LE GRAND MEAULNES
By Alain-Fournier • Read by John Hollingworth
My long-ago first reading of Le Grand Meaulnes left me with a powerful mystical swathe of impressions, and it has been fascinating to listen so many decades later to find that my perspective has altered. This time around I found I was seeing with the 15 year-old growing-up-boy narrator, Seurel, who narrates the complex story (rather as Nick Carraway narrates The Great Gatsby), observing as if watching an opera, rather than feeling bound up with the youthful passions of Meaulnes and Franz. Experience tells you that once Meaulnes has consummated his innocent fantasy-passion for Yvonne, it will disintegrate, and that the search of Franz for his runaway fiancée Valentine will bring him pain and destruction. What gives an extra layer of poignancy to Le Grand Meaulnes is the death of its author Alain Fournier just weeks into the Great War which keys into his novel’s theme of loss. Whatever dreams Fournier had nurtured were extinguished and the rural France of his novel was gone for ever.
Whatever your age, the visual and emotional intensity of the story is overwhelming. It’s all a great theatre in the head as you listen: the purity of Meaulnes’ and Franz’s romantic love made up of dream, enchantment and longing; the fantastical masquerade in the grounds of the hidden chateau where Meaulnes first sees Yvonne; the tangled mesh of impossible love; appearances and disappearances; insatiable wanderlust; disguise and carnival; searches with mysterious maps; the pain of terrible loss, yearning and desire…. So it goes on.
And to balance all this, there is the level-headed Seurel, the son of the teachers at the country school where 17 year-old Meaulnes suddenly appears, alluring and intriguing only to disappear and reappear three days later with a fine silk waistcoat beneath his school jacket. Seurel matures over the years and through him we feel the rather melancholy ordinary rural life in Sologne at the end of the nineteenth century with the schoolroom, the horses, carriages and domestic drudgery.
The narration is exactly right. John Hollingworth with his short a’s and unobtrusive gentle northern phrasing is just right for keeping us in Seurel’s sombre real world from which we view the unfolding of Meaulnes’ bright wanderings.
Rachel Redford – Audible
“The enchantment of a world forever lost”
There are readers and there are re-readers. I admire those who read only once and move onto something new; surely they have an exciting literary life. But I am a re-reader, and I like to re-read in several languages at times. That is the case here. This is my first reading of Alain-Fournier in English, and I enjoyed every single word.
What an enchanting book this is. It is hard not to evoke Proust when thinking of the first part of the book, the author’s close observation of character and detail, and his deep self-knowledge and vulnerability. But our author is no imitator of Proust, but an original and imaginative writer in his own right.
I love the protagonist who is somewhat shy and ostracized from his fellows due to a hip problem that causes him to hop and leads his family toward an overly protective attitude. But when Meaulnes comes to board at the school, the young man opens the door to new worlds of friendship, magic, imagination, dreams, and beauty.
As is well-known, the story centers upon a single event which takes place during the Christmas season. Meaulnes disappears and has an unusual experience when he finds “he had dropped into the most peaceful happiness on earth.” As our protagonist says, “It remained for a long time the great secret of our youth. But today when all is ended, and there remains only dust of so much good and so much evil, I can relate his strange adventure.”
The narrator was perfectly suited to the story. I couldn’t have asked for better.
The experience was all the more bittersweet and nostalgic because the book left me wanting more. But there is no more. Alain-Fournier was one of many who died for the great lies of the Great War. That knowledge leaves me with the same longing for more that I feel when I look at paintings from Macke or Marc, who also fell in the war. Still I am thankful for them, as I am for Alain-Fournier, for all they gave us during their brief stay. May they rest in peace.
This classic French novel, originally published in 1913, tells the story of a young man of intense and sudden emotional commitments and the conflicts they create. While narrator John Hollingworth’s characterizations are admirable, Alain–Fournier’s ideas about two of his major characters (and this is a novel about ideas as well as action) sometimes move them completely off the stage. As in THE GREAT GATSBY, the story is narrated by a friend of the title character who is not privy to all the secrets until the conclusion. Hollingworth maintains a balance between the apparent closeness and the real distance between them. He also varies his tempo more than most narrators, and uses this powerfully. This is a wonderfully accessible introduction to a book that deserves a wider audience.
D.M.H. © AudioFile 2017, Portland, Maine