Le Grand Meaulnes – Caught between dream and reality

This is a review of “Le Grand Meaulnes” by Alain-Fournier

Some of the cult status of this classic must stem from the poignancy of the author’s death at the outset of the First World War, aged only twenty-seven.

The autobiographical aspects are spread between the two main protagonists. The narrator François Seurel is, like Alain-Fournier, the son of teachers in rural Solonge. Augustin Meaulnes, the charismatic, shambling, undisciplined youth awash with adolescent hormones who falls obsessively in love with Yvonne de Galais, the young woman he has met only briefly in a remote country estate to which he is subsequently unable to find his way back, mirrors Alain-Fournier’s fateful chance meeting in Paris with the “young woman of his dreams” who was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Alain-Fournier’s additional troubled liaison with another young woman, a seamstress living in Bourges, portrayed as a bleak place in comparison with the magical estate, also provides material for Meaulnes’s later escapades, and a contrast to the purity of his idealised relationship with Yvonne. .

“Le Grand Meaulnes” is often cited as the ultimate novel on adolescence, the irony being that the generations of teenagers reading it at school will probably not appreciate this at the time. As a pre-boyfriend girl with no brothers, I could not understand Meaulnes at all. Forty plus years on, I recognise at once the truth of his moody, restless nature, continually testing boundaries, quite beyond the capacity of schoolmaster Seurel to control, so he simply resorts to overlooking Meaulnes’s misdemeanours. Meaulnes brings excitement into the dull, lonely life of the much more sensible and considerate François. Yet Meaulnes in turn suffers from the even greater follies and fantasies of Yvonne’s over-indulged, unstable brother Frantz. Meaulnes is self-absorbed, in love with the idea of being in love rather than with a real person, bound by a sense of honour without being able to see how this may hurt the one he claims to love the most.

When obliged to read this for A Level, I found it intolerably sentimental, wallowing in romanticism, perhaps an inevitable postscript to the style which dominated the C19. Decades on, I am still irritated by the continual implausible coincidences and improbable plot contrivances, although these may seem permissible in what amounts to a fairy tale grounded in the reality of French rural life which itself was about to be disturbed by a major war, and destroyed by C20 change. Yet I also now appreciate the poetic clarity and exquisite fluidity of the writing, the vivid evocation of the countryside and the simple, at the time no doubt seemingly unchangeable, long vanished way of life. Alain-Fournier has succeeded in his desire to create a dreamlike quality, particularly evident during the fateful wedding party which Meaulnes gatecrashes by chance at the mysterious estate .

Recommended to read in French, perhaps a little disappointing in English.

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