France is celebrating the centenary of the publication of Henri Alain-Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes. There will be numerous literary events, exhibitions and fêtes galantes – such as a circus performance in Épineuil le Fleuriel, where Fournier grew up. There is even a competition for a sequel to the novel.
First published in 1913 as a serial in La Nouvelle Revue Française and then as a book by Émile-Paul Frères, Le Grand Meaulnes has been translated into more than 33 languages including Russian, Chinese and Japanese, turned into a ballet, adapted as a BBC radio play, made into two feature films, and used as the inspiration for a symphony by French composer Michel Bosc. It is prescribed reading in a wide range of teaching syllabuses and, as Robert Gibson delightedly points out in The End of Youth: The Life and Work of Alain-Fournier (2005), it has “received the ultimate apotheosis of providing passages for practical criticism in the École Normale Supérieure entrance examination which Fournier so comprehensively failed in 1906 and 1907” (p. 306).
Writing in The Guardian, the English author Julian Barnes said, “There is no doubting the classic status of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. A poll of French readers a dozen years ago placed it sixth of all 20th-century books, just behind Proust and Camus. Most French people read it at school; yet very few of them (according to my own private poll) ever reread it. This may stem from an understandable reluctance to revisit set texts; but more, perhaps, from a fear that the novel’s magic might not work a second time around – as if, in adulthood, we know too much to fall under the its spell again. Yet this would be a mistake. What John Fowles called ‘the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature’ can only ever be partly grasped by adolescents, because they don’t yet know exactly what it is they are going to lose by growing up” (“Le Grand Meaulnes revisited”, 13 April 2012).
The germ of the novel lay in a chance encounter that took place on 1 June 1905 when Henri Alain-Fournier (right) was descending the steps of the Grand Palais in Paris. In front of him was an elderly lady accompanied by a tall, slim, fair-haired girl, so lovely and elegant that he took her to be an actress. As he drew level with them, she glanced in his direction. Her eyes were intensely blue. For a moment he stopped in his tracks, then, as they moved slowly off along the Cours-la-Reine, Fournier followed. The young lady’s head was hidden beneath a white parasol and the elderly lady did most of the talking, frequently laughing. Fournier followed them on to a Seine river-bus, and while it chugged its way upriver, as often as he dared to, he surreptitiously observed them.
We know what happened because, as soon as he got back to the lycée where he was studying, Fournier scribbled down his impressions. He also used this encounter – described by John Fowles in the afterword to the Lowell Blair translation as “one of the most famous private thunderbolts in the history of love” – in Le Grand Meaulnes. Who was the mysterious young woman?
Her name was Yvonne de Quiévrecourt and she was engaged to be married to a naval doctor. By the time Fournier met her again, she had two children, a boy and a girl. Before going off to the Great War, Fournier sent her a copy of his recently published novel. Only a close friend knew the story and it was not until 1964 that her name was revealed. In a letter written in 1972 Yvonne’s daughter explained:
“The surviving members of my family cared very little for the publicity inevitably created around Yvonne de Galais when my mother’s name was revealed a few years ago, after the secret had been so faithfully kept for such a long time. My mother, a woman of great charm indeed, and of remarkable distinction rather than beautiful, lived a life of great modesty and total self-effacement in her role of wife and mother. Involuntary inspiration for Alain-Fournier, she watched Yvonne de Galais enter into literature as a myth that had very little to do with reality. Her life-history presents nothing striking and would be impossible to write. Leave it in its mystery, which will inspire more dreams than the real life of a charming being without history. There is no history of Dante’s Beatrice and it’s surely better that way.”
Much later she decided that she could divulge a few more details (“Rencontres avec Soeur Marie-Yvonne, fille d’Yvonne de Quiévrecourt” by Michèle Maitron-Jodogne, in Bulletin des Amis de Jacques Rivière et d’Alain-Fournier No. 101, 2001). Her mother was:
“Discriminating, very intuitive, very feminine. Her smile was mysterious and a little sad, her voice melodious. Blonde – something photos show poorly – and beautiful, she attracted above all by her charm, a charm that the years never really diminished. Through her beauty and her gifts, she drew attention, but this unquestionable radiance was not always well accepted by a family that extolled discretion and reserve.”
Yvonne de Quiévrecourt lived until 1964. Alain-Fournier was killed in action in 1914 together with 20 other members of the 288th infantry regiment. His body was not found until 1991 and today his final resting place is the Saint-Rémy-la-Calonne National Cemetery in the Meuse. Yet his spirit lives on in the novel that made him famous, whose first line is known to French school-children everywhere: “Il arriva chez nous un dimanche de novembre 189…” No sequel could ever do it justice.