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The Wanderer or The End of Youth ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

    I see her again, I hear her, and I could bite my hands at the agony of not being able to describe it.
        -Henri Alban Fourier

This is one of those little remembered novels whose remaining fans firmly believe it to be one of the unacknowledged masterpieces of the 20th Century. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy and Halldor Laxness's Independent People inspire similarly fanatical devotion in small groups of faithful adherents.  In this case though, one of the devoted fans just happens to be the great novelist John Fowles who proselytizes relentlessly for it, including writing the afterword to the edition I read, and crediting it as the inspiration for his first novel, The Magus (itself a Modern Library Top 100 entry).  I don't know that I'm willing to join them yet, but all three of these cults may have a point.  At any rate, The Wanderer, or, Le Grande Meaulnes, to give it the original French title, is certainly a unique and wonderful book.

The Wanderer of the title is Augustin Meaulnes, a charismatic, restless, youth who transfers to Sainte Agathe school in Sologne and befriends Francois Seurel, whose parents are teachers at the school.  Meaulnes quickly earns the nickname Le Grand, or The Great, both because of his height and because he is the kind of natural leader who other boys flock to and emulate.   The author portrays the school as an island, cut off from the rest of the world, and Meaulnes as the castaway who is most anxious to get off.  He runs away several times and on one occasion has a mystical experience which will shape the course rest of the rest of the boys' lives.

When Francois's grandparents come to visit, another boy is chosen to accompany the cart to town to get them, but Meaulnes sneaks off in the carriage.  Irretrievably lost, he stumbles upon a pair of young actors who take him to a dreamlike masquerade ball at a sumptuous estate.  There he meets Yvonne de Galais, a beautiful young blonde, with whom he becomes hopelessly infatuated.  They spend only a few moments together and do little more than exchange names, but this fairy tale adventure becomes the pivotal experience of his life, one which he, with the help of Francois, will spend the rest of his life trying to recapture, with tragic consequences.

Alain-Fournier was the pen name of Henri-Alban Fournier (there was another, already popular, writer of the day named Henri Fournier.)  The novel is apparently very autobiographical :  his parents were teachers; the boys supposedly incorporate aspects of his own character; and, most importantly, he had an experience on June 5, 1905, wherein he, age 18, encountered a beautiful young woman named Yvonne in the streets of Paris.  This event became a central moment in his life.  He imagined a parallel reality, or Domain, which we only come in contact with during such transcendent moments and he became obsessed with recapturing his.  This imbues his writing with a profound nostalgia, a melancholic sense that those moments of epiphany that we experience can never be retrieved, that the best parts of life lie behind us, not ahead.

Fournier was killed in battle on September 22, 1914, fighting on the Meuse.  Dead before his twenty-eighth birthday, this was his only finished novel, though Fowles suggests that his letters are also worth reading.  In a sense, this is a novel that we would have expected from someone who survived WWI (see Rebecca West's Return of the Soldier), harkening back as it does to departed days of youth.  His obsession with one event in his life suggests that Fournier might never have done much more than rewrite this story in subsequent years, but it's useless to speculate.  What we do know is that he left behind one poignant and haunting novel which, rightly or wrongly, captures the inchoate sense of lost innocence and opportunity missed that we all feel at one time or another.  Masterpiece or not, it is certainly unforgettable.


Grade: (A)


Book-related and General Links:
    -PHOTO : writer's old school,the Ecole d'Epineuil-le-Fleuriel
    -Le Grand Meaulnes   (The Wanderer)
    -ESSAY: The girl at the Grand Palais: The adolescent obsession that inspired an influential yet neglected French classic (The Economist, Dec 22nd 2012)
    -ARCHIVES : "fournier" (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Illiterati :   **"Le Grand Meaulnes"("The Wanderer") & "In the Skin of a Lion"** (Shaun Armour, Poetry Ink)
    -ESSAY : Question: Le Grand Meaulnes : "Why did Meaulnes reunite Valentine with Frantz?"

    -REVIEW : of WORMHOLES Essays and Occasional Writings By John Fowles (Christopher Lemann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of John Fowles. Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings (James R. Aubrey,  The Metropolitan State College of Denver)
    -ESSAY : READING AND WRITING; A YULE LOG (D.J.R. Bruckner, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : BOOK REPORT : The Magus by John Fowles (David Streitfeld, Washington Post, Sunday, May 31, 1998)