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
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.
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'
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
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.
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
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.
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
The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and
Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.