Alain-Fournier’s only masterpiece, Le Grand Meaulnes, recounts the twisting journey of 15 year old François Seurel, whose life is buffeted by the arrival of the older boy, Augustin Meulnes. Together and apart, they wander to a hidden, isolated manor, which weaves their lives together in tensions of honor and love. I do not want to give the story away, but rather encourage people to read it, so I give only a vague synopsis.
Edward Gorey’s illustation for a 1950 edition of the work.
The book, sometimes titled The Lost Domain in English, is full of Victorian-esque improbably twists, coincidences, and shocks, but the beauty of the work lies in its descriptive sense of place, wrapped in the melancholy romantic views of an adolescent. An iconic work in France (or so the Internet tells me), it is not all that well known in the United States.
A Young Fournier
Fournier was a master of evocative descriptions (F. Davison translation):
We had made our way down through a maze of narrows lanes full of white pebbles, or sand – lanes which springs turned into brooks as they neared the river’s edge. We caught our sleeves on thrones of wild gooseberry bushes. At one moment we plunged into the cool shade of a ravine, and a moment later, at a point where the line of hedges was broken, came out into the full clear sunlight which shed a radiance over the whole valley. Across the river a man sat on a rock patiently angling. Never was there a more beautiful day.
Why did Alain-Fournier (whose real name was Henri-Alban Fournier) only gift us with this one lyrical masterpiece, published when he was only 27 years old? Because he was one of the many young men whose lives we decided to throw away and trample in the mud during WWI.
The Mass Grave – Fournier is No. 16
Fournier died near Meuse on 22 September 1914, a month after he joined the army. He and a small squad of soldiers were sent into the woods on a mission, and were never heard from again. Members of the Association of Friends of Alain-Fournier made several trips to Meuse, to feel and understand, perhaps, what Alain-Fournier saw in his last moments. This group wandered that woods where Alain-Fournier and twenty-one soldiers disappeared.
The Mass Burial of Alain-Fournier
Research in the German military archives and a four-week archaeological excavation found the mass grave of the twenty-one, and Alain-Fournier’s body was identified by his nameplate. The research and archaeology indicates that he was shot in the chest after his group was surrounded by Germans, presumably in retaliation for an attack on a German ambulance. The archaeologists on the project were met with skepticism that real archaeology could be done on something as recent as a 1914 mass grave, and the project was the first French archaeological excavation of a WWI site. If you want, you can read Frédéric Adam’s articles on the discovery of the grave, the archaeological excavation, and the wounds of those found (you may not like what you see, and you probably should quit reading blogs and learn French).
Alain—Fournier was re-buried at Saint-Remy-la-Calonne in 1991.
The Verdun-Meuse Grave Site Monument
To be honest, I am stunned by this web. How wonderful and horrific that we have Le Grand Meaulnes, from an author who, duty-bound like his characters, was lost in the woods for almost 100 years, and found only through the faithful patience of friends. A sad final plot twist, but no doubt not a fair trade for what Alain-Fournier would have given us if we had let him live. [I’m not going to tell you how well the pieces fit. Read the book].
Post-script – I completely stumbled into this topic. I read a review piece on the Centenary Edition of Le Grand Meaulnes, and found the rest out of curious internet searching. Journeys often result from, and in, serendipity, it seems.