I wake to a cuckoo, calling ‘Bep-po, Bep-po’. Then ‘D’Ac-cord, D’Ac-cord’. The table and seat are dry enough for me to write my diary as I drink my mug of tea in the early sun.
By the time I’m ready to leave, no one has come to collect money. It is a good municipal site, well-equipped, with hot water, lights on at night, even a big block of soap suitable for washing clothes. I calculate the charge from the price list, and drop it into the post box.
Le Grand Meaulnes. I cycle to Epineuil-le-Fleuriel. At the entrance to the village is a drum of enormous coloured pencils and a sign, ‘on the schoolchildren’s desks, the past comes to life … and Le Grands Meaulnes welcomes you to his Museum’. This is where Alain-Fournier spent his childhood years.
Here is the school and school house, exactly as in the book! And an excellent museum. Both are open. What a contrast with La Chapelle. The first thing I learn is that Fournier, christened Henri-Alban, changed his name because there was a famous racing driver called Henri Fournier. Le Grand Meaulnes was published in autumn 1913.
Within a year the author had been killed at the Front.
Henri lived in Epineuil from five to twelve, with his teacher-parents. They then moved back to La Chapelle d’Angillon while Henri went to the school in Paris, where he met Jacques Rivière, who became his close friend and literary ally. In 1905, aged nineteen, walking by the Seine, Henri met Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, was smitten, and arranged to meet her there a year later. As he later wrote to Rivière, ‘she did not come. And even if she had, she would not have been the same.’ From these four elements: the mysterious countryside of the Sologne in the north of the Cher; the school and village of Le Fleuriel in the south; the chance encounter with and loss of the beautiful, enigmatic girl; the intense friendship of the soulmate, he wove the endlessly intriguing and beguiling story, ‘about a happiness as deep as it is fleeting, the pursuit of a dream that has hardly come into being, a first taste of adventure’, as a note in the museum puts it. Another writer calls it ‘a story of lost innocence, hidden paths and fantastic events’, when commenting that at least one Resistance group adopted the name for their nom de guerre.
The story: An adventurous sixteen-year-old, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to the school where François’ father teaches, and lodges with his family, and he and François, a year younger, become fast friends. On a winter escapade in the mysterious Sologne countryside, Meaulnes comes upon a dilapidated estate, where a wedding party run by children is awaiting the arrival of the son of the house, Franz and his betrothed, Valentin. There Meaulnes briefly meets and falls in love with the daughter of the house, Yvonne de Galais. The party is suddenly stopped and Meaulnes, leaving with the others, loses track of where he has been. After months searching, and failing to find the ‘lost domain’, he follows a clue to Paris. François meanwhile finds the domain, meets Yvonne, and arranges a party where the couple will meet. There Meaulnes asks Yvonne to marry him. But soon after their wedding night, Meaulnes disappears. Yvonne gives birth to their daughter, and dies. François, now a teacher, lives at their house, looking after the child, and learns that Meaulnes had gone to Paris to find and reunite Franz and Valentin. Meaulnes returns with them, and reclaims his daughter. Francois finishes, ‘I felt that le grand Meaulnes had come back to deprive me of the only joy he had left me. And already I imagined him, one evening, wrapping his daughter in a cloak and setting out with her for some new adventure.’
The school house has been preserved exactly as it was at the turn of the century. I visit it accompanied by an excellent audioguide. That shiver of recognition of the cultural tourist, ‘this is where …’ Every detail from the book is here – the school gate the gang shouted through, the yard where the boys played, the shelter where they hung their capes, the three window-doors, the classrooms, the stove around which the boys loitered, the Fourniers’ living room. Looking out at the back, there is even the farm from where Meaulnes took the pony and cart that began his adventure …
And then up to the attic rooms, which were store rooms and Henri’s bedroom, and – bang! that moment you hope for as a cultural tourist, the object or place that makes sense of something, that depends on you being here. The moment of revelation is in the attic, where Henri slept, above his parents, with a stick so he could knock on the floor if he was afraid, where stores were kept that filled the air with their smells, among great timbers, and where his mother hung up sheets like sails to dry on wet days. The mature Henri has added into the memory of his lonely childhood an imaginary friend, strong, restless, adventurous, a leader, to live with him in the attic, with ‘François’ his chosen confidant, both faithful sidekick and sensible friend, helpmeet and problem-solver. I can see him, dreamed of in Henri’s lonely childhood, and then coming to life in his mature imagination, when he made the young men the age he was when he was at school with Riviere. ‘Anyone who does not wish to be happy has only to go up into the attic and there, until nightfall, he can listen to the whistling and creaking of foundering ships;’ he writes. But, empowered by storytelling, continues, ‘or else he can go outside on the road, and the wind will throw his scarf back against his mouth like a sudden, warm kiss that will bring tears to his eyes. But for anyone who loves happiness, there is the house of Les Sablonnieres, beside a muddy road, where my friend Meaulnes came back with Yvonne de Galais, who had been his wife since noon.’
Why do I keep coming back to it, the novel? Because, for all its structural oddities, its strange changes of tense, it is endlessly beguiling. It has the romantic form of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But with it, the suspense of resolutions heralded then not happening, the sense, with happy accidents pushing the story along, that it is heading for a happy resolution, that doesn’t happen. For it is a book of adolescence. When we so often have, and take for granted, experiences that are in fact unique, and when we casually let go what we spend the rest of our lives missing, even searching for. It reminds us of adolescents’ inability to take as real their present happiness. It foretells our life. Then there is the ‘lost domain’, where there are no adults. And the dream one has in adolescence of meeting the one, and imagining a union that transcends, and yet includes in an almost abstract sense, the physical. And yet one is forever fleeing ‘the tight embrace of happiness’, because it threatens one’s fragile sense of self. It is the time of practicing to be an adult: ‘The time for childish make-believe is over’ we declare, while being full of romanticism: ‘Come back here, exactly a year from now, at the same time. You will find the girl that you love.’ The memory of the perfect time: a spring and summer ‘the like of which will never come again.’ And its ending: ‘Our youth was ended and happiness had passed us by.’ The perfect love: ‘Yvonne de Galais, a woman so long sought and so much loved.’ And François, the ideal good friend.
It is important to return, from time to time, to the world of adolescence, to refresh oneself. And Le Grand Meaulnes is one of the perfect ways to return.
I go to the café, to let the reality of the place soak into my memory of the book. Adding to my experience of this place, the mystery of the Solange. And the poignancy that Fournier’s future ended within a year, in a war that changed everything.
And I look forward, one lonely night, to my next reading of Le Grand Meaulnes.
Then I return, for a look at a French school in the 1890s. First, this, to be copied as a writing exercise: ‘Respect your masters, they are unquestionably superior to you, honour them, be their subject, retain their affections and recognise what you owe to these benefactors, because, after your parents it is to them that you owe the most.’ A presumption that the Martyrs of Vingré would have questioned in 1914.
There is a map of the world, centred on the Paris Meridian.
I learn that after Jules Ferry introduced compulsory, non-religious (laïque) education in 1882, schoolteachers were the front line against the church. Henri’s father had to keep his friendship with the curé a secret. Often the school and mairie shared the same building (once I’m alerted, I see this everywhere). As the agent of the state, the teacher would organise elections. It was at this time that the modern, republican, secular (and often socialist) state finally took root, after a century of dynastic rule.
It may be ‘The Alain-Fournier Experience’, but it’s been great.
I stock up at the village shop, run by a Chinese couple who also have a takeaway, with identical dishes in the glass-fronted display to those I enjoyed in Paris and Sully. Most important is drink; I’m already drinking 2 litres on the road, and it’s another hot day. I’ve taken to orange squash, it’s cheap, sugared, and goes down well. And then I head west, towards the Meridian.
The fine church at Saint-Désiré is built of the ‘grès rose’ of which Saulzier is the capital. It’s a particularly attractive, variegated sandstone, of many patterns and colours, from vivid pinks, through different ochres, to a bright yellow, giving a pleasing mosaic effect to a church that has that Romanesque sense of being heaped up, a manmade mountain, more tumulus than church, that focusses inwards, on chancel and crypt, a religious orgone accumulator to both contain and intensify the radiance of the saint at its heart. For a saint is buried here. In 552 Désiré, bishop of Bourges, was passing though, on the ancient road from Clermont to Poitiers, returning from a conclave in Clermont, when he died. He was buried here, in a crypt, the choir was built over, and the church on top. Inside I am again struck by the contrast with the Gothic; this church is heaped up, focussed inward. Whereas the Gothic opens up both the space and the self to light, is concerned less with intensification than aspiration, opening the door for inquiry, explanation and, eventually, the modern world. And while Gothic pillars are abstract geometries, soaring, as nakedly powerful and structural as cast-iron, the Romanesque columns are just uprights, supporting weight, as simply as the familiar posts in a house or barn. And on the capitals are figures, faces looking down, as if peering over, out of one world, into another, ours. I can imagine worshippers seeing them each week, from childhood onward, figures and shapes inscrutable until, suddenly, a meaning comes, a zen moment of revelation, the figure speaks.
I eat by the church. I watch an old man walk slowly from among houses a hundred yards away, under the hot sun, carrying a small bag, drop it in the rubbish bin, walk slowly back. The bibliobus drives up and parks, the two women staffing it talk animatedly. No one visits it.
I walk up to the war memorial and look across where I’ve come from. I’ve already climbed quite a lot: Vallon was at 192m, Saint-Désiré is at 330m. I am now in the Auvergne, heading into the Massif Central, climbing all the time.
I head south, on the Meridian, to Saint-Sauvier, yet another candidate for ‘the centre of France’, this one calculated by Axel Chambily as the point furthest, in aggregate, from the edges of France, its frontiers and sea coasts.
I am soon at Treignat, a place of significance for la Méridienne verte. Approaching, I pass two Meridian signs, which is encouraging – are things looking up, coming to a climax?
For Treignat was the centre for the pique-nique géant on 14 July 2000, with ministers and mayors flown in, and cyclists and runners and horse-riders travelling south meeting those heading north. So surely Treignat’s moment of fame, when for one day it was, on the first Bastille Day of the new millennium, the centre of France, will be remembered, commemorated, annually celebrated?
There is a one-line mention on the information board. Otherwise it talks not about its centrality, but its in-betweenness – between the Gallic tribes of Bituriges and Lemovices, between the old provinces of Bourbonnais and Marche, between the languages of oc and oïl. It is also, for good measure, on a geological fault line. And now it is where the departments of Allier and Creuse, and the regions of Auvergne and Limousin meet. It is a celebration of not belonging. Which I guess is one definition of individuality. Pays exceptionalism, within patrie exceptionalism.
By the church is an 11th-century stone lion, worn smooth with age, as if sucked by time, turning it into a distant cousin of the lions of Delos. It was ‘certainly on guard at the entrance to the cemetery to guard against evil spirits.’ The church is locked. There is a museum of the mobylette, dedicated to the last half-century’s means of going between.
There is a sudden, wetting shower, and the temperature drops dramatically. I am still climbing, now at 450m. I have passed, in a few hours, from hazy Midi-like heat to upland coolness and cloud. For I’m now into the uplands, and it is reminding me already of the Aveyron, where I lived forty years ago. A few miles back, in the lowlands (I think of it now as ‘the lowlands’, with this growing sense of entering the other world of the Massif) most villages had a neat bar, offering at least a set menu for €12. But this village I’m passing through is all shut up. It reached its maximum population in 1880, and has declined ever since, halving between 1910 and 1960, and halving again since then. Catastrophic. When a building loses its function, as a shop, or a garage, there is no new use for it, it closes, it’s left empty. The garage closed long ago. You can date when they closed, these rural garages, by the version of the Peugeot sign they still display. This is a world not of replacement, but of make do and mend, where nothing is thrown away, but little is worth keeping. Of the ubiquitous orange binder-twine, rather than shop-bought materials, of wonky, tied-together gates, and patched fences. Of bent old men and collapsed women. I see my first buzzard.
And now, instead of big, unfenced open fields of arable, it’s all small fields of pasture, and electric fences to keep in the cattle. They are mostly the white ones, Charolais or Blonde d’Aquitaine. They are in family groups, rather than segregated into milkers, store cattle etc. As if to reflect a more tribal society up here. There are some brown ones, the Limousin, light, pleasant-looking beasts – and then among them a hulking bull, all bulging muscle and heavy slowness, like a gym obsessive. There is grass, and there are trees, and little corners where the cattle stand under trees, among tree roots, sheltering, and, already, blue distances. A few fields have been cut for hay. I drop down 150m into the valley of Chambon-sur-Voueize, where there is a camp site.
I find the campsite easily. It is a municipal one, not very big, a circle of grass, with a ring of motorhomes. There is a vast toilet block, with places to wash clothes, something botheringly institutional about it. I passed a supermarket on the way in. But, having put up my tent, when I go back to it at 7:20pm, I find it closed at 7, and won’t open till 9am. I’m still surprised how late in the morning shops open in France. Only the bakers open early.
I walk into town. It is a stolid, dark-stone place, all shut up, apart from an expensive hotel and restaurant, and a pizza van in the square. The pizza is adequate, but lacking the skill and showmanship, and the quality of pizza of the man in Bourges, who I miss. Curious how quickly nostalgia has set in for a place I couldn’t wait to get out of! It rains from 9pm to midnight. There are owls in the night.
Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes passim.