what is being fabulized is in part an ambivalence about sexual intercourse; we want to sleep with the girl in a fairy-tale castle and still live there, remain children and get laid at once … We can no more imagine the act of sex that produces the child in Le Grand Meaulnes than we can imagine Gatsby penetrating Daisy.”
J. C. Gabel is a writer, editor, and publisher living in Los Angeles. He grew up in Chicago.