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.


  1. Nancy ! It was my far best favourite from the age of 13 and I read it more than 10 times ! Then I was deceived by the movie ... the world I creatad reading the book was different ! I think teenagers dont read it anymore, they prefer pure fantastic and monsters.
    Thanks a lot for this post which remains me so good time

  2. Happy Belated Birthday Nancy! You obviously had a wonderful time. I haven't read this book but I have heard of the author. You have definitely whet my appetite - I'll have to seek it out.

  3. in the same type of mood, do you know the famous "Maria Chapdelaine" by Louis Hémon ? It also delighted me in my teens and when we went to Quebec in 2003, I insisted to go and visit her house near Lake St Jean. It was a very long driving in the middle of nowhere among the woods and ... the house was closed when we arrived !