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Author Topic: [122] Alain-Fournier--Le Grand Meaulnes  (Read 1564 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: October 10, 2014, 10:15:32 PM »

Blighted love and blurry haystacks

October 10, 2014

I found myself with a little bit of time on my hands this summer (actually, I didn't have time, I just lost track of my responsibilities) and no copy of Aeschylus, so I went to the alphabetically next author, Alain-Fournier. His only novel, Le Grand Meaulnes: The Wanderer, beautifully captures the nuanced flavor of youth. The author, a young man, already longs for the days of childhood while relishing the romanticism of hopeless love. His style beautifully reflected the mood: dreamlike, unaffectedly emotional, and charged with wonder.

The novel has three parts. In the first, we meet the “great” Meaulnes and learn of his life-changing adventure. In the second, we learn piecemeal how things developed for Meaulnes thereafter. In the third, we resolve all mysteries and conclude all dramas. The narrator plays a minor role in the action and offers us no side-adventures to distract us from Meaulnes's obsession, so the unified voice behind Le Grand Meaulnes resembles Nick Carraway's in The Great Gatsby. As with Gatsby, Meaulnes did things we may condemn, but the narrator refrains from judgment.

In a small village in France, a seventeen-year-old boarder named Augustin Meaulnes comes to stay at the home of our narrator, François Seurel, about fifteen ears old. Seurel looks up to the older boy, but the other kids in town don't accept him readily. One day, after hearing about some expected visitors, Meaulnes goes missing, along with a horse and cart, but the riderless horse turns up again a few days later, and after that, Meaulnes himself appears at school without explanation. We learn he had “borrowed” the horse and cart and headed out into the countryside to pick up the visitors. Not knowing the area, he got lost and found himself at an abandoned, dilapidated mansion with a strange party in progress, the guests mostly children. These guests had gathered from near and far to celebrate a wedding, but neither the groom nor the bride had yet appeared. While there, Meaulnes had met and fallen madly in love with a somewhat ethereal young woman his own, the groom's sister. When Meaulnes returns to the village, the village boys, who don’t know anything of what happened, see him as an adventurer, full of mystique. Subsequent phases of the story revolve around the mysterious mansion and the characters Meaulnes met there, especially the groom and his sister.

Alain-Fournier's narrative style creates suspense through a selective telling: by alternately concealing and revealing key bits of information, not always in chronological order, he creates a rhythm of development, much like a plot but not quite. While Alain-Fournier reveals nothing that Seurel the character did not eventually know, Seurel the narrator feigns ignorance of key points while also including details he only learns years later.

The novel resembles the paintings of the French Impressionists. It masterfully evoked a personal age, a historical period, and a geographic place. Such sharp observations! But his images sometimes blurred with naïveté. Nevertheless, it strikes just the right note for such a novel. Anything else would have meant distancing the reader through a cynical or ironic stance, and that approach would have missed the point: the evocation of a time, place, and frame of mind. So, while some might think it a flaw, the narrator's naïveté set well with me.

One first notices about Alain-Fournier's style an abundance of ellipses. Many paragraphs trail off, hinting that the memory involved much more. In the author's hands the technique seems honest, not contrived...

I can't say much about the later parts of the novel without spoiling some of the story. But then, the same remark holds true of the first part. The whole storyline, in fact, seems built out of well-timed surprises—not so much surprising developments, though, as surprising details. I didn't notice much character development. All in all, I would call this novel a well-crafted, impressionistic account of youthful romanticism that skirts sentimentality. I read it twice; it did not offend me; but I wish the author had lived long enough to give us more. He died (we can surmise) at the age of twenty-seven on a foray from the trenches in the second month of the first world war—his body never found.

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