JUDY KRAVIS

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Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Le Grand Meaulnes

I haven't read any french for a long time. And since we're not travelling. Let's travel. Not just to the Sologne in the département of Cher, but to the french language and who I was when I first read Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier. I was 20, and so prepared, somehow, for the long imagining and distress, the yearning and restlessness of la France Profonde at the turn of the 19th/20th century. Those literate past tenses striking out for paradise. Il put imaginer longuement.

I have three copies. A  Livre de Poche was the first, and possibly the only one I read. A hardback Harraps with long introduction and notes, from 1968, I read for the first time this week. My copy belonged to Patricia Carroll, student at a private school in Lewes run by Rosemary Rose, where I taught for a term or two. I don't know how I came by her copy. It smells of ether. 

On page 18 Patricia has written in biro: search for the ideal. We talked about that, ideals and wandering to fulfil them, if ever. She came from Wicklow. She talked about borrowing my house with her boyfriend one weekend. I remember standing outside the school and pointing out the direction of my house, about five miles away.

The third copy is a trade paperback from 1967 with wraparound cover, a still from the film showing an empty heathland, the end of the world on a sunny day. La Fête Étrange, Le Domaine Mystérieux. Begin here. I met someone in Paris who had worked on the film and gave me the book. There was going to be a trip to the Sologne, the next day, or the one after that. The way my journalist friends were going to Berlin the next day, from the Gare de Lyon; or they'd drive, start early. 

I didn't ever go to the Sologne; or to Berlin. I can't find that edition of the book. 

The first half of Le Grand Meaulnes has stayed in my head for more than half my life.  A layer called Epineul-le-Fleuriel. Meaulne-les-Alliers. Imagine growing up in Epineul-le-Fleuriel. Like living in a Mozart slow movement. I was hazy about the second half of the book, the moral shifting and plot resolution. I liked the Epilogue. Meaulnes on the road again, his young daughter on his shoulder.

Now, many years later, I read the french, the vocabulary and the turn of the phrase. I enjoy looking up rural french words I've forgotten, like the flora/fauna around a fête champêtre at the end of the nineteenth century, on the banks of the river, the form from which a hare springs. 

C'est là que passaient nos matinées; et aussi dans la cour où Florentin faisait pousser des dahlias et élevait des pintades; où l'on torréfiait le café, assis sur des boîtes à savon; où nous déballions des caisses remplies d'objets divers précieusement enveloppés et dont nous ne savions pas le nom ...

Reading Alain-Fournier is a bit like watching the young Steve McQueen as Nevada Smith in some splendid landscape in the American West. Never mind the story, take me to the river. From the beginning again. Le Domaine Mystérieux is found, and lost, and found and lost. At the end of the book le Grand Meaulnes is on the road again. His friend François, our narrator, watches him go,

Je m'étais légèrement reculé pour mieux les voir. Un peu déçu et pourtant émerveillé, je comprenait que la petite fille avait enfin trouvé le compagnon qu'elle attendait obscurément. Le seule joie que m'eût laissée le grand Meaulnes, je sentais bien qu'il était revenu pour me la prendre. Et déjà je l'imaginais, la nuit, enveloppant sa fille dans un manteau, et partant avec elle pour de nouvelles aventures.

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