Last year witnessed a flurry of renewed interest in Alain-Fournier's classic French novel 'Le Grand Meaulnes', published in 1913. Head tour guide for the centenary celebrations here was Booker Prize-winning writer Julian Barnes, with articles in The Guardian and programmes on BBC Radio. Not only had he re-visited the novel and found it still fresh and moving, he had also made a pilgrimage to the locations of its setting in central France.
With the first translation published in Great Britain in 1928, the book has always had its English-speaking adherents, but its situation in the French collective consciousness has no equivalent here. Throughout the 20th Century, it could claim a place in France's top six best-sellers, in company with a hallowed group of heavyweights including Camus, Proust and Céline. And it's still popular. If your village library in deepest Aveyron possesses only a dozen books, 'Le Grand Meaulnes' will be one of them. But these are a mere numbers. The enduring appeal of 'Meaulnes' lies somewhere else.
Set in the Sologne, a vast area of forest, brackish lakes and heathland scrub lieing a hundred miles due south of Paris, the story is narrated by François Seurel, son of a village schoolmaster. It begins with the arrival of a new pupil, outsider 17-year-old Augustin Meaulnes, who soon acquires heroic status amongst his schoolmates through his adventurous, achingly romantic nature and frequently reckless behaviour.
One night, he disappears with a horse and trap and gets lost, eventually surrendering them both. Wandering through a wild and unfamiliar landscape miles from home, he stumbles upon a rundown estate, in the throws of preparing for a marriage celebration The place is covered with magical decorations and illuminations, overrun with eccentric costumed players and numerous children who appear to be in charge of the proceedings. There he meets and instantly falls in love with an exquisitely beautiful girl, Yvonne de Galais.
The following day, he meets her again but the marriage ceremony – with her brother as the intended groom – can not take place as his bride-to-be has abandoned him. Meaulnes returns to the village, haunted by the chateau and the girl. He vows to find them again. The story now becomes a quest as Meaulnes and François set about re-tracing his journey on a map, although its true co-ordinates are adolescent yearning and the hidden landscape of memory.
All this is set against the backdrop of a tranquil bucolic idyll and the neolithic intimacy of its miniscule world, focused on the fireplace and radiating out to embrace the village and a neighbouring field or two. But that hadn’t existed even in 1913. Not with the railways, the roads and the canals. This France of Alain-Fournier's childhood longing existed only in the narrator’s imagination, situated at the confluence of nostalgia and desire.
The bestselling book of the 19th Century, aside from the bible, did not appear until 1877, but by 1900 it had sold six million copies. 'Le Tour de la France par Deux Enfants', part fiction, part travelogue, part schoolbook, told the story of two young brothers who, after the death of their father, packed their belongings into travel bags slung over their shoulders on sticks, and set off one foggy September day on a journey through France, with the intention of visiting distant relatives dotted around the country. Its author was a G. Bruno, which turned out to be a pen-name for Augustine Fouillée, wife of noted philosopher and academic Alfred Fouillée.
The youngsters start out from Phalsbourg, a town in Lorraine, itself part of the Western Rhineland region annexed by the Germans during France's swift and humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Their clockwise journey first takes them South along the Eastern borderlands as far as Les Rousses on the Swiss border near Geneva.
Here they make a Westerly detour, through Mâcon on the Saône, into the Auvergne and across the Loire valley via Moulins and Clermont-Ferrand back to Lyons. Another little detour to St. Étienne and across the Pilat Massif and then they follow the Rhône as far south as Marseilles, where they head west again for Carcassone, Toulouse and Bordeaux.
The next part of the journey as far as Dunquerque on the Belgian border is taken by boat, round the Brittany peninsular and along the English Channel. The final stage on land takes them across the Flanders plain and the Champagne back to Phalsbourg, with one more detour, to Paris and Chartres. Along the way, the narrator records their encounters with different provincial dialects, local foods, ways of understanding and doing things.
It's a didactic tome, replete with moral instruction and lessons in geography, history and science. The story is also rich in symbolism. From leaving behind the dense fog of Alsace-Lorraine; through the journey round the outer limits of France; to the ending, in which the boys, using the knowledge and skills they have acquired along the way, set up a model farm called 'La Grand' Lande'. A dénouement which echoes the last line of Voltaire's philosophical master-work 'Candide' (1759): 'Il faut cultiver notre jardin.' (We must cultivate our garden).
If Fournier's idealised France was introspective and nostalgic, the romance of 'Le Tour' was modern and outward-looking, pointing enthusiastically at the expanse of little pays that made up the wider nation, then as now the largest in Western Europe, and at the other states beyond its borders. For a country most of whose inhabitants had not travelled further than the nearest town, this was the first impression of its full size and shape.
The organisers of the first Tour de France cycle race in 1903 would not have been unaware of 'Le Tour' and its six million readers in the nation's homes and schools. Indeed, it is tempting to assume they lifted the title and the spirit of that adventure wholesale. Remarkably, they also took much of the clockwise route, right down to the little detour from Lyons to St. Étienne and over the Col de la République for the highest climb (elevation 3,800') in the race.
And so the broader cultural impact of these two books arrived at another peak with the establishment of the annual sporting event that is the Tour de France. My next article will be exploring its contribution to the emergence of a more singular national identity.
Photo Credit: JohannaDfrvc under Creative comms