Alain-Fournier's only novel Le Grand Meaulnes was a relatively short time ago voted sixth most favourite book in a survey of readers on La Grande Librairie. Why? Because it's a great novel? I can't believe that, interesting as it most certainly is. André Gide thought it overly long, its first one hundred pages being the most interesting, and I have to agree. But then, in a list with Saint Exupéry's Le Petit Prince at the top, and Camus's (surely hugely overrated) L'Étranger in second position, what should we expect?
Le Petit Prince and L'Étranger, even Le Grand Meaulnes, are fascinating books, but surely in no way represent the greatest in French literature: so what's the problem? Surely it lies in the 'reading' public in general, very much in the 'on dit' as opposed to the non-dit? How many people have re-read these books after childhood and adolescence, for how many have these been almost the only read books (with possibly the likes of Marc Levy and Guillaume Musso being the only exceptions?)
OK I'm being pessimistic, even insulting perhaps, but what has an adult to learn from reading Le Grand Meaunles? It's about childhood, or rather the gap between childhood, adolescence versus adulthood,* seen through the eyes mainly of the fifteen-year-old narrator François Seurel, who lives with his father and mother, M. Seurel and Millie, who are both school teachers living next to the school in Saint Agathe (in reality Épineuil-le-Fleuriel). The appearance of the seventeen-year-old Augustin Meaunles subverts the other pupils, especially of course the narrator, who shares a room with him.
By chance, on losing his 'borrowed' horse and cart, Meaunles stumbles on the domaine mystérieux, which seems to be run by children having a celebration for Frantz de Galais's (aborted) engagement to Valentine (a beautiful girl based on Alain-Fournier's meeting with Yvonne de Quiévrecourt in 1905). That is when Meaunles falls in love with Frantz's sister Yvonne de Galais, whom he will later marry, have a child by, and er...
There's a certain playfulness with the names: Saint Agathe is a real chapelle in the nearby village of, er, Meaunles, La Ferté-d'Angillon recalls La Chapelle d'Anguillon where Alain-Fournier was born, Vieux-Nançay obviously represents Nançay, etc. But one of the great works of French literature? One of the best remembered, yes.
*Does it really need to be said that later authors such as Alexandre Vialatte and Amélie Nothomb later ploughed a similar theme of puberty being the Fall?