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Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes (Le Grand Meaulnes; Big Meaulnes; The Wanderer; The End of Youth; The Lost Domain)

This novel had a considerable success in the 1960s, as its dreamlike style was reminiscent to some of a drug-induced state. However, what led to this is skilled writing and the idea of a great love and recreation of the past. The nearest equivalent is probably Brideshead Revisited, though they are very different novels. The success of this novel can be seen by the number of English translations there have been.

François Seurel – am I alone in being reminded of Julian Sorel of Le Rouge et le Noir? – is a fifteen year old boy at a French boarding school. A new student arrives at the school, by name of Augustin Meaulnes, soon christened le grand Meaulnes (Big Meaulnes). Meaulnes is mysterious. He disappears for three days and, initially, does not tell anyone where he has been. Finally, he tells François that he lost his horse and ended up at a stately home, where he is invited to a costume party, in preparation for an engagement party for the son of the house. He sees a young woman and is immediately attracted to her. This is, of course, Alain-Fournier’s Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, though, in the book, she is called Yvonne de Galais. As with Alain-Fournier’s Yvonne, she rejects Meaulnes. The son of the house, who had been to fetch his fiancée, returns without her and says that he can no longer live. As he is leaving Meaulnes hears a shot.

François and Meaulnes try to find the stately home but do not succeed, though Meaulnes make a provisional map. One day, the two are attacked and the map stolen. One of the perpetrators – Alain-Fournier calls him a young bohemian – becomes a student at the school. He becomes friends with François and Meaulnes, gives Meaulnes the map back and tells him that Yvonne is in Paris. The bohemian is eventually revealed as Frantz, the young fiancé of the stately home but then he, too, disappears. Meaulnes goes off to Paris but learns, as did Alain-Fournier, that Yvonne is married.

A year later, François discovers that the stately home is near where he stays with his Uncle Florentin. Florentin tells him that Yvonne is not married and François meets Yvonne. A party is organized so that Meaulnes can meet Yvonne again, though we discover that the de Galais family is in dire financial straits. The party does not go well but Meaulnes proposes to Yvonne. However, at the wedding, Frantz turns up and demands Meaulnes’ help in finding his fiancée, Valentine, based on an earlier promise made by Meaulnes. Yvonne has a baby but dies in childbirth without ever having seen Meaulnes again. The child survives. François discovers Meaulnes’ diary and finds that, when he was in Paris, he had an affair with a woman who, of course, turned out to be Frantz’s fiancée, hence his determination to help his friend find her. (She too has disappeared.) Meaulnes then returns with Frantz and Valentine and then disappears with his daughter.

It is very melodramatic and often recalls the German Romantics in style. Yet Alain-Fournier tells the story so well that it does not become mawkish. The objective François, the larger than life Meaulnes and the romantic hero Frantz, as well, of course, as the image of Yvonne de Galais, are all convincing portrayals.

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Text in French

Publishing history

First published in 1913 by Emile-Paul
First published in English 1928 by Houghton Mifflin
Translated by Françoise Delisle (Houghton Mifflin); Frank Davison (Penguin/OUP); Sandra Morris (Blackie); Katharine Vivian (Folio); Valerie Lester (Vintage); Robin Buss (Penguin)