The Two Tragedies of Life: Le Grand Meaulnes, Modernism (And Me)
Although the influential French author Alain-Fournier probably never used the word modernism (or its French equivalent), his novel, Le Grand Meaulnes, published in 1913, is a small shining stone on the rocky path to modern literature.
The novel, whose title is almost never literally translated, is variously known as The Wanderer, The Lost Manor, The Lost Estate in English; but mostly it isn’t known at all, at least in the United States. Although it is considered an important text of modern French literature, and the British novelist John Fowles once wrote a deliriously adoring paean to it, it rarely appears on lists of classic must-reads in US literary circles.
Alain-Fournier was a (sort of) pseudonym for Henri Alban-Fournier who, like the narrator of Le Grand Meaulnes, was the son of a rural French schoolteacher. Though the narrative’s language, tone, and point-of-view reach toward an unaffected innocence of style, Alain-Fournier was no naïf; he was a nascent man-of-letters, a poet and critic, who knew Jacques Riviere, Andre Gide, Paul Claudel, and many other early French modernists.
Le Grand Meaulnes resists easy description. The plot sounds somewhat ludicrous when recounted (although Dante and his Beatrice, after all, tread similar turf): 1. Boy goes on journey 2. In a magical moment, boy briefly encounters exquisite girl 3. Boy spends years trying to recapture moment and girl but 4. When he finally finds her, he leaves again to go off on another journey. The narrative is filled with curious coincidences and improbable events—and what, by the way, happens to the horse and cart which carries Meaulnes off on his mythic journey? It is never mentioned again—but the overall effect is enchanting, passionate, moving. Meaulnes is very much a youthful book, but the ache of the novel’s yearning for truth and beauty throbs (at least for me) long past youth.
It is, in so many ways, a classic quest tale, bursting with archetypal motifs: the Journey (by cart), the Other (the elusive Yvonne and her feral brother Frantz), Magical Objects (the firecrackers, the map), Helpers and Guides (the children who guide Meaulnes to the fete, the gypsy who calls out to him from below his window). There is even a Call to the Quest reminiscent of one of the Grail stories: Meaulnes steals the school’s horse and cart to pick up his friend’s visiting grandparents at the railway station but takes a wrong turn, gets lost, falls asleep in the cart, and awakens to find himself near a magnificent, ruined manor. All of this mythos might make the narrative sound fey or precious but it is saved from that fate by virtue of its skillful mingling of dream-like imagery with very precise details of rural French life in the early part of the 20th century—what now might be called magic-realism—and by a strong, vivid narrative voice.
Like many modern novels—The Great Gatsby, for instance (which numerous critics have said was probably influenced by Alain-Fournier), The Good Soldier, The Golden Bowl—Le Grand Meaulnes is narrated not by the main character nor by an omniscient narrator but rather in a sidelong view, by the main character’s friend Francois, an observer of the overall narrative sweep. This is an inherently modernist narrative gambit, suggesting that the real truth of what did or did not happen is never totally within our grasp:
For the first time, I too am on the road to adventure, Francois tells us, quizzically. I am looking for something still more mysterious. I’m looking for the passage that they write about in books, the one with the entrance that the prince, weary with travelling, cannot find. This is the one you find at the remotest hour of morning, long after you have forgotten that eleven o’clock is coming, or midday. And suddenly, as you part the branches in the dense undergrowth…you see something like a long, dark avenue leading to a tiny circle of light…But while I am intoxicating myself with these hopes and ideas, I suddenly come out into a clearing which turns out to be nothing more than a field.
But perhaps the most powerful argument in favor of the seminal modernist essence of Alain-Fournier’s only novel is not within the narrative itself but in the circumstances surrounding it. Le Grand Meaulnes was published in 1913. Alain-Fournier had begun a second novel when World War I broke out. He died, in battle, in the first month of the war—the war which was to forever transform European culture and whose 16 million casualties might be regarded as spectral escorts into the realm of modernism. He was not yet 28.
As with so many influential books in my life, Le Grand Meaulnes is connected to my heart by a quavering personal thread. It was given to me—thrust into my hands, I should say— my junior year in college by a young woman, whom we shall call J, a young woman who so dominated that year in my thoughts that it’s hard for me to recall anything about that year which did not involve her.
She was not, I hasten to add, my girlfriend though we were all but inseparable for much of that time. She was the first person who ever made my heart literally pound when I saw her. She was the only person I wanted to see, talk to, hang out with. But—and this seemed truly tragic at the time—she was already deeply involved with someone else when I met her and although we held hands, kissed, laughed, spent hours walking and talking together, she always went home to the other one. Sometimes, she would storm into my dorm room to tell me how angry she was at him for some infraction. One night, she burst into my room, handed me a battered paperback and said, “This is the best book on earth and it’s about us,” and dashed back out again.
I did not read the book immediately. I think I was afraid to find out what she meant. But shortly after that, I became so restless at night that I could not sleep and began taking long late-night walks across the ghostly silent campus, winding up—every night!—standing on the sidewalk looking up at J’s dorm room window. Some nights, there was a single light on; most nights it was as dark as my thoughts.
One chilly night, feeling exceptionally creepy about what I was doing, I slunk back to my own room and found the book J had given me. I opened it randomly and read this passage: I still go past that window. I am still waiting, without the slightest hope, out of pure madness. At the end of these cold autumn Sundays, just as night is falling, I cannot bear to go back home and close the shutters on my windows, without returning there, to the icy street.
It was as if I had just stuck my finger into an electric socket. I shuddered. Whether Le Grand Meaulnes was indeed about my “relationship” with J was not clear, but it certainly seemed to be about me. I read the entire book that night.
(Full disclosure: I could not then and do not now read French. J, who grew up in Amsterdam and Paris, read the book in its original French; she gave me the English translation. That edition was called The Wanderer.)
I have sometimes wondered what it was that made J assert that Le Grand Meaulnes was about us. Was I supposed to be the obsessed boy who nonetheless abandons his beloved? The best friend who watches in misery the disintegration of everyone he loves? Was J suggesting that she was powerless over the centrifugal pull of her first love? Or that eventually she and I would be reunited in a deeper bond? Or was she just a passionate hothead who loved all the attention and thought she could pull me closer by declaring the book was our story?
Eventually, I grew tired of the drama and wandered off toward new romantic adventures. But as in the novel there was yet another act. Years later, when I was a (sort of) adult, trying to write while living in the cheapest studio apartment in all of Manhattan, J showed up and asked to spend the night with me. She was just in from Paris, where she was living (and still lives, I believe) and wanted to tell me all about her life, about her many and varied loves, about our bond. But I had just begun a new romance myself (one that would end as badly as it is possible to end….but that’s a different story). I told her she could not spend the night. She was despondent. I no longer recall if her incredulous expression gave me a mild frisson of pleasure. I don’t think so; I think I felt genuinely anxious and conflicted. There she was, the first great (unrequited) love of my life, and I could not bring myself to do what I had so yearned to do. I let her store her heavy suitcase beside my bed, and she drifted off, returning only to pick up her bag the next day, and give me a forlorn kiss goodbye.
In Le Grand Meaulnes, when the questing hero finally achieves the goal of reuniting with his lost love, he is upset, restless, unable to grasp the slender ring of happiness he has been tossed. He leaves Yvonne after their wedding night and never sees her again. Like him, I was being offered what I had most desired but rather than suffusing my drab world with joy, it made me upset, restless. I paced my tiny apartment, staring at J’s suitcase. Then, I remembered “our” book and laughed. But it was not a laugh of pleasure, nor even a successfully bitter laugh. It was more a funny/sad gulp of recognition that Alain-Fournier’s novel, though written 60 years before I read it, still felt inescapably entwined with my romantic ideals.
“There are only two tragedies in life,” Oscar Wilde once observed. “One is not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.” That sardonic truth is one which probably cannot be fully apprehended while young. But it is one that Alain-Fournier knew well, fated as he was never to grow old, and it resounds throughout his singular modernist narrative like the great church bells which chime throughout the dreamy countryside of Le Grand Meaulnes.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.