Alain-Fournier, the pen-name of Henri Alban-Fournier, was born on October 3, 1886. He is famous as the author of one book, Le Grand Meaulnes, published in 1913, one year before Alain-Fournier’s death in World War I. It is considered to be one of the great classics of French literature and was rated number nine in the list of Le Monde‘s 100 Books of the Century. It’s a nostalgic story about how you can’t go back. A young man falls in love with a mysterious young woman at a party and it changes his life in bitter-sweet ways. It’s told from the point of view of a boy who worshiped an older new student who has come to the school run by the younger boy’s parents. It’s based on an encounter Alain-Fournier had in a park with a beautiful young woman. He returned to the park on the one-year anniversary of this encounter hoping to meet her again, but she had married another man.
Can I confess that I didn’t like it much? I didn’t find any of the characters particularly endearing, particularly Meaulnes, the protagonist. I guess its English equivalent is a cross between The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger and Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. Seeing it as a metaphor for the end of a way of life brought about by the war helps a bit – except Alain-Fournier couldn’t know what was coming when it was published. My lukewarm attitude notwithstanding, the French love this book. It was adapted as a film in 1967 and again in 2006. It’s even been turned into a song by Richard Anthony (here are the lyrics). Alain-Fournier was working on another book when he died on September 22, 1914. His remains were only formally identified in 1991 when he was properly buried.
Today’s expression, un beau ténébreux (uhn bow tay-nay-bruh), literally means “a dark or obscure handsome.” It refers to a man of dark, brooding good looks, like Brontë’s Heathcliff. I’m pretty sure Meaulnes was a blond, but the moody, difficult personality fits. I think these types of men are better in books. I’ll take my cheerful, kind – and handsome – husband any day.