French literary anniversaries, part 2
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
French literary anniversaries seem to be coming thick and fast (and francophobes should stop reading this now). I mentioned last week (September 19) the forthcoming Proustian landmark in November – more on that nearer the time. November 7 will see the centenary of Albert Camus’s birth. And before those two dates we have, in October, the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Alain-Fournier’s only novel Le Grand Meaulnes – an excuse for my second reproduction of a Livre de Poche cover in a week.
As is well known, the author was killed in action on the Meuse in September 1914 at the age of 27. Less well known is the fact that a promising fragment of a second novel, Colombe Blanchet, appeared in 1990; or that Alain-Fournier lived in Turnham Green in west London for a while (working in a wallpaper company); or that he changed his name from Henri Fournier to Alain-Fournier so as not to be confused with the champion cyclist Henri Fournier; or that it took until 1991 for his remains to be formally identified.
Le Grand Meaulnes always appears high on any list of great c20 French novels, and is probably still a staple for lycée students; not everybody was enchanted by it: Anne Duchêne once referred to it in the TLS as “that rather tiresome classic”. I suspect it appeals to adolescent males more than any other group of readers, but there’s no denying the classical beauty of the writing. It has that indefinable quality, timelessness.
J. C. suggests (NB, September 27), in an item on the sixtieth anniversary of the Livre de Poche, that it’s ”an essential text for the debutant lecteur”. The arrival in the office of a Centenary Edition (published by Oxford University Press on October 7, £12.99/$19.95), with an introduction by Hermione Lee, prompted me to have a look at the available translations.
There are at least four to choose from: Valerie Lester’s The Magnificent Meaulnes (2009, Vintage), R. B. Russell’s liberty-taking if occasionally inspired (but poorly proof-read) version for Tartarus Press (1999), the late Robin Buss’s 2007 translation (The Lost Domain, Penguin Classics). And then there’s the new Oxford edition, with a translation by Frank Davison, which dates from . . . 1959. It was the Penguin edition until Buss’s version replaced it. Confusing, isn’t it?
Partly out of a sense of loyalty to Robin Buss, who was a model reviewer for the TLS over many years, I’m prompted to suggest that his is the best. Buss was a skilled translator, from Dumas to his near-anagram Camus. Our reviewer David Coward called his Lost Domain (Buss’s last translation) “lyrical”, which seems an apt adjective. It’s certainly the most direct and precise. Davison’s strikes me as broadly eccentric: phrases such as “an abode from which our adventurings flowed out” don’t really float my boat, and distort the original: “demeure d’où partirent et où revinrent . . . nos aventures”. It might have been an idea to revise it.