Youth is another country. They do things differently there, according to different rules, and in a language which is quite lost to us in later life. It is easy enough to capture early childhood in fiction. There are conventions about what the child knows and doesn’t know and because there is an adult (usually) in charge of the text, the child’s omissions, false beliefs and misunderstandings are flagged up, sometimes to comic, sometimes to poignant effect. Adolescence is more resistant. If Lacan – the first but not the last Frenchman here – is correct and the unconscious is organised like a language, then adolescent syntax and adolescent narrative must somehow reflect a mind in the process of being radically rewired for adult functioning. Ask a child to tell a story: the result is strange and beautiful. Ask an adolescent to tell a story and it seems disjointed and remote, full of internal contradictions and yawning lacunae, over-punctuated and stilted.
It astonishes me still that when readers and critics talk about the great fictional representations of youth they turn most often to The Catcher in the Rye and to Proust. The former seems to me a prolonged sulk, albeit a tour de force, the latter a prolonged, unreadable hanky-flap. There are other, perhaps better examples. Portnoy’s Complaint is a riotous evocation of (male) adolescence, but one is always aware of the adult Philip Roth streaming the shocks. L. P. Hartley (who supplied the line about the past as another country, adapted above) gave a beautiful version in The Shrimp and the Anenome, as did Laurie Lee in Cider With Rosie. Henry James’s What Maisie Knew cut a child-height window in the house of fiction and the view from it has rarely been improved upon.
The greatest of all novels about adolescence marks its centenary this year, but is Le grand Meaulnes now much read outside France? Every few years sees a new English (or American) edition come along, but the book’s reputation seems strangely occluded in the Anglo-Saxon countries where readers either stick on Salinger or else get in training for A la recherche du temps perdu. I admit to a lifelong obsession with Alain-Fournier’s solitary masterpiece. Le grand Meaulnes was the first foreign-language novel I read and the first time I encountered the convention of fudging a historical date: Il arriva chez nous un dimanche de novembre 189-.
In my copy, someone has written, ‘Alain-Fournier. This is his only novel. Wrote literary criticisms. Died early in War’. That’s almost it. One might add that Alain-Fournier was a semi-pseudonym for Henri-Alban Fournier (no one seems quite clear where the hyphen strictly belongs, but that’s the favoured version) who was born in 1886 in La-Chapelle d’Angillon, not far from Bourges, that he was the son of a schoolmaster, aspired to a literary life and died when the War (there had only been one 20th century conflict when the previous owner inscribed his copy, hence the capital letter) was not more than two months old, on September 22 1914. He was 27 and, apart from his novel, which narrowly failed to win the Prix Goncourt, he’d left behind just a few scattered writings collected as Miracles, an unfinished novel called Colombe Blanchet and a correspondence with his friend, the critic Jacques Rivière.
Fournier had himself fallen in love when he spotted Yvonne Marie Elise Toussaint de Quievrecourt walking along the quays of the Seine in Paris. She was the model, not much disguised, for Yvonne de Galais in Le grand Meaulnes.
The problem begins right there. British readers find it hard to speak the title – Luh grong Moan – and they have serious problems persuading booksellers that the author has to be searched under A for Alain rather than F for Fournier, and that no, there isn’t a forename or initial. They’ll also have to persuade the same bookseller that all those titles eventually listed relate to the same book. English language versions of Alain-Fournier have gone out as The Wanderer in Françoise Delisle’s 1928 translation, The Lost Domain by Frank Davison in 1959, Meaulnes: The Lost Domain by Sandra Morris somewhat redundantly seven years later, The Wanderer or The End of Youth (misleadingly, as we’ll see) by Lowell Blair in 1971, Le Grand Meaulnes: The Land of Lost Content (or Contentment – it’s the only one of these I don’t have) by Katherine Vivian, and three more recent versions, Robin Buss’s unim-provable Penguin Classic The Lost Estate, Jennifer Hashmi’s Big Meaulnes and Valerie Lester’s The Magnificent Meaulnes. There may simply be more female translators than male, but leaving aside the unread Vivian, snap judgement or sheer prejudice suggests that the men get it and the woman largely don’t, smearing Vaseline on the narrative lens, softening the focus and perversely toughening up the parts that need to be rendered more neutrally, as in the original.
Despite all this effort, there is a strangely persistent consensus that Le grand Meaulnes is untranslatable, from its title onwards. In truth, the ‘grand’ is no more – and thus no less – ambiguous than the ‘Great’ in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dreamlike tale of yearning and loss. The similarities between Le grand Meaulnes and The Great Gatsby do not stop with the not-quite-developed title character. They have much to do with the narrative perspective as well. Some sentences do resist Englishing, or retain some essential shimmer of uncertainty. Buss and others have singled out this one: Quant à Jasmin, qui paraissait revenir à cet instant d’un voyage, et qui s’entretenait à voix bass mais animée avec Mme Pignot, il était evident qu’une cordelière, un col bas et des pantalons-éléphant eussent fait plus sûrement sa conquete …
Girdle? Sailor pants? Who or what is being conquered here? Grammatical gender is alien to British readers, but here it contributes to a mild bit of sex comedy – young boy, older woman with a reputation – that is genuinely hard to capture in any language but the original.
With the focus drawn out, though, Le grand Meaulnes doesn’t offer too many stumbling blocks, other than the usual temptation to mistake the identity of the real central character. The story is told by François Seurel, the 15 year old son of a rural schoolmaster, who he addresses as M. Seu-rel, and a mother he knows as Millie. To the school that autumn day in 189- comes a new boy, big, confident, troubling and exciting. Augustin Meaulnes does not so much arrive as manifest, a clue to his literary nature as well as to his personality. He is heard clumping overhead in the attic before he is seen, as if he emerges from the upper storeys of the imagination rather than accompanied by the quiet, nervous mother who has come to introduce him.
No sooner has the newcomer settled into routine than there is a classroom discussion over who should accompany François to collect his grandparents. Meaulnes decides that he knows a better route and takes off on his own in a borrowed cart. He is missing for three days. When he returns he is strangely silent, but after a time he tells François that he has stumbled across a mysterious house and estate an unspecified distance away. As Meaulnes arrives, preparations are going ahead for an engagement party, and he is accepted unquestioningly as a guest. There are costumes, a Pierrot, strange children, horses. Meaulnes sees a girl at the party, with whom he becomes immediately besotted. Yvonne is the sister of the young man Frantz who is supposedly bringing home his bride-to-be. The party is another indulgence in their motherless lives. Then suddenly the party is cancelled and the guests begin to depart. Meaulnes takes a ride in a cart. There is a glimpse of violence in a wood, and then the whole mysterious scene dissolves.
One immediately understands why translators want to seize on the notion of the ‘lost estate’ (which it literally is) or the ‘lost domain’ of youth. There is an obvious symbolic equivalence between the strange house and grounds and the idea of para-disal innocence suddenly disrupted, but Alain-Fournier is more subtle than this. His sophistication may not be immediately obvious from the succeeding chapters. There is the seeming oddity of boys not being able to find a house that is not so very different, but rural children of this generation inhabited a small world and even modest distances seemed cosmic. There is also some contrived business involving gypsies, one of whom turns out to be the wounded Frantz, a theatrical device that seems out of place in modern fiction. But consider how we learn what happens to Meaulnes. It is told to us by François at second hand and embedded in passages which make constant reference to sleep, so that we are never quite sure when the narrative is in a waking state and when it is the product of dream.
It’s powerfully disorientating, just as the dream-like party has been. Critics have pointed out the callowness of Alain-Fournier’s prose, its staccato succession of subordinate clauses studded with commas and ellipses: a modest four in the tricky sentence quoted above which also ends unresolved … But it is not the novelist who is callow. It is the young man who is telling the tale. Just as The Great Gatsby is really the story of Nick Carroway, so Le grand Meaulnes is a feint that disguises the autobiographical nature of François Seurel’s story. The very punctuation tells you that here is a mind that doesn’t quite understand what is happening, not just in the outside world but in itself. The very oddities of the book act out the psychology of adolescence.
After 100 years, a spoiler alert shouldn’t be necessary. I used to tell students that the most important aspects of almost any major novel would be found in the passages and chapters they had forgotten. It’s an exaggerated principle, but one worth applying. Ask most purported fans of Le grand Meaulnes to give a summary and they will probably stop with the narrative of Meaulnes’s return to school and his – actually François’ – account of the strange house party. What many readers forget or suppress is that far from losing his ideal love, Meaulnes does later meet and marry Yvonne. They even have a child, but by then Meaulnes has gone. He deserts her on their wedding night and goes off in search of the girl Frantz has lost. He finds her too and brings her back, but by that time François has moved close to Yvonne, nursed her through her pregnancy, and is present when she dies – with unflinching realism – of an embolism. The ideal and idealised girl becomes a purulent corpse. François vests his hopes in the child, which he seems ready to adopt as his own. But then Augustin (is he ‘august’ or is he a selfish rascal?) returns.
It’s worth reading the last lines with particular care, if you can get the tears out of your eyes. La seule joie que m’eût laissée le grand Meaulnes, je sentais bien qu’il était revenu pour me la reprendre. Et déjà je l’imaginais, la nuit, enveloppant sa fille dans un manteau, et partant avec elle pour de nouvelles aventures. My version: ‘I understood that the great Meaulnes had come back to take away the only joy he had left me with. And I already magined him one night wrapping the child in a cloak and bearing her off on some new adventure.’ It’s noteworthy that contrary to some summaries of the book, Meaulnes hasn’t yet taken the girl away, but it’s sufficient that François believes he will, and at this point pity and self-pity are almost inseparable. The hint of envy and disapproval in young Seurel’s voice – for what hope of adventure is there for a recently qualified rural school assistant? – is obvious, but it isn’t clear whether the greater loss is the child or Meaulnes himself.
Read through the narrator’s own fuzzy lens, Le grand Meaulnes may well be a narrative of lost innocence and departing youth, just as, taken literally, The Great Gatsby is about shining people with reckless lives. But once one recognises the true role of their respective narrators these become quite different books. Le grand Meaulnes is quite emphatically not a ‘coming-of-age novel’ but a book that in some way refuses to come of age. François may be taking on age and responsibility, but Meaulnes resists location and chronology. He is everywhere and nowhere, in the present and in some half-recovered, half-invented past. It is almost possible to consider Meaulnes an imaginary friend, that common solace of childhood, which leaves only the problem of how an imaginary boy can father a child in a single night of marriage. There is a good deal of camouflaged sex in Le grand Meaulnes. We recognise it even when François doesn’t and we have our faces positively rubbed in it.
One of the things one forgets between readings is how tough and violent a book it is, how dark its passages. One also forgets how much of it is concerned with the act of writing, how much of the story is reported narrative, in letters or in Meaulnes’ strange ‘composition books’, school jotters in which he describes what has taken place since his second departure. Unless, of course … Meaulnes is the novelist and he is creating all that passes. A young man’s book and the best book ever written about young men …