Sunday, 28 July 2013

During the long hot days of July 2013, when the newspapers were becoming bored with the various conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and were instead awaiting the birth of a royal baby, I decided to spend some time on my own in a city which I had not visited for thirteen years. My children had grown up enough to be safely left, and my wife and I were enjoying living more independent lives, which is to say not living in each other's pockets but exploring the possibilities of what might be done better apart than together. As anyone who has undergone a similar transformation in their marriage will tell you, this is a great act of renewal, and they will also probably tell you that it makes the time spent together more valuable and exciting. And in any case, she had started a new job and could not get the time off work that I could.

So I decided to head off alone. The city was Paris, of course, and in early July I booked a return journey for the end of the month on Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, and seven nights at a small hotel in the 17th Arrondissement. My plan was to revisit a city I remembered fondly, to wander its streets and explore its churches and museums, some of which I had visited before, but in the days before I had a digital camera. I planned to be a flâneur, which is to say a stroller, a spectator, a saunterer, a loafer. I wanted to be a wanderer.

And yet it is, I am afraid, in my nature to plan ahead.  I researched the churches in Paris, coming up with a list of about thirty which I most wanted to visit. I found out museum and gallery opening times and admission prices, nearest metro stops (although I also intended to walk a lot) as well as aspects of the city apparently less well-known and more irregularly frequented. As for the main tourist spots, well, I had visited them before, but still enjoyed the prospect of going to the top of the Eiffel Tower again, as well as wandering around Notre Dame.

When I was in my late teens I was fairly fluent in French, but as the decades passed the language began to lose its grip on me, and while the grammatical structures remained, broadly speaking, much of the vocabulary faded into shadows. In recent years I have found the same thing happening in English, so I was reassured to find that revising French vocabulary, reading French websites and rereading Alain-Fournier's 1913 novel Le Grand Meaulnes in French began to restore some words that I'd thought I had lost, and to add some words which I think were previously unknown to me.

 Alain-Fournier, author of Le Grand Meaulnes

Le Grand Meaulnes is a wonderful book. The narrator is the son of a provincial schoolmaster, and his life is transformed when a slightly older pupil arrives at the school. The new boy leads him off on an extraordinary adventure to discover a mysterious, dreamlike domaine. The older boy's name is Meaulnes, and he is so impressive that the epithet Le Grand is given to him by his school mates. Roughly translated, it means 'good old Meaulnes', but as this does not carry all the resonances of the French word, the book's title is usually left untranslated, although in one edition it is given the name The Wanderer.

Le Grand Meaulnes was Alain-Fournier's only novel. The following year he was killed in the opening weeks of the First World War at  Vaux-lès-Palameix. He was 27 years old. Intriguingly, his body was only identified in 1991.

Despite my propensity for planning ahead, I was still excited at the uncertainty of visiting a foreign city and staying there for a while, as if I might too be in search of a lost domaine.


  1. j'aime beaucoup ton style et ce que tu écris ! J'ai envie de connaître la suite.
    J'ai lu le Grand Meaulnes quand j'avais environ 14 ans. A mon époque, c'était un grand classique. Ce livre m'avait fait rêver. Je ne sais pas si je le relirai. Je vais visiter Alain Fournier/Labrunie au Père Lachaise de temps en temps.
    à bientôt alors !

  2. Merci pour tes mots gentils. Il y a une quinzaine des années J'ai lu le Grand Meaulnes pour le premiere fois, en anglais et puis en francais. L'ete 2003 j'ai visite Nançay,la ville du livre. Nous sommes restions pres de Lamotte-Beuvron, et nous avons visité Bourges - J'ai vu 'Nancay' et j'ai souvenu le livre.

    Alors, Alain-Fournier reste au Pere Lachaise maintenant! Je le visiterai!