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22 November 2013

By Jonathan Boardman


Revisiting a lost love

I WAS 16 years old and revising for O levels when I first encountered it being broadcast as the Book at Bedtime under the translated title "The Lost Domain". Henri Alain-Fournier's 1913 novel Le Grand Meaulnes has in some sense held me in thrall ever since.

I tuned in at what must have been episode two, certainly already in medias res, and I have convinced myself that, entirely appropriately to the spasmodically dreamlike mood of the story, I picked it up at Augustin Meaulnes's surreal first encounter with Yvonne de Galais during la fête étrange.

Who knows or cares whether that is the case? I want it to be true with all my heart. Before the adaptation had run its course, I had borrowed a copy of the book from the school library, both to catch up and to race ahead.

I continued listening, all the same, each night, as I strip-washed at the bathroom sink in that age when, for persons of our class and lack of pretension, a shower had yet to be encountered outside of the school changing-room, and baths were reserved for Sunday nights; I might have been living at the schoolhouse in Sainte-Agathe, at least in that regard.

Almost from the start, I knew that I cast myself as the narrator, Francois Seurel, a romantic onlooker caught up in the quest, in love both with Yvonne and Augustin, though with no hope of yet understanding that.

And it was on seeing Jean-Gabriel Albicocco's 1967 cinema version, seven years later, almost alone at a blisteringly hot Sunday-afternoon showing at Oxford's Penultimate Picture Palace, that I reaffirmed my self-identification, but this time with considerably more self-knowledge.

Since then, I have encountered the book and its legacy in the writing of others (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Rose Tremain), and, most recently, as the subject of a centenary critic's review. Its shortfalls are obvious: an unreflective as opposed to unselfconscious homosociality, a presentation of female characters of an almost absurd passivity, and a kind of narrative sag in the middle.

But, my goodness! for me it still exerts a magic against which I have no defence, nor wish to have. Two weeks ago I picked up my battered second-hand French edition, and was off with Meaulnes on another, and the same, adventure.


Romantic centenarian

I DON'T think I have met any woman for whom the epithet "passive" would be less appropriate: at 100 years of age, Margaret Hammond is still a painter, an expert in handicrafts, and, until very recently and a bout of illness, an alto in All Saints' choir.

The first pastoral action I took as chaplain here was to pray with her husband, Eric, at his deathbed. After some years back in the UK as a widow, during which time she was licensed in her middle nineties as a worship-leader by the diocese of Exeter, Margaret came back to Rome to be nearer her daughter.

I am sure it is not difficult to imagine the pleasure with which the church community celebrated her birthday. At the lunch to mark the day itself, Margaret sang Vaughan William's setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem "Silent Noon". If I had ever underestimated Margaret's own romanticism, let its closing words speak for themselves:

Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.

Essential viewing

BEFORE I witnessed it, I had already heard about the extraordinary and objectionable violence of the two rape scenes restored as part of an attempt at an original version of Sergio Leone's 1984 film Once Upon a Time in America. Was it my own natural emotional fragility, or the skill of the film-maker that left me, last week, incapable of speech at its end?

I was also left with the sense that the rapes simply had to be witnessed, so that the picture's attempt at a portrayal of human nature - especially as expressed on the edge that might divide, or perhaps unite, masculine and feminine psyches and physicality - might be formed.

I guess there are many contemporary commentators who would say that no man should be making a film that includes depictions of the violation of women, whatever or however good might be his ends.

I think I will stick my neck out and disagree; this piece of art is to be taken on its own terms: a radical attempt to illustrate both the lowest and highest impulses of a single character, and his ultimate failure to "make sense" of human experience and emotion without the intervention of an external force that itself remains highly ambiguous.

If you have not seen it, you should; but go with a friend, as you really might need to hold someone's hand in the moments of shock, despair, and, ultimately, elation.


Unattainable desire?

LAST but not least, a direct appeal to the readers of this column. I have searched high and low, in every DVD shop in Rome, but also in Paris, London, and New York, for some sort of copy of the film Le Grand Meaulnes. Not the HD French TV version of the noughties, but the aforementioned celluloid masterpiece, which appears to me as unobtainable as is the subject of Alain-Fournier's novel itself.

On YouTube there is only a tiny clip, inevitably Augustin's first encounter with Yvonne, and I cannot adequately describe my longing for more. Is there anybody who can satisfy my craving? 

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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