Sunday, April 28, 2013

On the trail of the Wanderer

Raise your hand if you read The Wanderer by Alain Fournier when you were an adolescent. Its original French title is Le Grand Meaulnes and in Britain they call it The Lost Domain (or The Lost Estate). By any name, it is the quintessential book of adolescent romance. It is often compared to J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.

For those unfortunates among you who have never discovered this most magical of stories, I will give you the general plot. The narrator of the story, François, a boy with a minor disability which makes him limp and thus keeps him a bit apart from his classmates, is the son of a small town teacher at the turn on the twentieth century. A mysterious and very charismatic boy, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to live with his family and attend school with François. He is nicknamed The Great Meaulnes because he is not only tall, but obviously special - grand in both senses of the word. François is fifteen and Meaulnes perhaps sixteen when the story begins. Meaulnes, who is slightly unruly, steals the horse and cart which are being prepared to head for the train station to pick up François' grandparents, who are coming for the Christmas holidays. Meaulnes has not been chosen for this honor, and simply preempts everyone else and drives off in the buggy.

Meaulnes never makes it to the train station, as he becomes lost in the labyrinth of small tracks that run though the countryside. He is gone for several days and no one knows what has become of him. Upon his return he reveals, but only to François, that while away he has had a most amazing adventure. After a long frustrating attempt to find his way to the station, he had accidentally stumbled upon an old manoir, in the middle of nowhere. A long drive leads to this tumbled down ruin of a house which is festooned with brightly colored Chinese lanterns in every window. Along the walkway leading to the house are masses of children in small groups unaccompanied by adults pronouncing that today, they are "in charge". The children are dressed in quaint antique costumes. The entire scene is entirely enchanting to Meaulnes. He joins the festivities and in the course meets Yvonne and Frantz, the children of the owner of the manoir. He falls helplessly in love with Yvonne, but it is Frantz who he becomes more entangled with, leading to many unfortunate outcomes. After leaving the fête he loses his way again, and much of the rest of the novel involves his searching for the mysterious domain and trying to find Yvonne again.

John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant's Woman says that Le Grand Meaulnes is "the book one never quite forgets–not only a serious novel but a very great one." My brother sent this book to me while he was taking a university year abroad in France. I was sixteen. I certainly never have forgotten it, and if someone asks me what my very favorite novel is, I quickly cite The Wanderer. Certainly none has ever seemed so magical to me.

Most moving of all is that Alain Fournier wrote this book when he was a mere twenty-three years old. It was first published in 1913 and became an instant classic in France. All high school students read it. Fournier was killed just a few years later in the trenches of WWI at the ripe old age of twenty-eight. It is only about ten years ago that his remains were discovered and and a memorial raised to him and his comrades in Saint-Rémy, close to the site of his death.

Much of the novel has strong autobiographical elements. Fournier's father was indeed a school teacher; the descriptions of the school and countryside are of the places where he grew up. He also fell desperately in love with a mysterious girl he met by chance, and his characters convey conversations he had with his real life companions. The limp that François has in the story was actually a condition his sister had, to whom he dedicated his novel. His writing is very beautiful and evocative. Here is a narrative passage that is typical. It describes the first morning after Meaulnes has stumbled upon the manior and joined the festivities:

        The next morning, Meaulnes was one of the first to be ready. Following the advice he had been given, he put on a simple, old-fashioned black suit: a tight-waisted cutaway vest, wide-bottomed trousers that hid he delicate shoes, and a top hat.
        The courtyard was deserted when he came down. He took a few steps and felt as if he had been transported into a springtime day. It was indeed the mildest morning of that winter. The sun was shinning as in early April. Melted frost glittered in the grass like dewdrops. Several little birds were singing in the trees. Now and then an almost warm breeze flowed over his face.

Alain Fournier, 1913, the year of the publication of Le Grand Meaulnes, and a year before his death 

For a long time I have very much wanted to visit the countryside where this marvelous story takes place. It is several hours south of here in the Berry departement of France, in a little town named Epineuil-le-Fleuriel. For my birthday this year, in mid-April, I got my wish. 

The school house, where Alain Fournier grew up and which is the setting for the earlier part of his novel, is now a museum. The vines had not yet sprouted, but the building was just as described:

A long red house at the far end of the village, with five glazed doors and Virginia creepers on the walls; an immense courtyard with covered playgrounds, a washouse and a big front gateway facing the village...

We arrived first thing in the morning and had the entire building to ourselves for our visit. There were not even guides or monitors. There were two classrooms, one for the younger children, which was headed by Fournier's mother (Millie in the story). This is the second room where the older children were taught by M. Fournier (M. Seurel).

Meaulnes, being one of the oldest boys, sits near the window. Here is his bench. The desks have authentic workbooks from the era.

At this time France had just passed a law making primary education mandatory for all children. Many little school houses like this one sprang up all over the country.

The head teacher was often also the mayor of the town, having official duties to perform in another room of the school house.

The head teacher, at least in the case of Alain Fournier's father, also saw himself as the voice of reason against the superstitions of the church. He taught the children to think for themselves and not be led by church doctrine, which he felt should not impinge on daily life matters. He often found himself at odds with the local priest.

The school house was the home for the teacher and his family. There are many wonderful descriptions of these rooms in Le Grand Meaulnes. We visited them all.

        When it was dark, when the dogs on the neighboring farm were beginning to howl and light had appeared at the window of our little kitchen, I would finally go home, just as my mother was beginning to prepare dinner. I would climb three steps of the attic stairs, sit down without saying anything and, with my head pressed against the cold banisters, watch her light her fire by flickering candlelight in the narrow kitchen.
        But then someone came who robbed me of all those peaceful childhood pleasure. Someone blew out the candle illuminating my mother's gentle face as she bent over the evening meal, and extinguished the lamp around which we had always gathered as a happy family at night, when my father had closed the wooden shutters over the glazed doors. And that someone was Augustin Meaulnes, who the other pupils soon called the Great Meaulnes.

View from the dining room, through the narrow kitchen and into Fournier's classroom
The room that François shared with Meaulnes was in the attic. Here they plotted their return to the lost domain.

The town in the novel is named Saint-Agathe, which was the name of a chapel not far from Epineuil-le-Fleuriel. The village church figures prominently into the story. We enjoyed walking around the town and seeing the various locations where the story takes place.

The title character of the novel got his name from another village, not far from Fournier's hometown.

The lost domain is supposed to be a combination of locales, but this private residence, not far outside of town, is widely held to be the main inspiration. Apparently Fournier was invited here as a child and brightly colored Chinese lanterns were used as decorations at the party he attended, a christening that involved many young children as guests.

The French version of the book has a setting very much like the one I photographed.

Our over night visit included a stop at this lovely Bed & Breakfast on the same street as the school. Our hosts tell us that it was the home of the first sweetheart Alain Fournier had as a school boy, though not the one that inspired the novel itself.

The grounds of this little manoir, which has been in the same family for many generations, are very evocative of the lost domain itself. It seemed as if it could have taken place right here.

The Berry countryside was just beginning to come alive after our long winter. The Sunday morning of my birthday dawned warm and bright. We enjoyed a long slow drive home through the countryside.

The Cher river is one of the loveliest in France, in my opinion. Small and gentle, it is not commercialized and runs through remote and quiet countryside before joining the Loire at Villandry.

The bucolic nature of this part of France has probably not changed so much since the days when Fournier grew up here.

We took a charming walk through the countryside and experienced the landscape that Meaulnes discovered on his grand adventure:
        Anyone but Meaulnes would have immediately tuned back. That would have been the only way to avoid becoming still more seriously lost. But he reflected that he must now be a long way from La Motte. Furthermore, the mare might have veered into a side road while he was asleep. And after all, the road he was on would surely take him to some village sooner or later. Added to all these considerations was the fact that when he stepped up on the footboard with the mare already pulling on the reins, he felt a growing, exasperated desire to achieve something and arrive somewhere, in spite of all obstacles.

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac has his hero take only one book on his travels – Le Grand Meaulnes.

Here's the trailer for the 2006 movie:

This is the centenary year of the publication of Le Grand Meaulnes. If you're in France, it's a great time to visit Epineuil-le-Fleuriel.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

California Part 3: Santa Cruz

I have now been back from California for three weeks, but I am still posting photos I took there. Meanwhile spring has come to France and there is much to report from here as well, but I can't possibly finish up my California report without giving you some images of Santa Cruz, the family seat so to speak, where I spent the last few days of my visit enjoying a big family reunion. These shall be my last words on the glory of northern California in early spring. (I loved the green hills, which by now have probably already begun turning their usual golden color.)

I have two brothers who live in Santa Cruz. My younger brother Richard lives on the family property in the Santa Cruz mountains, where we all grew up. The older, Gary, whom I stayed with, lives in town closer to the beach. Gary and his son Philips and I took a wonderful hike in Byrne-Milliron Forest, a place I had never heard about and which, in fact, they had never explored either.

The trail led straight up hill and I often stopped to catch my breath with the excuse that I wanted to take yet another photograph. It is a beautiful 400+ acre site and is part of a the Santa Cruz Land Trust. This organization manages and conserves 10,000 acres of protected land in Santa Cruz county.

We ran into few other visitors on the trail. It seemed very much like the forest primeval.  It was breathtaking, if a somewhat rugged climb.

At the top of the trail we had a panoramic view out over the Pajaro Valley and Monterey Bay. Spectacular! We didn't nearly discover all the trails available here. Particularly disappointing was that we did not have time to walk the extra few hours it would have taken to see The Great White, a thousand year old 250 foot high redwood tree. Next time!

Another walk I took with Gary and my sister-in-law Marilyn was on West Cliff Drive along the coast, near Lighthouse Field State Park.

I had heard of Lighthouse Field many years ago, as saving it from the development of a huge hotel and convention center was one my brother Gary's first legal cases. The beaches below the field are superior surfing spots, and at the time that plans were being drawn up to claim this pristine land for acres of concrete parking and imposing buildings, a local surfer,who owned nothing but a board and a woodie, sold his car in order to launch an effort to save the field from development. My brother became the lawyer. Ultimately, the Save Lighthouse Field campaign was successful, and my brother remains a local hero for his role.

The 300+ acre undeveloped headland is one of few left in an urban center of California. It also is a bird sanctuary and a place where monarch butterflies winter over.

As we walked along the coast, I enjoyed the crashing waves,

the rocky cliffs, natural bridges,

and blue, blue water.

I was enthralled by the beauty of the Pacific and have begun a series of etchings of its moods. Here is the first work in progress.

A bonus on my trip back to my home city was meeting up with my best friend from high school, Marilyn. We hadn't seen each other for thirty years, more or less. It was really a treat to spend a bit of time with her. She is just as beautiful as ever and, as with all true friendships, it was as if no time had passed at all.

Next week I will bring you back with me to France and tell you about an adventure I took for my birthday last weekend in Berry.

Monday, April 8, 2013

California Part 2: the coast, the funk, the forests

Mendocino coast

Besides of course my family and friends, one of the things I miss most about California is the Pacific Ocean. I love French beaches, don't get me wrong, but there is something about the coast of Northern California that is pretty hard to beat. On my recent visit, I had several opportunities to get a glimpse of the rocky coast line, and it was an entirely nurturing experience.

One day we drove up to Jenner, where the Russian River

empties into the Pacific. This is one of my favorite points of view on the north coast. Emily and James and I spent many happy days here in days gone by.

I also spent a couple of really wonderful days in Mendocino, a bit further north, with my sister. She introduced me to Glass Beach, which I had never visited before and knew nothing about. Apparently, about a century ago this was the site of a huge dump. Through the years glass bottles of every color were broken, washed out to sea, smoothed and redeposited on the rocky shore.

A few years ago the beach still looked like this, full of rounded pieces of glass.

When we visited, the scavenging was much more tedious. Most of the big pieces had been cleaned away by those who came before.

Still, I was quite happy to collect a few clear, green and brown pieces to add to my rock collection. I have a bottle of beach pebbles collected for me by a friend, a group of agates Rick brought me from Oregon, a pink quartz I bought in Nevada City with my children years ago and a heart shaped from slate made by the child of our former neighbors. All these treasures have much sentimental value for me.

In Mendocino we visited the Art Center which is filled with beautiful objects handmade by their members. It's a very attractive space.


Another quality California has is its down-home funkiness. I mean this is the nicest possible way. LA is all glam and glitz, while northern California, where I can really feel at home, is laid-back and quite rough and tumble. When you stay away from a place for a long time and then return, you see it from a fresh perspective. All the wooden buildings and the shops with eclectic collections of things to purchase really struck me as rather exotic.

Shopping is a big hobby in the U.S., which isn't so much the case here in France, especially out in the countryside. We simply don't have stores with so many choices and so much variety.

There is a certain sense of humor about life there too, particularly near Sepastopol where my sister lives. Lots of homes have big painted metal statues in their front yards. Liz and Rene took me to the source of these whimsical creations. The place is called Renga Arts.

All the objects in the shop are made of reclaimed/recycled materials. I was attracted to a group of table glasses made out of old pop or beer bottles.

But the sculptures were particularly clever and weird. I'm not sure I'd want one in my front yard, however. Certainly you wouldn't expect to see one of these over here.

I also spent a day, under Liz's supervision creating my own funky art. Liz is a crafter and makes some unusual objects, including totems, as she calls them. She has an enormous collection of glass and pottery objects which can be glued together with a strong adhesive to create tall sculptures. I really enjoyed making some for her collection.


I spent a day with two of my favorite people in this round world, my friends Marta and Richard. After feeding me a couple of spectacular meals, as is always the case when staying with them, we took a drive towards the coast again. When you live in inland northern California, the Pacific calls to you like a siren. Another one of my favorite spots is Pt. Reyes, a huge natural sanctuary with protected beaches, grasslands, forest and charming villages. We stopped at Pt. Reyes Station first. This place holds many memories for me. It was a great pleasure to poke around.

In the back of Toby's, a general store that has been a family operation since 1942, there is an art gallery which displays the works of local artists. We were bemused by the current exhibition, a collection of preserved foods. It included many canned goods, oils and vinegars, beverages and dried herbs. All these made by the artist in her kitchen and put on display. They were quite beautiful. A very unusual idea for an art show!

We had a delicious fish soup and fresh green salad at a local restaurant. Food and eating were a definite theme of this trip! My pants are tighter now than when I left home. But who can resist all that gorgeous California food? The San Francisco Bay Area is home to the gourmet ghetto, and I think there must be more fantastic restaurants per square mile than anywhere else on earth.

Next to Havana, the best place to find classic American cars is probably the north coast of California. It's all about the lifestyle there, which, as I mentioned before, is very particular.

Shingled cottages with overgrown gardens and fences tumbling down made me feel nostalgic. They are a sight one doesn't see over here.

Before taking me back to my sister's house, Richard and Marta introduced me to Nick's Cove, which I had never stopped at before. It's located on Tomales Bay. In the mid 20th century it was a resort for Hollywood stars and the super rich. Now it's simply a pleasant place to have dinner, rent a cottage or beach comb.

There is a long pier that leads out over the water. 

At the end is a wonderful little wooden dining room. We imagined getting all our friends together and having a big party there. It would be perfect.


A visit to northern California would not be complete without seeing the redwood forests. These giants exist all along the coast.

They have an other worldly quality, as if from an earth only partially remembered from a long long time ago.