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Losing Paradise

Le Grand MeaulnesI first read Alain Fournier’s evocative, dream-like book in my late teens or early twenties. It was one of those intense reading experiences which rather stay with the reader – or at least, the sense of oneself, one’s responses to the read, stay forever. So it was with a feeling of trepidation and excitement that I embarked on a re-read.

It had been a book demanding to be re-visited, and when author Rebecca Mascull suggested we do a simultaneous read and blog discussion, this was a title which we both decided on with alacrity

Would my memory of the strange beauty of Fournier’s writing, of the misty, yearning sense of longing for something mythic and deep, which the book evokes, stand up to mature reading? With its youthful protagonists, would this turn out to be a book which speaks primarily to the young, or would it have the power in speak meaningfully to a mature reader?

The answer is a resounding yes. Yes. Yes. In fact, probably more so. A lifetime of reading gives all sorts of layerings to the book, where influences upon Fournier, and influences Fournier has had on other writers, become a denser tapestry in revisiting – not to mention, the memory of myself as a younger reader, so that present experience and past experience mesh together

Fournier, who died aged 27 in the First World War, wrote this one complete novel Fournierwhich was published in 1913. And it is, without doubt, a masterpiece. No doubt this elegiac book whose subject might be titled ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ – to steal a title from Jung – is made particularly potent because of that death. The reader cannot help wonder about all those young men, all those potentialities cut short. In the case of artists, we wonder not just about the potential of their lives, but the potential of their works.

The power of Fournier’s book, of course, goes well beyond the extra gloss given by his death – but there is an added poignancy in that the trajectory of the book is the search for a dreamlike, mythical Paradise, the lure of a golden, transformational time, some kind of Edenic longing, which is part of a collective unconscious, a sense of yearning for a shimmering idyllic estate. After that terrible war, this book rather begins also to accrue something which gets returned to again and again – the idea of that lost, golden, Edwardian summer before war was declared. The golden summer may not, in reality, have existed for many – but the idea of that reality, a backwards playing of perhaps a faulty memory, gains more reality than reality itself.

The book takes place in a roughly 15 year time span, starting some time in the 1890s. The narrator, looking back from his late twenties was a young schoolboy of 15, François Seurel, the son of the village schoolmaster. A slightly older, charismatic, adventurous, rather headstrong boy, Augustin Meaulnes, who, because of his size and presence becomes nicknamed Le Grand Meaulnes by his peers, is brought by his mother to the village school which Seurel père runs. He is entered as a boarder. A tragic accident, a little glossed over by his mother, has been responsible for this enrolment, but it does give a clue to the fact that Meaulnes is someone who will go his own way, and follow his own leanings. He is quickly destined to become a hero to the village boys, including François, who, because of an injury, is smaller and weaker than his peers.

Due to a particularly typical spirit of rebellion and adventure, Meaulnes embarks on a kind of prankish escapade, which goes horribly wrong, or, in another reading, horribly right. He ends up stumbling by chance into a strange ‘domain’ – a half deserted little country estate, which appears to be run entirely by children and young teens. And there he has two encounters which will change his life. The estate is a whim, a gift, which an indulgent father has given over to his teenage son, Frantz de Galais. Frantz and his compatriots have organised a fĕte, complete with a band of mummers, strolling players. Everyone is costumed in fashions of a time gone by, so there is a let’s pretend of an earlier, romantic period. The fĕte is a celebration, for a particular reason, organised by Frantz.

If Frantz is master of the children’s estate, his sister Yvonne de Galais, grave and beautiful,  is its mistress.


Yvonne de Quièvrecourt, muse for Yvonne de Galais

The meetings between Meaulnes and the de Galais siblings, and his recounting of his adventures there to François, set in motion some at times conflicting aspirations, or calls to adventure, which will completely change the lives of all four, creating both tragedies and high, refined, romantic quests, which bring to mind the whole canon of medieval, courtly romance and crusade literature.

This book, and its wonderful, very lyrical and realistic descriptions of a time and place which were already vanishing, or about to vanish, following the dark carnage of that first war is both a realistic journey from adolescence to adulthood, and something larger and deeper – something which potently comes from collective unconscious.

There is a quality which recalls lyric poetry, folk tale and myth, about encounters between an enchanted world, where a hapless mortal crosses out of reality into the world of faerie (Thomas the Rhymer, La Belle Dame Sans Merci), but this is assuredly ‘realism’ not magic realism – but Fournier is also writing the metaphor of that realism. He may have been influenced by such earlier literature – but in his turn, has influenced some very different writers – Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Fowles’ The Magus are two very different texts where the extraordinary presence of this book can be felt

Arthur Hughes (1832 - 1915) Illustration of Keats' poem La Belle Dame sans Merci

Arthur Hughes (1832 – 1915) Illustration of Keats’ poem La Belle Dame sans Merci

Fowles called Fournier’s book “the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature” but it far, far more than that, or, rather, is far, far more than a book to speak to, or for,  adolescence alone. It is most assuredly not a ‘YA’ book, but it is one which taps into some of the psychology and the transformational quality of that particular stage in a life journey. Something I found interesting in my re-read, is that youth involved me in the romantic hero figure of the hero, le Grand Meaulnes, and the almost other-worldly, mythical princess behind the hundred year old thorn hedge type figure, Yvonne de Galais. My empathic imagination this time was more focused on the narrator. François Seurel’s sensitivities and sensibilities are no less intense than those of the knight-on-a-quest type figure, Meaulnes, but they are less dramatically played out. And I found François the character who was more authentic in the service of some deeper spiritually moral quest. A perhaps unsung hero.

A warning, however – I have had a look on ‘look inside’ at some of the other Kindle versions, modern translations, and find them pretty horrid compared to my ancient one, dating from 1959, by Frank Davison, which has a kind of courtliness and grace in its rhythms. There have been moves towards the prosaic, modern colloquial and even ‘street’ in the ones I’ve compared with, which seem quite outside the feel of the book, which Davison’s more formal approach enhances.

It doesn’t surprise me that it is Davison’s version which got re-published in the centenary edition!

This is Davison’s beginning :

He appeared at our house on a Sunday in November 189…

I still say ‘our’ house though it is ours no longer; nearly fifteen years have passed since we left the neighbourhood, and we shall not be going back to it

And here is the most downloaded eread version, in Penguin’s newer version, translated by Raymond Buss

He came to our place one Sunday in November 189_

I still say our place even though the house no longer belongs to us. It will soon be fifteen years since we left the neighbourhood, and we shall certainly never go back

Personally, I reacted most violently against the Buss, which, trying, I think to be less formal, has immediately lost lyricism, poetry and, most crucially, the strange, evocative flavour of Fournier, that which raises a simple boy meets girl, boy loses girl and all the rest trope, into something of much greater resonance.

By the second word of Davison, and the second word of Buss, I was found, or lost.

Davison’s ‘appeared’ almost immediately has within it something mysterious, other worldly, potent layers of meaning – the idea of apparition, ghostly, tricksy, magician-pulled-out-of-a-hat. Buss’s ‘came’ is much more four square, everyday. ‘Appeared’ is a much more layered, richer word – it also suggests its opposite – disappear. Just one word which has many resonances within it, true to the life of the book. ‘Came’ contains none of those riches.

I suspect Davison may follow a more formal French language structure, and Buss what is more usual in colloquial modern English. However, that slightly strange formality which Davison uses, its air of slight strangeness, its more poetical, elevated rhythms, lifts it into ‘heightened’ reality – real, but MORE than real

I wonder………..if I read Buss in my late teens, early twenties, would it resonate so intensely? I can’t un-know the Davison, but am SO pleased I still had the battered, many times re-printed version on my shelves. Otherwise i would have downloaded Buss, and I suspect would have felt some kind of disappointment I couldn’t name, except to find a remembered magic was not quite there

Fournier’s book was made into two filmed versions in France, 1967 and 2006. I looked at the trailer of the later version, and my toes curled as it was utterly soupy. However, this is an excerpt from the earlier version, an excerpt without dialogue which captures some of the strangeness of the book

Rebecca has posted our joint reading review here -and you can discover other delights – she is as thoughtful a reader as she is a writer. And I love how she celebrates other writers, too, those living as well as those departed.

Regular visitors to THIS blog will know how strongly I recommend Mascull’s writing. You can read reviews of her two books, The Visitors and Song of the Sea Maid, plus two Q + As I did with her, here. I was enormously pleased to hear that she recently finished the first draft of book 3, and she whetted my appetite by sending me a link to some of the visual material she used when in the research stage, as springboards to imagination

Links to the Meaulnes versions are to the 2013 centenary, Davison’s

Le Grand Meaulnes Amazon UK
Le Grand Meaulnes Amazon USA