Sunday was Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale /Le Quatorze Juillet in France) and so in honour of my friends across La Manche I thought this week I would look at two novels by French writers. Unfortunately, being a typical Brit, I’m useless at other languages – even one with a 60% overlap with English – and so je regrette, I will be discussing the novels in their English translations. Both are novels, classics of French literature, and both concern adolescents, but other than that they are very different. J’espère que vous apprécierez!
Firstly Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (1913, my copy Penguin 1987). Alain-Fournier was the pen name of Henri Alban who died in 1914, fighting in World War I. He was only 27 when he wrote Le Grand Meaulnes, and I think this is a case where it’s very hard not to read the novel biographically with regard to the author’s own life story. Le Grand Meaulnes has an elegiac quality, a mourning for a lost France, a golden time which has passed. It is a story of young adulthood and sexual awakening being told by a narrator looking back on events, and as such it has a nostalgic, idealised tone. Knowing the author died so quickly after writing it adds to this atmosphere of loss.
The novel is narrated by fifteen year old Francois, who attends the school where his parents are teachers. He is lonely, and when seventeen year old Augustin Meaulnes arrives at the school, Francois finds a hero (hence le grand…). Not long after his arrival, Meaulnes finds fireworks left over from Le Quatorze Juillet celebrations (apt for this post):
“He was showing me the two fuses with paper wicks which the flames had bitten into, seared, and then abandoned. He stuck the nave of the wheels into the gravel, produced a box of matches – this to my astonishment for we were not allowed matches – and stooping carefully held a flame to the wicks. Then, taking my hand, he pulled me quickly back.
Coming out of doors with Madame Meaulnes…my mother saw to great bouquets of red and white stars soar up from the ground with a hiss. And for the space of a second she could see me standing in a magical glow, holding the tall newcomer by the hand, and not flinching…
Once again, she had nothing to say.
And that evening a silent companion sat eating at the family table, his head bent over his plate, paying no heed to three pairs of eyes that saw nothing but him.”
A little while after this, Meaulnes disappears for three days. He returns without explanation, wearing the waistcoat of a Marquis. Eventually he tells Francois what happened in those missing days, and the adventure is somewhere between reality and a dream. He lost his way on a journey to the village, and ends up in the grounds of a large estate. The house has the feeling of being abandoned, and he discovers a box of old clothes, rich costumes, which he dresses in. He follows a “young dandy”, also dressed in clothes of a bygone era, into the “farm, chateau, abbey, whatever it might be” and finds himself in the middle of a fete where everyone is dressed oddly, feasting and dancing. In the garden, he sees a young woman, and follows her onto a boat:
“And now on shore, everything fell into place as in a dream. While children ran about shouting and laughing, and their elders broke up into groups and moved away through the woods, Meaulnes kept to the path where the girl was walking only a few steps ahead. He came up with her before he had given himself time to reflect and said simply:
“You are beautiful.””
And so le grand Meaulnes becomes the romantic hero, as he returns to school and he and Francois attempt to find the chateau, and the young woman, Yvonne, again. As Meaulnes searches for her in Paris, Francois discovers where the chateau is. Meaulnes and Yvonne are reunited and marry, but not before Meaulnes has had a crisis over the fact that things can never be as they once were:
“Once she laid a hand on his arm gently, in a gesture of trust and helplessness. Why was le grand Meaulnes at that moment like a stranger, like a man who has failed to find what he sought and for whom nothing else held any interest? Three years before such a gesture would have overjoyed him to the point of terror, perhaps even madness. Why then this present emptiness, this aloofness, this inability to be happy?”
And therein lies the rub of this novel – le grand Meaulnes can behave like a bit of an idiot. He is the eternal romantic, but life cannot be all romance. As he tries to live out his fantasies, he actually behaves quite badly toward the women in his life. The women in this novel are not fully drawn, they exist as vessels for le grand Meaulnes’ romanticism, and as such this novel can be a frustrating experience for 21st century readers. But as a portrayal of the time when childhood has been left behind but adulthood is still to be realised, and of a time when a person has an all-consuming romantic sensibility before it becomes tempered by experience, Le Grand Meaulnes is brilliantly evocative.
Secondly, and with a protagonist very different to Meaulnes, Zazie in the Metro/Zazie dans le Metro by Raymond Queneau (1959, my copy Penguin, 2000). Zazie lives in the country, but when her mother wants to have a few days alone with her lover, Zazie arrives in Paris to spend time with her uncle Gabriel, a female impersonator. Zazie is excited to ride the Metro, but there is a strike on. Undeterred, she explores Paris and has adventures. And that’s about it, really. But despite an outwardly simple plot, Zazie is a hugely enjoyable and compelling read. Zazie is worldly wise and foul-mouthed, and has a great time rocketing around Paris on her own. Here she is chatting to a police constable about her missing uncle:
“He added with a nostalgic air:
“Words don’t have the same meaning as they did.”
And he sighed as he looked at the extremity of his beetle-crushers.
“None of this gives me back my unkoo,” said Zazie. “they’ll start saying I got a phobia again and it won’t be true.”
“Don’t worry my child,” said the widow. “I shall be there to bear witness to your good will and to your innocence.”
“When people are really innocent, that is,” said the constable, “they don’t need anybody.”
“The bastard,” said Zazie, “I can see him coming a mile off. They’re all the same.”
“You know them well as that, then, my poor child?”
“Don’t talk to me about ‘em, my poor lady,” replies Zazie, simpering. “Just fancy, my mamma, she split open my papa’s skull with a chopper. So after that, cops, talk about getting to know them, my dear.”
“Well I never,” said the constable.
“Cops though, they’re just nothing,” said Zazie. “But judges. Well now, that lot…”
“All swine,” said the constable impartially.
“Anyhow, the cops and the judges too,” said Zazie, “I fooled ‘em. Like that (gesture).””
This scene shows a lot about Zazie: the heroine is no idealised infant, but a manipulative, savvy, funny, independent being who seeks to please no-one. The novel has a lot of dialogue and as such a lot of slang, like unkoo, or the opening word “Howcanaystinksotho” (how can they stink so?) which according to Wikipedia, in the French original was “Doukipudonktan” to represent “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant” (“Why do they stink so much?”). This gives the novel a unique voice and a real feel of stepping into a pre-teenager’s world (although we’re never told exactly how old Zazie is). It almost reads like a script, particularly when it uses devices like “(gesture)”, and in fact it was made into a film by Louis Malle just a year after publication. But there are times when Queneau takes on a stronger authorial role, and the voice has a light comic tone that is wholly in keeping with his heroine’s dialogue:
“Perceiving her uncle a prey to the victualing mob, she bawled out: Come on, unkoo! And grabbing hold of a carafe full of water, threw it at random into the fray. So strong is the martial spirit among the daughters of France. Following this example, the widow Mouaque disseminated ashtrays all around her. So powerful is the spirit of imitation which can cause even the least gifted to act. Then was heard a considerable fracas: Gabriel had just collapsed into the crockery, carrying with him into the debris seven waiters who were completely out of control, five customers who had been taking part and one epileptic.
Rising to their feet with simultaneous impulse, Zazie and the widow Mouaque approached the human magma which was struggling in the sawdust and crockery. A few judiciously applied blows with a syphon eliminated from the competition several persons endowed with fragile skulls. Thanks to which Gabriel was able to pick himself up…”
Zazie isn’t necessarily likeable, she’s a self-serving brat, but I love her. I urge you to spend three days with Zazie as she gets to know the great city of Paris and some of its more idiosyncratic inhabitants.
Here are the books with one of France’s greatest products, fromage bleu. Ah, Roquefort, je t’aime, je t’aime beaucoup….