January 1, 2013


The girl at the Grand Palais : The adolescent obsession that inspired an influential yet neglected French classic (The Economist, Dec 22nd 2012)

The life of Henri Fournier (pictured), now better known by his pen name, spun round a single, sunny afternoon in 1905, described in Robert Gibson's valuable biography "The End of Youth". Leaving an art exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, when he was 18, he spotted a young woman walking with an older lady. Captivated, he followed them across the river to the door of a Left Bank apartment, afterwards returning to the building whenever his studies would allow. Too timid to knock, he paced the streets outside. Ten days later he saw the girl again--walking unaccompanied to mass--and approached her. Wary but flattered, she agreed to stroll with him by the Seine.

He told her he was a writer (or that he would be one day), the son of a country schoolmaster, now studying in Paris. She told him her name was Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, and that she was staying in the city with relatives, but leaving the next day. At her request they separated at the Pont des Invalides. Waiting where she left him, Fournier saw her look back twice. Years later he was still decoding this gesture: "Was it because, silently, from a distance, she wanted to reinforce her order that I should not follow her? Or was it to let me see her face one more time?"

Fournier clung to the memory long after it should have faded into his adolescence. He waited at the steps of the Grand Palais on the anniversary of his first glimpse of her (knowing, in rational moments, that she would not be there). He returned frequently to the apartment, hoping to spot her at a window. The word "She", its first letter meaningfully capitalised, peppered his letters.

Other frustrations in his life helped this childish attachment foment into something powerful. He twice failed his university entrance exam, which kept him at school long after his peers had left. Mandatory military service prevented a third failure, but brought another two years of gloom. In 1909 he returned to Paris and moved in with his parents, plagued by "the feeling that youth is over and you haven't done what you ought".

Attempts to contact Yvonne brought Fournier further disappointment. In July 1907 he had finally called at the apartment building--to be told by the concierge that she had married the previous winter. Two years later, still disconsolate, he hired a private investigator. He learned her address, and that she had a child.

These discoveries distressed Fournier. Five years after the encounter he still labelled his fixation a "sickness"; occasionally his melancholy brought on bouts of real fever. But it also suited his nature to love at a distance. The memorable months he spent perfecting his English in Chiswick, in west London--where the young anglophile delighted in tea, jam and the landmarks made famous by his beloved Dickens--were marred only by the unsettling worldliness of British girls, who "get too friendly too soon".

What is more, with Yvonne as his muse Fournier's literary career gathered startling speed. [...]

In the novel, 17-year-old Augustin Meaulnes is sent to board at a country school. There he befriends François Seurel--the bookish son of the local schoolmaster and the novel's narrator--and earns the admiration of his schoolmates, who bestow on him the title le grand. Months later Meaulnes stumbles upon a tumbledown chateau where a bizarre wedding party has assembled, its guests in lavish historical costume. There he encounters a beautiful young woman, but afterwards he finds it impossible to locate the strange estate, and the mysterious girl. Before his search comes to an end, a bungled suicide will leave one character disfigured; a brief affair in Paris will lead a young woman to the streets.

The story mixes fantasy and reality. Fournier's childhood home among the moors and marshes of north-central France, to which he felt a morbid attachment almost equal to his longing for Yvonne, provides a nostalgic setting. The book features events and observations first chronicled in letters; a few passages quote directly from his correspondence. But its imagined elements, such as a circus troupe that vanishes overnight, recall the novels of Britain's renowned adventure writers--Kipling, Stevenson, Wells and Defoe. An early chapter cites "Robinson Crusoe".

Drawing the real and fantastical together is the meeting between Meaulnes and the elusive heroine, also called Yvonne. It is a faithful re-enactment of the encounter of 1905 that Fournier had recorded in his notebook. The novel sways between celebrating and condemning the obsessive and destructive search that follows; but Fournier was at least able to give his characters a concluding reunion--part wish-fulfilment, part tragedy--that his own story still lacked.

It's a terrific novel, but one does wish to smack author and hero upside their heads and tell them to get on with life.

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Posted by at January 1, 2013 12:35 PM

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