Tag Archives: Julian Barnes

Il arriva chez nous un dimanche de novembre 189………!

……… 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!

What I Thought Of……….The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

I have to confess that I actually resisted reading this book for quite some time for the most irrational of reasons and I’m glad I got over that irrational phase because this is a great read. It’s as good as you would expect from a book which has been much-lauded and celebrated, including its capturing of the Man Booker Prize for 2011.

From the outset I should say that it was not the praise and critical acclaim that put me off – in fact I frequently make a point of seeking out things like Booker or Costa prize nominated books. My resistance was much more irrational than that!! I didn’t like the cover (still don’t! It’s got a very flat and grey feel for me – maybe I subconsciously thought this would be reflected inside!), the blurb on the back suggested to me what I’d term “a navel-gazing” novel, and most irrationally of all I was put off by the author’s name! I know that’s ridiculous but I had an image of someone who’d write about the upper classes in a superior-intellect way that I would hate!!! I think I got this daft notion partly from associating it with Julian Fellowes (I really don’t like Downton Abbey – I’ve tried watching it but I just don’t get it!) and I got it partly, I’m ashamed to admit, from my own class prejudices about the name ‘Julian’. Anyway the bottom line is that I could not have been more wrong for this is a super book.

The story follows the life of Tony Webster, a retired middle-class arts administrator, looking back over his life, particularly his time as part of a school-boy clique and their subsequently changing friendships and the dynamic between them as they moved into University and their adult lives. The events which unfold not only affect him as a retired man but they also significantly alter his perspective on his past. The story flows beautifully, it’s poignant and sad but it’s never maudlin or depressing. The book avoided this for me through the way the book kept some of the more perverse and annoying aspects of Tony’s personality intact even as he reflects and comes to understand more as he looks back through the lens of time. It meant that I actually enjoyed the sheer irritation that Tony aroused in me at times!

The book looks in part at memory and how we alter our perspective on the past to almost re-write our version of our own history – a bit like writing the story of our lives as we wanted it to be rather than perhaps the story it actually was! I’m now 50 and tend to find myself more reflective and with a tendency to look back these days. Perhaps for that reason, I was really struck by how events which unfolded years before, and of which Tony wasn’t aware, come to be known and better understood by him as a much older man and consequently alter his attitudes and his memories and his view of himself.

I also liked the way Julian Barnes reflected the difference between the popular image of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the suburban reality of that for many young adults in the 60’s. ( I recall one older friend telling me that his generation had written and designed the sexual revolution of the 60’s and mid 70’s but most of them didn’t have the confidence to take advantage of it – so it was my generation of the late 70’s and early 80’s who took advantage of it!). Whether that’s true or not, it does gives the book the feel of being set in a world on the cusp of change, yet one where the perception and image of the change has progressed much quicker than the reality of the change for most people’s lives. The consequent sexual frustration is tangible in the book but it sort of creeps slowly off the page and is really well done!

However, in addition to the possible intensity of these sorts of themes, the book equally deals with much more day-to-day emotions. It’s a wonderful description of the effect of life on the heart and how it can become damaged and altered, but interspersed with this there’s real wit and humour in the writing. There’s also a wonderful contrast drawn between the relationships and attitudes of Tony’s parents and Tony’s generation. It’s a great depiction of inter-generational differences and the huge chasms that were prevalent then ( I tend to think the inter-generational gaps are a lot less these days but, as friends warn me, my view of that may change as I watch my daughter grow up!)

I loved this book – it challenged and overcame all my irrational prejudices with ease and it draws a wonderful picture of the times, places, and changes in the life of a man and in his relationships. Perhaps the best way to sum up how good this book is, and the extent to which it stands head and shoulders above most others, came from A.D. Miller, whose Snowdrops novel was nominated alongside Sense Of An Ending for the 2011 Booker when he described the prize going to Barnes rather than to him or other nominees as “…like losing to Brazil in the World Cup Final!”.  I would wholeheartedly agree!