Monday, March 7, 2011

stencil #032 alain-fournier

a wistful alain-fournier in brunswick street, fitzroy
Children’s literature has never really interested me much. In the toss up between reading C.S. Lewis at school and borrowing Harold Robbins from the local library, steamy bonkbusters beat children’s fantasy hands down. This might have had something to do with an early infancy in a home bereft of books but abounding in alcohol and pills.  Attempting to redress the omission of classic children’s fiction from my childhood, I read Stevenson’s and Kipling’s adventure stories as an adult but they failed to provide any excitement or thrills. Perhaps childhood enchantment is a prerequisite for enjoying children’s fiction as an adult.

There is one exception: I still harbour an inappropriate fondness for Little Black Sambo. My first encounter at age six with this grand little fictional dandy made quite an impression. And what wonderful, considerate, sober parents he had! His mother made him a beautiful little Red Coat, and a pair of beautiful little Blue Trousers; his father went to the Bazaar and bought him a beautiful Green Umbrella, and a lovely little Pair of Purple (!) Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings. I am not, however, unaware that my aesthetic development came at the expense of caricature.

Little Black Sambo, from the 1899 edition, illustrated by Helen Bannerman
Children’s books aside, there are a number of memorable literary children, including: Little Father Time, the intensely earnest, troubled young boy, devastated to the point of suicide in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. His death and the suicide note he writes shattered me; similarly, in Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, Hanno Buddenbrook’s premature death from typhoid fever was lamentable. This poor boy’s lack of vigour and his gradual withdrawal from life elicited my strong empathy; even more poignant is the depiction of Useppe in Elsa Morante’s novel History, set in Italy during WWII. Morante’s portrait of this five-year-old is unforgettably moving, particularly the evocation of his relationship with his pet dog. Sadly, Morante also bequeaths Useppe an early death; distinct from his counterparts, Luca, in Alberto Moravia’s Disobedience, emerges undefeated - however, not before undergoing an existential meltdown. Moravia’s minutely detailed description of Luca’s crisis is painful but it makes his return to life all that much more moving. Depictions of Sturm und Drang adolescence have always attracted me. Luca’s alienation and complete withdrawal from the world, his feelings of rage, disgust, nausea, apathy and indifference, leading to a revolt through nihilism and a death wish, are themes I continue to experienceoops!to explore in my reading.

My devotion to literature began once I had emerged from the swamp of childhood and entered my own adolescent Sturm und Drang, starting with Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1912). Drawing on the themes of verse romance from the Middle Ages (the adventures of a heroic knight errant on a quest), Alain-Fournier’s elegiac novel, subtitled The Lost Domaine, uses a dream-like atmosphere to explore adolescent initiation and regret for lost love and vanished youth. François Seurel narrates the story of his friendship with Augustin Meaulnes who embodies the requisite Sturm und Drang qualities: he is dynamic, impulsive, and adventurous, with a great capacity for love and torment. One day, Meaulnes travels outside the village where he lives with François and ends up getting lost. While wandering, lost in the countryside, he comes across a party being held on a mysterious estate (domaine). There he meets a beautiful girlhis idealised love. Pledging devotion, he asks her permission to return to the domaine to see her. She accepts his request and promises to wait faithfully for his return. Meaulnes returns to the village and tells François about his adventure but his quest to recover the lost domaine and his lost love are frustrated by his inability to find his way back to the estate.

Is it sufficient to have read a favourite book once only?

Nostalgic for Alain-Fournier of late, I can’t decide whether or not to reread Le Grand Meaulnes. I’ve anticipated the time when I would reopen the covers of the novel to experience its (dis)enchantment anew (I have to agree with Alain-Fournier’s brother-in-law who said that at heart the novel is concerned with the sadness of adolescence). But I can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve taken it down from the shelf many times only to put it straight back. Suppose it doesn’t affect me in the same way as when I first read it? And how could it: isn’t youthful admiration always diluted by adult disillusionment?

First readings can be emotionally and intellectually satisfying experiences, allowing you to lose yourself in the story but at best they are incomplete interpretations. It is only with a second, self-conscious reading that it becomes possible to gain a greater critical appreciation of a text.

Endless Love by Scott Spencer is one book I enjoyed reading a second time. The opening sentence is remarkable: 

"When I was seventeen and in full obedience to my heart's most urgent commands, I stepped far from the pathway of normal life and in a moment's time ruined everything I love..." 

David Axelrod, the main character of Spencer’s novel, a modern version of Augustin Meaulnes, is a kindred Sturm and Drang adolescent: he is ardent, reckless and determined, with a capacity for all consuming love. His intense love for his girlfriend Jade is eventually met with parental opposition. Jade’s father forces a temporary break in their relationship. However, David’s obsession for Jade and his commitment to an ‘endless’ love for her, compels him to reckless means to regain her family’s favour and in turn his lost love. He sets fire to her family’s home in the hope of redeeming himself by ‘saving’ the house from burning down. However, like his love, the fire burns out of control. A stint in prison does not diminish his feelings, begun in adolescence, towards Jade. Once released, he continues pursuing her with tragic consequences. David’s capacity for all consuming love is inspiring and pitiable; his unwavering constancy admirable but untenable; and his inability to get over Jade is tragic because it is destructive. In his introduction (which I have read) to a new translation of Alain-Fournier’s novel (which I won’t read), Adam Gopnik invites us to compare David Axelrod with Augustin Meaulnes in order to foreground the succession of literary teenagers undone by their refusal to make the painful transition from adolescence to adulthooda refusal-to-age.

(It would be otiose to add that these torch bearing, melancholy loners, whose part in life it is always to regret, have had a lasting impression on me.)

But back to my dilemma . . . is my refusal-to-reread a refusal-to-age? I'm not prepared to risk my first fictional romance on a rereading. It's my defence against adulterating (how damningly accurate that word is!) my memory of the novel. Perhaps the enchantment is the memory itself and it’s simply best to prolong the desire to reread in order to retain the memory. Fulfilment is often disappointing.

I've put Le Grand Meaulnes back on the shelf and will instead read some of the books that Alain-Fournier admired and that inspired his writing:

Dominique by Eugene Fromentin

The Romance of Tristan and Yseult by Joseph Bedier

Pelleas et Melisande by Maurice Maeterlinck

It's a shame I won't be able to buy them from Basilisk bookstore which sadly closed last week. This is one lost book domaine I won't get over.

photo by fitzroyalty

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