Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, published in 1913, has become a true French classic. It's the story of François Seurel, a teenage student, whose life is turned upside-down one day by the arrival of another boarder at the Seurels' village school - Augustin Meaulnes. Le grand Meaulnes, as he is soon dubbed by his classmates (both for his size and his charisma), becomes firm friends with the smaller, frailer François, taking over as the head of the class, the shining star of the establishment.
One day, however, Meaulnes skips school, having decided to take a horse and cart to pick up François' grandparents from a distant railway station. Unfortunately, he fails to return that day, with the horse and cart being returned after dark by a traveller who found them abandoned in the middle of nowhere. A few days later, just as François' father is on the verge of departing to tell Meaulnes' mother of his disappearance, the weary student makes a dramatic entrance into the schoolroom. Once he has recovered, François persuades him to tell the story of his journey - and it's a very good one...
Le Grand Meaulnes is a wonderful story of the magic of youth, a time when all kinds of adventures seem possible. François (along with the reader) lives vicariously through Meaulnes' hopes and dreams of finding his true love. However, in the final part of the book, it becomes a more sombre adult affair, a tragedy of dashed hopes and expectations.
The story revolves around Meaulnes' brief stay at 'le domaine perdu', a lost estate in the middle of nowhere. Eight days before Christmas, the daring young student finds himself in a run-down, semi-deserted castle, in the middle of his very own fairy tale. On a walk through the grounds, he glances into a stream and barely recognises himself:
"Il s'aperçut lui-même reflété dans l'eau, comme incliné sur le ciel, dans son costume d'étudiant romantique. Et il crut voir un autre Meaulnes ; non plus l'écolier qui s'était évadé dans une carriole de paysan, mais un être charmant et romanesque, au milieu d'un beau livre de prix..."The strange lights and laughing children he then encounters are heralds of preparations for the arrival of Frantz de Galais and his new bride - you see, he's gatecrashed a wedding...
p.78 (Fayard - le Livre de Poche, 1983)
"He noticed himself reflected in the water, as if angled towards the sky, in his disguise of a romantic student. And he saw another Meaulnes; no longer the student who had made off in a farmer's cart, but another being, charming and novelesque, in the middle of a fine romance..."
It's here that he encounters the sister of the prospective groom, Yvonne de Galais, a beautiful, unreachable fairytale princess, and he falls hopelessly in love. However, having left in the dark, with no idea of the direction his carriage has taken, Meaulnes is unable to find out exactly where he has been. On returning to the drab everyday life of his studies, he vows to spend his youth searching for the scene of the wedding, hoping desperately to find the young woman who has stolen his heart.
Finally, through François, he uncovers the secret of the lost estate - and the two young lovers meet again:
"Puis le group entoura Mlle de Galais. On lui présenta les jeunes filles et les jeunes gens qu'elles ne connaissait pas... Le tour allait venir de mon compagnon ; et je me sentais aussi anxieux qu'il pouvait l'être. Je me disposais à faire moi-même cette présentation.So everything ends up happily ever after? Not quite - unfortunately, life doesn't always run like a fairytale...
Mais avant que j'eusse pu rien dire, la jeune fille s'avançait vers lui avec une décision et une gravité surprenantes :
"Je reconnais Augustin Meaulnes", dit-elle.
Et elle lui tendit la main." (p.204)
"Then the group gathered around Madamoiselle de Galais. They introduced the young girls and the young folk she didn't know... It was almost the turn of my companion; and I felt every bit as nervous as he must have been himself. I readied myself to make the introduction.
But before I could say a word, the young woman moved towards him with surprising decisiveness and gravity:
"I recognise Augustin Meaulnes", she said.
And she offered him her hand."
While the the book is entitled Le Grand Meaulnes, in fact, it is just as much about Seurel, and the longer the story goes on, the more he comes to demand our attention. François grows up and matures, gaining a position as a village teacher and having to take care of his friends. As Meaulnes dashes off on his fairytale adventures, Seurel is the one left behind in the real world. The poor young man also has to deal with his unspoken love for Yvonne, which is subordinated to his platonic love for Meaulnes; in the end, he is left with sadness, and crushed hopes...
Le Grand Meaulnes is a wonderful novel with some beautiful writing. In addition to a compelling, fascinating story, the book is full of elegant description, especially of the country surrounding the villages. It's a story about fairytales and what comes afterwards, and the writer explores what happens after the end of the conventional myth. When the two lovers find each other, and the reader closes the book happily, it's really just the start of the story.
My edition came with an introduction and a detailed afterword (the French are very big on supplementing their classics...), allowing me to discover that the novel was based on actual events. The setting is the fictionalised scene of Alain-Fournier's childhood, and the romance with Madamoiselle de Galais is based on the writer's own unrequited love for a young woman named Yvonne de Quiévrecourt. Allowing his creation to find his true love was, perhaps, the writer's way of dealing with his sadness.
Sadly, Le Grand Meaulnes was Alain-Fournier's only novel. The First World war broke out the year after its publication, and towards the end of 1914, the writer was killed in battle - his body was never found. With a life, and career, cut tragically short, all that remains as his legacy is a wonderful novel of shattered dreams...