Vous êtes belle

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Alain-Fournier: A Brief Life 1886-1914 by David Arkell
    Carcanet, 178 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 85635 484 8
  • Henri Alain-Fournier: Towards the Lost Domain: Letters from London 1905 translated by W.J. Strachan
    Carcanet, 222 pp, £16.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 85635 674 3
  • The Lost Domain by Henri Alain-Fournier, translated by Frank Davison
    Oxford, 299 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 19 212262 2

By the time he was 20 Henri Fournier wasn’t able to say whether it was the country itself that he missed – Epineuil-le-Fleuriel, in the heart of the old Berry province – or the time that he spent there. He shared his country schoolhouse childhood with his young sister Isabelle and their most intense memory was the arrival, at the end of the year, of the livres de prix. They hid themselves, and read every book. But though the dreaming reader persisted in Henri, he became tough and intransigent. He was sent to the Lycée Voltaire and didn’t like it, started to train for the Navy and didn’t like it, prepared for the entrance exam for the Ecole Normale Supérieure and didn’t pass it. In June 1905, however, while he was still a lycéen in Paris, he saw (almost as if he had been expecting her), and spoke to, and walked a few hundred metres with, a tall, blonde jeune fille. Her name was Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, and she was of good family, staying with her aunt. He told her, in the words of Pelléas: ‘Vous êtes belle.’ She dismissed him, saying they were both no more than children, and for the next eight years, during which he never saw her, she was his Mélisande, and (transferred to the deep country) the Yvonne de Galais of Le Grand Meaulnes, which was published in 1913. Meanwhile, Fournier – he used the pen-name Alain-Fournier from 1905, partly to avoid confusion with a racing driver – had become a journalist and had a succession of mistresses, the last being the strong-minded actress Simone Benda, who pulled every string, in vain, to get him the Prix Goncourt. He took to racing cars and flying – ‘like Peter Pan’, he told Francis Jammes. Le Grand Meaulnes was written, for the most part, in Rue Cassini. If he had survived the war, what would he have written? Not, probably, Colombe Blanchet, which he had begun, but, as he put it himself, about ‘the countries behind the painted doors of the Paris café-concerts; a world as terrible and mysterious in its own way as the world of my other book’.

The oddness and the great beauty of the ‘other book’ come partly from the dissonance of its elements. James Barrie noted in 1922 that ‘long after writing P. Pan its true meaning came back to me – desperate attempt to grow up but can’t.’ Le Grand Meaulnes is about adolescents who want to want not to grow up, but fail. Alain-Fournier, as has been pointed out more than once, divides himself between his three main characters: Seurel, the ambiguous onlooker, Meaulnes the romantic, and Frantz, the spoilt son of the Domain. Meaulnes disturbs for ever the quiet existence of the school at Ste Agathe, that strange school where the pupils range from the petite classe to 18-year-olds studying for a teacher’s certificate. (One of them, Jasmin Delouche, goes birdnesting at the age of 20.) This school, set in its reassuringly familiar French village – the blacksmith’s, the washhouse, the smell of the boys crowding round the stove – is the only place of security in the book. Any venture into the world means loss: Meaulnes can’t find his way back to the Domain, Frantz loses his child-fiancée, his parents can’t find Frantz, Meaulnes can’t find Frantz, Seurel in the end loses everything, even the child he had hoped to bring up as his own, while Meaulnes loses the purity of vision which gives him the right to search at all. Gradually, however, it appears that the mysterious domain is within easy distance of Nançay, where Seurel’s uncle keeps a large grocery store. It could always have been found (as in the end it is) without difficulty.

Alain-Fournier was, of course, literary, if the word is anything like strong enough. Le Grand Meaulnes, with its forests and midnight fête and pale, dubious pierrot, is a conte bleu of the 1900s, a paradise for source-hunters. But Alain-Fournier had arrived at his own idea of the relation between actuality and dream. The fantastic, he thought, must be contained within the real, and by ‘the real’ he meant ‘a really quite simple story which could very well be my own’. He made no secret at all of the way he used his own experience. The school is his parents’ school at Epineuil, the store is his uncle’s shop at Nançay. When Meaulnes first meets Yvonne de Galais, he tells her: ‘Vous êtes belle.’ When his sister Isabelle married his best friend, Jacques Rivière, Fournier seems to have felt a tormenting mixture of affection and jealousy. So, too, in the closing chapters of the book, does Seurel.

In September 1914, just before his 28th birthday, Henri Fournier was reported missing after a reconnaissance patrol in the woods between Metz and Verdun. His body was never recovered. Over the next fifty years, the evidence of the story he had left open to the world was published bit by bit: his correspondence with Jacques Rivière in 1926 (enlarged in 1948), his family letters in 1930 (enlarged in 1949), Simone Benda’s Sous de Nouveaux Soleils in 1964, Isabelle Rivière’s Vie et Passion d’Alain-Fournier (which, among many other things, put Simone in her place) in 1964. Jean Loize, for his 1968 biography, turned up a letter from the station-master’s daughter who was Fournier’s first girlfriend in Paris. Now we are promised the text of a (dullish) letter from T.S. Eliot, who took French lessons for a while from Fournier. The quest continues.

For 1986, the centenary of Henri’s birth, Carcanet have brought out Alain-Fournier: A Brief Life by David Arkell, describing him as ‘the noted literary sleuth’. This, I think, does Arkell an injustice. As a sleuth, he hasn’t been able to solve the long-standing problems: what was the surname of the station-master’s daughter? What was Yvonne de Quiévrecourt’s address off the Boulevard St Germain? Did Simone abort Henri’s child in April 1914? On the other hand, he is an excellent biographer, giving a balanced view of the ‘brief life’ whose tragedy doesn’t need underlining, and he is particularly careful with the difficult relationship of Henri, Simone, Isabelle and Jacques Rivière. Although this is a short, no-nonsense book, he manages to show that Alain-Fournier was, as he puts it, ‘the most French of French writers’, the boy who repeated, as an incantation for difficult moments, the names of the railway stations between Bourges and La Chapelle. The illustrations are outstanding. When he went to the Lycée Voltaire in 1898 Henri was given his first 9 × l2 cm camera, and he produced a fine set of photographs, which are reproduced here from the collection of Alain Rivière. Henri’s father, his mother, the village postman, the juge de paix, all sat or stood and kept still for him, and there is a view from the schoolhouse of the Grande Place, Epineuil, almost empty in the midday sun, and looking as though nothing could ever disturb it.

During the summer of 1905 Henri was sent to London to improve his English. He had been found a clerical job with Sanderson’s, the wallpaper manufacturers, and he lodged with the family of Mr Nightingale, the firm’s secretary. Most of his letters home have been printed, but it seems that a few passages were omitted, and some postcards escaped publication. Towards the Lost Domain is the complete London series, translated by W.J. Strachan, although unfortunately without any indication of what has been published before, or where. Some of Jacques Rivière’s replies are included, so are Fournier’s notes on his meeting with Yvonne – though not the final draft of 1913. The book gives an appealing picture of Fournier, not only as an energetic young romantic, haunting the Queen’s Hall to hear Wagner, and the Tate Gallery to see the Pre-Raphaelites, but as a hungry French schoolboy. He even had to ask Isabelle to send him bread from Paris. All the more credit to him that by the time he left for the rentrée he had come to love England. Indeed, he was a connoisseur. His descriptions are as flattering in their way as Camille Pissarro’s views of Norwood. Writing from 5 Brandenburgh Road, Gunnersbury, he is moved by ‘windows of exquisitely coloured glass, differently coloured stones, lace curtains, absolutely everywhere, pianos and flutes sounding on every side’. Even a burglary was welcome, reminding him of Sherlock Holmes. In life and art, he told Jacques Rivière, ‘I’ve always wanted something which touches, in the sense of putting a hand on your shoulder,’ and West London did touch him.

Oxford University Press, for their part, have reissued The Lost Domain, Frank Davison’s tried and true translation of Le Grand Meaulnes. It is a handsome edition in bold type, rather like a child’s book, although Le Grand Meaulnes, whatever it is, is not a book for children. In 1959, in the World’s Classics, it had an introduction by Alan Pryce-Jones, who saw the book as ‘the last novel of idyllic love which is likely to have universal appeal’. He considered that nothing in it came up to the opening scenes, which established the ‘magic dependence’ of Seurel. (So did many others. Gide said that one should be loyal only to the first hundred pages, Denis Saurat to the first fifty.) The Pryce-Jones introduction has now been replaced by an Afterword by John Fowles, less sensitive, but more enthusiastic. Fowles, who follows Robert Gibson[*] in taking Seurel as the central character, tells us that he was once under the influence of Alain-Fournier, and is still ‘a besotted fan’. He deserts the text, however, when he says that Frantz de Galais, like Meaulnes, ‘strives to maintain a constant state of yearning’. Frantz settles down happily in the end with his wife and his house. Again, the illustrator, Ian Beck, is true to one side of the book, its delicate nostalgia, but not to Fournier’s ‘reality’. Meaulnes, for example, in the last illustration, ought to have a beard (un grand gaillard barbu). Does his beard matter? Fowles writes that ‘something elusive remains after all the learned analysis ... some secret knowledge of how far a poetic imagination can outfly gross reality.’ And yet this ‘outflying’ was precisely what Alain-Fournier had hoped to avoid.

[*] In Le Grand Meaulnes: Modern World Literature Series, Harrap, 1968, and Critical Guide to French Texts: Le Grand Meaulnes, Grant and Cutler, 1986.