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A Sleeping Beauty

December, 2013
By Anthony Marshall

Two remarkable novels were published in France in 1913. Marcel Proust's Du cote de chez Swann and Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes. You have certainly heard of Proust, and his magnum opus: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, of which Swann is the beginning. You may even have read it: the whole work, if you are serious about literature, or, if you are serious but faint-hearted (like me) just Swann. The chances are that you know little or nothing about Alain-Fournier and his novel, which is a great pity.

Le Grand Meaulnes has been described by John Fowles as “the greatest novel of adolescence in European Literature” and it has been one of my best-loved books for nearly fifty years. And this year Oxford University Press have published a Centenary Edition, entitled The Lost Domain, with an introduction by Hermione Lee, to celebrate the book's one hundredth birthday.

This is a good time, then, to introduce this masterpiece to you: or, if you have read it already, to re-introduce it to you. It may well be that, having read it long ago, perhaps as a student, you are disinclined to revisit it, dismissing it as irrelevant to someone whose adoloscence is long past. As perhaps you now dismiss the novels of Hermann Hesse - Siddharta, Journey to the East, Steppenwolf, The Glass-Bead Game – as student reading, not worth going back to, now you are older and wiser. On the contrary, as Julian Barnes, in an article published in The Guardian (April 13 2012) points out, it is precisely because you are older and wiser that you can experience new pleasures and new insights from great books first encountered in adolescence. And Julian Barnes is full of enthusiam for Le Grand Meaulnes, finding it as fresh and as enchanting as when he first read it, thirty years ago.

Enchanting is a particularly appropriate word for this novel, which is often described as a sort of fairy tale, full of mystery, magic and, well, enchantment. Not in the Harry Potter sense – there are no wizards or flying quidditch sticks – but rather in the tradition of Charles Perrault's fairy tales (Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe, first published in 1697). In Le Grand Meaulnes we have some of Perrault's classic characters: a Sleeping Beauty – a beautiful princess in a chateau lost in a remote forest ; a Cinderella and a Prince Charming – a young couple who fall deeply in love at first sight, and then are separated; and a Puss-in-Boots – a picaresque hero who is a dreamer, a wandererer, a searcher but who is also a man of action and a larger-than-life character, inspiring admiration and devotion, and sometimes also hostility in those who cross his path. Le Grand Meaulnes has echoes too of another tradition, la Commedia dell'Arte: the recurring motif of Pierrot, the tragic clown and friend of Harlequin, reminds us that tragedy is lurking in the shadows. Because, despite first appearances, this is no fairy tale with the stock happy ending :  “And so they were married, and lived happily ever after.”  A wedding does indeed take place but the story keeps going after it: and the aftermath is surprising and full of sadness.

Time for a brief outline of the plot. (And I have no qualms about giving away the ending. I have read this book a dozen times, eleven times with full knowledge of what happens, and I am still delighted by it). The story is narrated by Francois Seurel, who, when it begins, is aged fifteen. He is the son of schoolteachers, who run a school in a rural region of western France, the Sologne, in the department of the Cher.  A new pupil arrives, in the autumn of 189- (the exact date is not given ): his name is Augustin Meaulnes, he is seventeen and he is to lodge with the Seurels. He and Francois become close friends. In December Augustin drives a horse and carriage to a nearby railway to station pick up Francois's grandparents, but he gets lost. At length he finds himself in a forest, in the grounds of a mysterious run-down chateau, where preparations are under way for a grand reception.  He mingles with the guests, dressed up in ancient costumes, many of them children. No one questions his presence.  He finds out that the party is to celebrate the forthcoming engagement of Valentine and Frantz de Galais, the son of the owner of the chateau.  Augustin meets Yvonne de Galais, sister of Frantz, who is blonde, beautiful, and totally enchanting.  They fall in love. Before they can exchange addresses, the party breaks up in disarray: Valentine has failed to turn up to her engagement party.  Augustin finally arrives back at the Seurel house. He is haunted by the memory of Yvonne de Galais and tells Francois of his adventure. He tries to piece together the parts of his journey, to find his way back to the lost domain and make contact with Mademoiselle de Galais.

The midde part of the story tells of Augustin's search for Yvonne, the clues which lead him on, or mislead him, with hints from mysterious gypsies and circus performers, including Frantz in disguise, who come to town. Finally he traces Yvonne to a townhouse in Paris. But he fails to meet her, and is informed (wrongly) that she is now married. He falls into despair.  At some point during his stay in Paris (we learn much later) he meets Valentine and forms a relationship with her, though its exact nature is unclear.

In the third and final section of the novel Francois narrates events which take place three years later. Francois has become a schoolteacher and obtains news of Yvonne de Galais, who is now living with her father in the remains of the old chateau buildings recently sold off and mostly demolished.  He meets her and discovers that she is unmarried and still in love with Augustin. Francois informs Augustin and organizes a picnic on the banks of the river Cher where the lovers can meet again. They do meet (for only the second time in their lives) and, despite an altercation between Augustin and Yvonne de Galais' father, they announce their engagement. They marry and move into a small house which is part of the old domain. But shortly afterwards, Augustin insists that he must go away, to honour a promise, made to Frantz and to Valentine, that he would do his utmost to find them both and bring them together again, to find their happiness as he and Yvonne have found theirs. While he is on the road, Yvonne gives birth to a baby daughter, and dies two days later. Francois, who has comforted her in her loneliness, is entrusted with the care of the baby. Augustin comes back, having completed his mission successfully, only to find his own domestic life shattered.  Francois pictures him, in the closing sentence of the novel, wrapping his little daughter up in a cloak, and striding out with her, off again on some new adventure.

A love story, then, which in less assured hands could easily be schmalzy and sentimental. Who needs yet another tale of chivalric love, a young man besotted by a beautiful blue-eyed blonde, who is not a real woman but a fantasy, his idealised image of a woman, woman as a romanticised object? Well, I do. What makes this book special, what lifts it out of the realm of the mundane and of the sentimental, is the way it is written. The style is simple but also full of poetic intensity and energy, reflecting the voice of the narrator who is sensitive, literary and thoughtful. There are no purple passages, but many quietly powerful or moving episodes which in their restraint and clarity remind one of Flaubert. Unlike Flaubert, Alain-Fournier avoids irony and satirical touches: there is not a trace of humour in the book. These young men take life and love very seriously and we do too, skillfully drawn into their lives and sharing their problems. Above all, their feelings and experiences ring true, reminding us exactly how we too felt as teenagers.

Alain-Fournier avoids any sentimental cheap tricks. Almost all of the key scenes take place in the cold of autumn or winter: weather and landscape are often bleak and uncomfortable, contrasting, deliberately no doubt, with the internal combustions of young men in love. And yet there is warmth and humanity in the writing: it is hard not to be touched by the descriptions of life in the schoolroom, in the blacksmith's forge, in the general store run by Francois's grandparents: and by the narrator's account of his own, and Augustin's, adolescent yearnings.

Yearning is a central theme of Le Grand Meaulnes. Yearning for ideal love, for domestic bliss, for adulthood without responsibility; yearning for the passions and friendships of youth, for the innocence of childhood; yearning, too, for the pre-mechanized past, for a time without cars, electricity or telephones; yearning for the simple pastoral life uncomplicated by the values of the city, business and industry.  And sometimes, perhaps, too, yearning for yearning, for that state of being when such desires and dreams are dominant. It is strange that, as far as I know, there is no single French word which equates to our “yearning” or “longing”, which the Germans call “Sehnsucht”. Or is it?  The French have long prided themselves on their rationality, on the pre-eminence of reason over emotion, on the superiority of theory over practise. (Whence this joke. The modern Englishman says: “The theory looks good: but will it work in practise?”  The Frenchman says: “OK, so it works well in practise: but what about the theory?”).  Long ago Pascal wrote: “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas.” The heart has its reasons which reason does not recognize. Yearning, perhaps, is one of them. For all this, LeGrand Meaulnes is sometimes described as an old-fashioned, backward-looking novel, the last flowering of Romanticism. Which is partly true. The novel is in no way experimental or “modern” in the way that Proust or Stravinsky, (with his The Rite of Spring, produced in Paris also in 1913) are modern.  Nor has it anything to do with Zola, and social realism. But in some sense it looks forward to Existentialism. If, as Somerset Maugham wrote, “There are two tragedies in life: one is not getting your heart's desire, the other is getting it,” then life is truly absurd. Augustin Meaulnes does get his heart's desire, but Yvonne de Galais is not the answer: happiness still lies out of reach, on the other side of the hill, somewhere out there in the great yonder. God and religious belief play no part in Le Grand Meaulnes: there is no help from heaven implied, in this life or any other. The individual must carve out his own destiny on his own terms, even when it seems happiness is a chimera and existence futile. This view of the world is not incompatible with that of the existentialists, especially of Albert Camus, who was born, coincidentally, in 1913, the year Le Grand Meaulnes was published.

It was also the year of the great split in Vienna between Freud and his pupil Jung. There is much fun to be had in analysing Le Grand Meaulnes in Freudian terms. Is the friendship between Augustin and Francois a (thinly-veiled) homo-erotic one? Or at the least what used to be called a “romantic friendship”?  Is the whole book simply a “dream” waiting to be interpreted? I have no doubt that Havelock Ellis squares up to the characters' sexual hang-ups, in his introduction to the Black Sun Books edition. Other interesting psychological questions arise. Is Francois also in love with Yvonne? Consciously or unconsciously?  In the same way as his friend Meaulnes? Most interesting to me is a Jungian interpretation: the idea that Yvonne de Galais, the idealised woman, is a projection of the male's undeveloped anima. It is not only adolescent males who have fantasies which embody this unacknowledged part of their personality. Some men never achieve awareness of the female component of their psyche, still less its integration into their personality. And, like Meaulnes, they remain stuck at the adolescent stage of the puer aeternus, looking for something out there which is not out there at all but is actually inside them, if only they could see it and feel it. Yvonne de Galais says to Francois that, were she a schoolteacher, she would teach boys to find “le bonheur qui est tout pres d'eux mais qui n'en a pas l'air” – to find happiness which is right next to them but seems not to be. Yvonne is not a deeply realised character, more symbolic than real, but she is allowed moments of true psychological insight.

Alain-Fournier – his real name was Henri-Alban Fournier –  freely acknowledged that Yvonne de Galais was modelled on a real person, and that the story of Meaulnes’ infatuation with her is based on an episode in his own life. He fell instantly in love with
Yvonne Marie Elise Toussaint de Quievreceux, as one sunny Sunday morning in Paris she came out of a church. The date was 1 June 1905. He was 18 years old. They exchanged a few words but no relationship developed. After some years he saw her again, only to discover that she had married someone else and had two children.  Alain-Fournier never married. He seems to have taken Yvonne and made her his muse, sublimating his passion for her in literary creativity: she is the writer's white goddess, of whom Robert Graves has written at length.  Alain-Fournier's closest relationship seems to have been with his sister Isabelle, to whom he dedicated his book and who married his best friend, Jacques Riviere.  A relationship triangle which has echoes of some of the triangles in Le Grand Meaulnes.

On 22 September 1914, a year after the publication of Le Grand-Meaulnes, and only a few weeks after the outbreak of the Great War, Alain-Fournier was killed, aged 27, fighting on the Western Front. His remains were discovered in 1991. When you look at photos of Alain-Fournier, it is hard to imagine a less military-looking individual. His look is dreamy, tender, sensitive, soulful, with nothing of the warrior. Too sensitive for this world?  A case of “he whom the gods love, dies young”? There are some parallels between him and another distinguished French writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who died in action in 1944, at the relatively young age of 44. Both were sensitive souls, both pueri aeterni who really never grew up, who lived in worlds of fantasy and yearning, filled with dreams of a princess, or a little prince.

Why is this book, so much loved by the French, (it was voted sixth all-time favourite book in a poll of French readers a few years ago) relatively unknown in the English-speaking world? Part of the problem is the title. The correct pronunciation of “Meaulnes” is not self-evident to English-speakers. And the correct pronunciation – which sounds like the English word “moan” – sounds unattractive to us. How to translate grand is a problem too. Grand has multiple shades of meaning in French: it can mean great, tall, big, grand, magnificent, grown-up, fine, famous, or a combination of these. We have no direct equivalent in English. The first English language translation, by Francoise Delisle, plumped for the title The Magnificent Meaulnes (New Directions, NY, 1928), the title also used by the Limited Editions Club edition (N. Y. 1958) and the Vintage Classics edition of 2009. Big Meaulnes is another title given to the same translation, published in Paris in 1932, by Crosby Continental Editions/Black Sun Press; also to Jennifer Hashmi's down-loadable translation (Kindle 2012).

Some English publishers (Harrap,Methuen, Penguin and the Folio Society) have skipped round the translation difficulty by leaving the title in the original French. Others, such as Oxford University Press (in its World's Classics edition of 1959 and its latest edition of 2013) have taken a different tack: the translation by Frank Davison bears the invented title The Lost Domain. Penguin give Robin Buss's “dazzling new translation” a variation of this: The Lost Estate (Penguin 2007).  Another invented title is The Wanderer. Francoise Delisle's translation, originally The Magnificent Meaulnes, was later re-titled thus and it remains the title of many, perhaps most, American editions (Signet Classics, Plume Books, Houghton Mifflin and Heritage Press). The Wanderer is the title given to the film of the book, made in 1967 by Jean Gabriel Albicocco, when it was released in the U.S.A. Perversely, its title in England was The Lost Domain. Another film was made in 2006, by Jean-Baptiste Maunier, starring -inter alios – the deliciously-named Clemence Poesy. As far as I know, the original French title Le Grand Meaulnes stands, untranslated.

So it is all rather confusing. Surprisingly perhaps – or perhaps not – the obvious word “great,” as in The Great Meaulnes, has never been used.  It sounds wrong.  The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, sounds, well, just great. There is some evidence that Scott Fitzgerald took the inspiration for the title of his book (published nine years later, in 1924) from Alain-Fournier.  And not just for the title. There are many similarities between the books: particularly the way each story is narrated by a friend of the hero, in Gatsby's case by Nick Carradine. Other striking similarities are charted in a good paper written by Bill Philpot in April 2012: “The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes: an essay.” It is entirely possible that Scott Fitzgerald read Alain-Fournier's book in French. Julian Barnes points out that Fitzgerald moved in the same literary circles in Paris as Harry Crosby, the American bon vivant, poet, publisher and millionaire, who, he claims, translated Le Grand Meaulnes into English. In this claim Julian Barnes is mistaken. Crosby's publishing company, Black Sun Press, merely published (after his death) an edition of Le Grand Meaulnes, in the translation by Francoise Delisle. This book, published in 1932, is a desirable and collectable item, as are all Black Sun Press books. Noel Pearson, a rare books expert, wrote in 2009: “A Black Sun book is the literary equivalent of a Braque or a Picasso painting – except it is a few thousand pounds, not twenty million.” In any case, I am delighted to have stumbled across the colorful Harry Crosby, who like Alain-Fournier, died young. He was 31. Crosby led a rip-roaring life, which ended in drama. He and his lover were found dead in bed, the result of a suicide pact or perhaps of a murder-suicide. One of the last entries in his diary runs: “There is only one happiness: it is to love and to be loved.”

Over the years I have collected many editions of Le Grand Meaulnes, in French and English. And as a bookseller I have sold many copies, always being delighted to introduce it to new readers. This, I realise belatedly, puts me into an elite category of booksellers. At least, according to an article in the Guardian: “When We Were Young” by Tobias Hill (August 16, 2003). He writes: “Particular works, for example Le Grand Meaulnes, can tell you a lot about a bookshop. The bad ones won't have it, won't have heard of it, won't even be able to find it on their systems.....Good bookshops, though, will have one copy. Usually it's just the one, thin and a little bit tired at the edges...the kind of bookseller who stocks Le Grand Meaulnes doesn't really do so for good business. If you're going to run a bookshop, you had better love books, after all, and if you love books, then Le Grand Meaulnes is the kind of novel you'll want to have around.”

So now you know. At one point in the novel, Francois the narrator exclaims in exasperation: “Est-ce que je raconte mal cette histoire? Elle ne produit pas l'effet que j'attendais.” (Am I telling this story badly? It doesn't produce the effect I intended).  I have this feeling too. I fear I have done Le Grand Meaulnes less than justice.  Or else I have smothered it at birth, with too much attention. The remedy is simple. I urge you to go out and find a good bookshop; buy a copy – any copy – of Le Grand Meaulnes, (or Big Meaulnes or The Wanderer or The Lost Domain). Read it, and be enchanted.


Anthony Marshall, is a retired secondhand bookseller now living in Germany. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, a past member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association in England, where for ten years he ran the County Bookshop in Oakham, Rutland, and former owner of Alice's Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia. This bookstore was co-founded in 1986 by Keith Richmond, now co-owner of Weiser Antiquarian Books, York Beach, Maine and author of several books including "Wanderings in Lower Dolpo" (Francestown, NH 1998), a search for traces of the Bon religion practised in this part of the Himalayas. Mr. Marshall has contributed many articles to book magazines, all of which with the exception of "Book Source Magazine” are now defunct. Some of these articles reappear in his two books: “Trafficking in Old Books” (Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998) and "Fossicking for Old Books” (Bread Street Press, Melbourne 2004).