Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

untitled (3) ‘It must have been getting on for three in the afternoon when at last he saw the spire of a turret above a large grove of fir trees.’

This isn’t a novel: it’s an extended magic show in written form. Just sit and wonder at it. Rural France, the 1890s. Teenager Augustin Meaulnes arrives at a village school, literally setting off fireworks (‘two great bouquets of red and white stars soar up from the ground with a hiss’) changing forever the life of the ‘dreamy, reserved, unhappy’ narrator Francois Seurel and providing a model text for adolescent yearning ever since. From the moment Meaulnes, hopelessly off course, sees that turret above the trees and enters the Lost Domain, we are hooked. So is he, stumbling on a wedding party which seems to be run entirely by children, with everyone in fancy dress. He meets the lovely, sad Yvonne de Galais, falls instantly in love, and becomes obsessed with trying to get back to recover the wonder of this mysterious, beautiful couple of days, trying ‘to produce a single bit of wreckage to prove they hadn’t both been dreaming’. But of course it may have been better if he had just let his adventure go… There is more than a little of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, published a few years earlier, in Le Grand Meaulnes, and in particular about the capricious Frantz, who sets the whole thing in motion and has the power to destroy all ‘for the sake of a childish promise’. There is a happy ending of sorts – but not for Meaulnes. Not for any of us really, I think the author implies. There certainly wasn’t for Henri Alban (who took the nom de plume Alain-Fournier): he was killed just over 100 years ago at the age of 27 in the first month of World War One. While his death has undoubtedly lent a patina of sad romance to his only novel, this story would have remained great, and its pull magnetic, however much writing he had been granted the grace to follow it with. Truly, the losses of war are incalculable. Returning to a much-loved novel after several decades is often a mistake. But not this time.

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