One of the most striking features of Dickens’ magnificent Great Expectations is the sense of mystery pervading the book, which continues to the last page. It goes well beyond the various plot twists, the whole atmosphere of it is soaked in a feeling of something otherworldly and unspecified swirling around the main character Pip, even in the ostensibly straightforward stretches of narrative. To a lesser extent it’s true of David Copperfield too.
Which in a strange way, makes Alain Fournier something of a French Dickens. His prose (in the original and in translation) is direct and sparse, quite different from some of Dickens’ textual curlicues and elaborate descriptions, but in his main work, and only completed novel Le Grand Meaulnes (otherwise known as The Lost Domain), he achieves a quite mesmerising sense of something numinous and profound, despite, on the face of it, a relatively ordinary story of lost love tinged with tragedy. A few male critics describe it as their favourite novel, and I think it’s because it perfectly captures something difficult to define about male adolescence and growing up, and about the sheer strangeness of events and experiences in those teenage years.
Summarising literary greatness can be difficult, and it’s a measure of the beauty of Le Grand Meaulnes, and the impact it has on the reader, that it’s so easy to find excellent commentaries, from Julian Barnes, Alan Massie and others. They do it better than I can.
Fournier’s own life fits with this theme, and not just in his own unrequited love. An immediately successful novelist, he was killed aged 27 in 1914, fighting in the Meuse area. He had no great hope of surviving the First Wold War, having said in 1911, when things were brewing, that war “is the great game – the great game of death”. He was already famous at the time of his death, and while many efforts were made to piece together the facts of his last minutes (a firefight with Germans), from the few survivors of the fighting, his body wasn’t discovered until 1991. That was thanks to an amazing 14 year search by a French schoolteacher, Michel Algrain. Fournier – identified by a lieutenant’s uniform – had been killed by a single bullet through the sternum and 2nd rib.
As the creator of this great novel, Fournier inspired such dedication, and the following year his body was formally buried with military honours. Le Grand Meaulnes is his enduring legacy.