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The Man Without a Life
Alain-Fournier Le Grand Meaulnes, trans. from the French by Frank Davison (London: Penguin, 1959).
Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier is a book that straddles two centuries. Originally published in 1912, it is an almost swash-buckling adventure story about romance and love, and yet it clearly reads as a 20th century novel about loss—not only a loss of innocence and love, but a lost loss of meaning and significance, a loss of what it means to be alive. The narrator, son to headmaster of a secondary school which serves as both his home and classrooms, is a rather timid being whose life might have gone without notice had it not been for the sudden appearance in his home of a tall seventeen year old with closely cropped hair who suddenly brings into his life a sense of magic and wonderment previously unimagined. Augustin Meaulnes’s first act is to discover in his new attic room two unspent firecrackers which, with the young narrator as an ally, he immediately sets afire. The result is a sudden alliance between the two that represents both a kind of brotherly relationship and a subtly sexual awareness that is the subject of the rest of the fiction: “Coming out of doors…my mother saw two great bouquets of read and white stars soar up from the ground with a hiss. And for the space of a second she could see me standing in a magical glow, holding the tall newcomer by the hand, and not flinching….”
For the young narrator, the sudden presence of Augustin marks the advent of a new life, as he moves from his previous room-based studies to the outside and as he interacts, with the coaxing of he who the schoolboys have quickly dubbed le grand Meaulnes, with the village boys and a life previously unknown to him. But the neighborhood adventures have hardly begun before Meaulnes, in a grand gesture of chivalry—perhaps stimulated as much by competition with other classmates and the impulsiveness of his character—determines to deliver the narrator’s visiting grandparents from the train station some distance away before the appointed child gets a chance to accomplish the task. When that child returns with the grandparents and there is no sign of Meaulnes, the young narrator can only fear for his friend’s condition. Several days pass before Meaulnes returns, tired, hungry and in a heightened emotional state. The handsome older boy ultimately relates his adventures in which, after his becoming totally lost, he ended up in a grand mansion where all were celebrating the marriage of the young boy of the house. But it is the young man’s sister, Yvonne, who has captured Meaulnes’s heart, and from that moment on he focuses his attentions, upon returning to the school, upon finding his way back to the domaine of happiness.
The astute reader quickly perceives that what Meaulnes is seeking is not just a lost place of joy, a house in the woods, but a lost world, a world which anyone knowledgeable of mythical patterns, perceives will not be easily found—if it can ever be found—again. And as classroom rivalries escalate and the neighborhood is plagued by ruffians who steal from the simple peasants, we already know that the childhoods of these two friends will soon be over. After some desperate, if half-hearted searches, Meaulnes determines to leave the quiet village he has temporarily energized in search of his lost domaine and the woman who dwells there. Traveling to Paris, he communicates only twice with the young narrator, who understandably misses the grand figure that so changed his life.
As time passes, however, he too escapes the confines of his father’s schoolhouse and the small village in which he has grown up. On a visit to his uncle and aunt living in a village of some distance, he uncovers the secret of the lost domaine—a place now nearly completely destroyed—and the whereabouts of Meaulnes’s lost love. The spoiled young man who was to have been married either refused to go through the marriage or was jilted by his young lover, as a result of which it is revealed that the family was bankrupt. Convinced that he has found what his friend has been searching for, the narrator races off to report the news, only to find Meaulnes preparing to depart on a long journey and seemingly disinterested in uncovering the wondrous woman of his past.
He postpones his journey to return to the small town of the narrator’s relatives, where, indeed he discovers the woman to be the beauty of the lost domaine. After a series of clumsy attempts of conversation—and in what is a stunning introduction of soon-to-be commonplace psychological techniques (the scene between the young woman and Meaulnes recalls to mind the sexual tensions between lovers expressed in D. H. Lawrence’s early writings)—the two are married. Through the narrator’s ponderings, however, it soon becomes apparent that there is something brooding in the wings. When a young ruffian, from the old days—a vagabond named Frantz who had befriended Meaulnes and the narrator in the little town of their school—reappears, it’s suddenly apparent that he is the same spoiled boy of the marriage day, brother to Meaulnes’ wife. When Meaulnes hears of his existence, he suddenly leaves his wife on what clearly will be a voyage of Odysseyian proportions. Will he ever return?
Yvonne, meanwhile, bears a young girl, but she herself dies in the process, and with the death Yvonne’s father as well, the narrator—now a school teacher himself—takes on the responsibility of the child. It is his only significance in a world previously dominated by his romantic friend, and in his gentle domesticity, we recognize an end to the romantic past. The discovery of a diary, left by Meaulnes, reveals that the hero of this legendary tale, was perhaps not always so “magnificent” or “grand.” Gradually it becomes clear why Meaulnes has been reticent to return to his lover and her lost domaine. Indeed the innocence and faith of the past has been betrayed by Meaulnes himself. In Paris he had fallen in love with a young woman, whom eventually he discovered to be the intended woman for Frantz de Galais, Yvonne’s beloved brother. Shocked by the discovery, he disavows her, sending her away from him and into a life that can only lead to prostitution.
Plagued with guilt, he has later promised to return the young woman to Frantz—days before his own rediscovery of Yvonne and his ultimate marriage to her. His abandonment of all he loves in order to repair his conscience may seem like the grandest of all romantic gestures. But in the context of this tale of childlike life of Frantz and the family’s pandering to his whims, it is clear that such a vision can end only in suffering. If Meaulnes returns after having accomplished his feat, in his embracement of his own child, he removes whatever is left of the narrator’s purpose in life. The friendship, which so enlightened the school-boy’s/schoolteacher’s world, has come full circle as it suffocates his very existence. Father and child have been restored, but wife and friend have been forever forsaken. It is somewhat frighteningly appropriate that the 28 year old Henri Alban (Alain-Fournier) would die in action in World War I only one year after publishing this book.
Los Angeles, February 6, 2006
Copyright ©2006 by Douglas Messerli.