26 Fruits


Lost and found

In France I fought a daily battle with SatNav. Often it would take me down more direct but difficult routes on minor roads. At least once this had an amazing effect – serendipity struck again.

We were on holiday, partly to visit my grandad’s grave in Flanders. He had been killed 100 years ago this week in the lead-up to Passchendaele, so it was a poignant moment, along with the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres. We decided that we would visit Verdun to see the French side of that wasteful war, and it was equally moving.

We had booked in to stay at a chateau that night. The bossy woman on SatNav, with the appalling Franglais accent, directed us down a road that took us straight through the woods. Drive for fifteen miles she said, so we headed down this road where we seemed to be the only car. About halfway down the road, I noticed an intriguing roadside sign that said ‘La Fosse’ followed by ‘Henri Alain-Fournier et ses compagnons 400 metres’. Alain-Fournier – surely not? I stopped and got out of the car, discovering that there were gravestones of German soldiers dotted through the woods.

I walked back to the sign and down the track where trees formed a canopy. Soon there were information boards indicating that this was a wood where the German artillery HQ had been based in 1914. I returned to the track and continued walking, soon reaching a clearing where the French flag fluttered on a flagpole. There was a glass-covered ‘fosse’ (communal grave) with headstones inscribed with 21 names including that of Lieutenant Henri Alain-Fournier. These French soldiers had been killed at this spot in the first weeks of the First World War, but this monument to them was recent, inspired by the continuing readership of Alain-Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes that had been written and published just before war had broken out.

Alone in these woods I looked at the press cuttings displayed and the memorial sculpture of a flame that had been recently erected. My tears were for the futility of war and also in memory of one of my favourite books – and the thought that this way of stumbling across the author’s grave by accident was so much in keeping with the feeling of that novel.

If you don’t know it, I recommend it. More recent translations have titled it The Lost Domain or The Lost Estate. I had first read it as a teenager and I suspect that will always be the right age to read it first – and then to reread it later in life. It’s a novel set in the years before the war, with the feeling that this is a way of life about to disappear – a story that’s an achingly romantic search for lost times and places and love. The narrator’s friend Meaulnes had visited a manor house in the woods, fallen in love with the girl there and then disappeared. The novel becomes a quest to rediscover the place, the people and the feeling of a magical, disappeared time. And it’s beautifully written, simple but lyrical and poignant, made all the more so by the knowledge that this was the author’s only book before he was killed in the war.

On previous holidays I’d tried to visit places in the Solange in central France where Alain-Fournier had grown up and set his novel. But the places always seemed just off the map of our journey. So now, coming across this place by accident, seemed naturally to fit the spirit of Le Grand Meaulnes.

We drove on towards the chateau where we had booked a room and meal for the night. It was the place on our tour we had looked forward to the most. When we arrived there in Hattonchatel, we rang the bell and were greeted by the owner. A conversation in French ensued in which the word ‘désolé’ figured frequently. We understood that there had been a catastrophic electricity failure so we could not stay there that night. The owner had booked us into a logis a few miles away.

Quel dommage. But how appropriate to Le Grand Meaulnes.

One final thing. We were in France for the centenary of the war that did represent a watershed between one society and another. On the night before setting out I had written the closing words of a new novel The Good Messenger set either side of the war, with the first part in 1912, a coming of age story about a young boy and woods with the shadow of future events. Again it all seemed to fit.

3 Responses

  1. Faye Sharpe says:

    Good heavens John! You really do have a Good Messenger by your side.

  2. irene lofthouse says:

    Serendipity indeed.
    Reminds me of the directions given once when in Ireland: ‘If you think you’re going the wrong way, you’re on the right road.’ And it was true.

  3. Sian says:

    I love the word serendipitous. The story conveys the essence of it. The tragedy of the great war is something I have come to later in life. Earlier today I watched a commemoration of Elis Evans or his bardic name Hedd Wyn (pure peace). He won the bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod in 1917 the ultimate honour for a poet. His non de plume Fleur de lys was called from the stage but noone stood to claim the chair. He had been killed at in battle weeks before. The chair was cloaked in black in his honour and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Leave a Reply