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Book Reviews : A Special Life Cut Short by a WWI German Bullet

January 07, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Towards the Lost Domain; Letters From London 1905 by Henri Alain-Fournier (Carcanet: $20)

Alain-Fournier: A Brief Life by David Arkell (Carcanet: $18.50)

When a German bullet hit him in the head and killed him in the first months of World War I, Henri Alain-Fournier was 28.

He had written only one book. And yet, "Le Grand Meaulnes"--translated into English both as "The Wanderer" and "The Lost Domain"--is a classic of a very special kind. Read at the right age--15?, 20?--it is not simply a book but a way of growing up or, more properly speaking, of relinquishing childhood.

To call it "The Catcher in the Rye" of its day is to trivialize it; not so much because it is better, but because in literature it is trivial to compare apples with pears, and also apples with other apples.

"The Wanderer" is refracted through a double skin of memory and touched with the light of a lost time. The narrator's high moment of youth, which he seeks to bring back, is not his own. It belongs to a schoolboy friend--Le Grand Meaulnes--a golden lad, whose life fades after a brief enchantment with a beautiful girl, Yvonne, and the magic, splendid circle of family and friends she moves among.

Delicacy and Energy

Alain-Fournier was not the first nor last to write of a vanished youthful kingdom. But the delicacy of his writing, and the enormous energy pent up to release itself in evoking one golden loss--the single peach left on a pruned peach-tree--makes his novel a singular masterpiece.

Carcanet Press has brought here from England two books--one splendid, one mediocre--that cast various amounts of light on the young author. David Arkell's biography is sketchy and written with a mushy ear. We learn, for example, that from his contemporaries, Alain-Fournier "acquired Gallic \o7 savoir-faire.\f7 "

Arkell does set out the main facts of Alain-Fournier's life. He was the much-prized son of two schoolteachers, was brought up in the bucolic Berry region and was sent to Paris at 12 to attend a variety of schools, including the preparatory institution for the elite Ecole Normale Superieure. He failed to get into the Ecole, but meanwhile he was thrown into the company of some of France's brightest young people. His closest friend, Jacques Riviere, became a protege of Andre Gide and editor of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise.

A Brief Encounter

While at school, Henri caught sight of a blonde girl on the steps of the Grand Palais. He followed her about for days, and received a few inquiring glances in return. When he finally approached her, she told him her name--Yvonne de Quievrecourt--but said that it was no use. She had to return to her family in Toulon.

That brief encounter became the centerpiece for "The Wanderer." Another principal source was the writer's memories of his country childhood. Like bread rising overnight, both needed a period to "set"; and this may have largely taken place during a summer when Henri, 19, got a job with a London wallpaper company represented in France by a friend of his family.

"Towards the Lost Domain" contains the letters Henri wrote that summer to his parents and to Jacques Riviere, as well as some of Riviere's replies. It is an exuberant collection; it shows the young writer exercising himself on such things as the English character, the paintings he saw in the museums, his reading, his plans for the future, his friendship with Jacques and the notes he is making for his novel. It's like a colt kicking up his heels--a thoroughbred colt.

Freshness, delicacy, vigor and wit. In a short review, these four words will have to stand for a great deal. The letters are a delight.

Faring Poorly at Table

Henri was lucky enough to stay with an English family of unusual kindness and sensibility, but nevertheless, he felt continually starved. "No bread" is the cry he repeats over and over; he gets his sister to mail him some rolls along with a dictionary. English meals, he writes, resemble "dolls' tea-parties for grown-ups." With real pain, he reports being served one potato along with the meat; he recalls mealtimes with his own family in the country:

"The mass of food they stuff into you," he writes, "you never stop eating; at every moment there's a cup of coffee at hand and a rump of rabbit waiting for you. 'Come now, to put some strength into your legs before you go shooting.' 'Robert, pour a drink for your cousin.' 'Henri, little Henri, have I got to go and find Marie-Rose to persuade you to have some more? . . . ' "

In contrast, there is the voice of his English hostess. "Do you wish another cake more?" he writes. (His English was a little short of perfect) really means: "You must not wish. You have enough."

Still, he loved England. Suburban Chiswick--tidy but hardly grand--seemed to him a neighborhood of small chateaux. He loved English restraint, civility and politics, and took pains not to conform to the French stereotype of "small men with mustaches and goatee beards, quite incapable of controlling either their tongues or their affairs."

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