……… So begins the French language version of one of my favourite books of all time, “Le Grand Meaulnes” by Alain Fournier. The magic and joy I felt on reading this book in my late teens as a student was brought vividly back to life for me last weekend by Julian Barnes’ piece on the book in the “Rereading” section of the Guardian Review.
The book was written by Alain Fournier based on an ill-fated love-at-first-sight encounter he had at the age of 18 and was written between 1910 and 1912. It was published in late 1913 to great acclaim but within a matter of months Fournier was one of the first to lose his life in the tragedy that was the 14-18 War. He was only twenty-eight when he was killed in action in September 1914. The book is I guess for me a coming of age novel – as Julian Barnes notes there is some connection between it and that other renowned novel of adolescence, Catcher In The Rye – and having read both, I’d still take the view that great as Catcher In The Rye was, it didn’t hold the same power or grace or pleasure for me as Le Grand Meaulnes did. ( I hope my partner, who is a J.D. Salinger “can do no wrong” fan, doesn’t read this, as she’d regard that statement as heresy!!!!!)
Le Grand Meaulnes is told through the character of Seurel, whose life is unalterably changed by the arrival of a new and somewhat enigmatic, mysterious pupil, Augustin Meaulnes. Meaulnes tells Seurel of an “estate” he comes across, and where he is mesmerised by a young woman, Yvonne de Galais, but for many months the location of the estate eludes them. The novel moves to the search for the estate and subsequently the fate of Meaulnes, Yvonne, her brother Frantz de Galais and his love Valentine, and of course Seurel.
The novel has long been one of the most popular books in France for many years. Depending on which poll you look at today, it is anything between one of the ten most popular books of the 20th century to the most popular book of the last 100 years. I read it as a student as part of my studies in French. Consequently it remains to this day a fairly unique book for me in that it is the one of only two books I ever read in a foreign language – the other was a detective novel in Spanish that was the only thing I could get my hands on to read when I lived in Spain many years ago – and it was awful – to some extent because I needed my Spanish-English dictionary every three or four words and partly because it was just awful anyway!!!
But Le Grand Meaulnes was a joy to read, even with the added challenge of reading it in French and needing to refer to a dictionary on countless occasions! And as you can see it’s not that difficult a read in French really and I think many people would be surprised at how much of it they would be able to follow in French.
My edition is also notable among my books in having the longest introduction to any novel on my shelves - Robert Gibson was a professor of French at Canterbury and his intro weighs in at a hefty 136 pages! But reading the intro was as informative and helpful as the book was enjoyable and romantic. Since the publication of the book several film versions have been made and I think the most recent version was made in 2006.
The essence of the Barnes piece is how well this novel of adolescence, which is also a novel frequently read by many people during their own adolescence, stands up to being revisited through the perspective of adulthood. It’s pretty clear that Barnes thinks that on balance it does hold up, and while not without weaknesses, he concludes that in many ways it is still the same magical story that he loved when he read it in his 30′s. While I’m encouraged by the fact that Julian Barnes still enjoyed it years later and the book stood up well to the lens of time, I’m also struck by the fact that I read Le Grand Meaulnes at 18 – and there’s a lot of differences between me as I was at 18, me as I was at 30 and me as I am now at 50! But thanks to the article I’ve decided to go back to my youth and revisit the world of Le Grand Meaulnes – I can’t wait!