Brian Smith was born in Lerwick, Shetland, and educated there and at Edinburgh University. He is archivist at the Shetland Museum and Archives, co-editor of two volumes of Shetland Documents (1195-1579 and 1580-1611) and other works, and author of Toons and Tenants: settlement and society in Shetland 1299-1899, as well as many historical articles about Shetland. (See his paper 'Gibbets and gallows' posted in four parts on normblog, starting here.) Brian is co-editor of the journal The New Shetlander and Chair of the Shetland local government branch of UNISON. Here he discusses Henri Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes.
Brian Smith on Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier
Le Grand Meaulnes isn't the kind of novel I usually enjoy. My favourites are often the Leavises' as well: Middlemarch, Great Expectations, Born in Exile, Helbeck of Bannisdale, novels of moral dilemma. In 1968, however, we had a gobbet from it in an exam. Forty years later I recall staring at the paragraphs as if I had seen them before. I still remember the word blafard, 'with whitened face', in it: not a word I've seen or used since.
As soon as I read the gobbet I yearned for the book. Since the Penguin translation arrived through the post, a week or two later, it has been a puzzling favourite of mine.
Reading Meaulnes, John Fowles once said, was 'an experience of such strange force, touching so many secret places in my own nature, that I really did not want anyone to tell me what it meant'. 'All those of us', he went on, 'who were entranced, almost literally tranced by the book have never, whatever the colder and sterner judgements of adulthood, lost our intense love for it.'
Fowles's own novel The Magus is drenched with references to Meaulnes. It plays a small part in George Mackay Brown's story 'In the eye of the hurricane'. The second chapter of H.E. Bates's fine novel Love for Lydia ends in exactly the same way as the second chapter of Meaulnes, with an unmistakable verbal echo.
Le Grand Meaulnes is the story of an adolescent schoolboy of the 1890s. Augustin Meaulnes stumbles into a wedding fête in a country château. There he falls in love instantly with Yvonne de Galais, the proprietor's daughter, just as Alain-Fournier fell hopelessly in love with someone called Yvonne de Quiévrecourt in 1905.
The narrator of the work is an ambiguous figure. François Seurel is the schoolmaster's lame son and Meaulnes's schoolmate. He is infatuated by Meaulnes and Yvonne, and we hear about these characters, and what happens to them, almost entirely from his narration. Meaulnes's adventure is also Seurel's adventure, and Seurel throws himself into it and broods on it as much as his friend. When Seurel accidentally finds the clue that leads them back to the mysterious château, his knee stops hurting for good. Meaulnes is Seurel's book.
During the second part of the book Meaulnes tries to find the château and his lost love, with results that will ravish or disappoint you. When he finds them he marries Yvonne, and then he leaves again, the day after his wedding, to expiate a 'secret remorse'. He doesn't reappear until the last chapter of the book; and by that time Yvonne - 'so ardently sought, so deeply loved' - is dead.
Almost everyone agrees that the first 100 or so pages of the book are masterly. Some - André Gide, for instance - are disappointed with the third and final part of it, when the mystery is solved, and the dreary results of the discovery overwhelm the characters. But that's the point. Penelope Fitzgerald said that Meaulnes is 'about adolescents who want to want not to grow up, but fail', and that sums it up well.
In September 1994 two friends and I went to look for Meaulnes's chateau and stamping ground, in the Sologne in Central France. At Chapelle-d'Angillon, the village where Alain-Fournier grew up, we inspected a museum founded in his honour. It turned out that only half the display was about Alain-Fournier - and that was tat. Much of the rest concerned the career and regalia of Zog I, king of the Albanians from 1928-39 and ally of Mussolini. The owners of the château, we learned, had revered and entertained Zog.
In the basement the curator showed us a small display devoted to Tintin and his artist, the collaborator Hergé. Handing us a drink, she spoke feelingly about France's greatest problem: the deluge of Arabs, which was diluting and spoiling the local blood.
That was too much for one of my companions. 'In Britain', he said, not too accurately, 'we welcome people from other countries'. Madame rolled her eyes.
It was an anti-climax, but that's life.
Meaulnes was published in 1913. A year later Alain-Fournier died in fighting in Saint-Rémy Wood between Metz and Verdun, not yet thirty.
Le Grand Meaulnes isn't fairyland. It is tragic, but it's also magical. Nothing could be more touching than its climaxes: when Meaulnes taps at the classroom window on his return from the château, on the coldest morning of winter; when Seurel sees Meaulnes's silk waistcoat; when Meaulnes writes three desperate letters to Seurel from Paris. When Seurel unexpectedly finds 'the road to the domain for which we had no name'. And when Seurel carries Yvonne's dead body downstairs: 'This taste of earth and of death, and this weight on my heart, is all that is left to me of the great adventure...' I recommend it.
(Translations of Meaulnes into English have varying names. The new Penguin translation  by Robin Buss is called The Lost Estate. It replaced Frank Davison's 1966 translation, called, like the original, Le Grand Meaulnes. Davison's version had already been published by Oxford in 1959 as The Lost Domain.)