Anthony Howell: a few words on Alain-Fournier

  Anthony Howell


  The Poems of Alain-Fournier
  A Few Remarks by Anthony Howell

Alain-Fournier died while fighting near Verdun, on the French-Belgian border, on 22 September, 1914, one month after the outbreak of the First World War. His few poems seem drowned in outdoor light. We sense the breeze on our skin, the heat warming the stones and the grass, as much as it warms our bodies.

Henri Alain-Fournier in 1913, Musee Ecole du Grandes Meaulnes, Epineuil les Fleuriel. Copyright.

It strikes me that he is a Fauve. The Fauve explosion culminated in the glorious paintings the group produced in 1905-7, just seven years before Fournier’s death. I look at the paintings André Derain painted near Cassis, and I sense from the smearing of orange on roofs and sunlit slopes that the artist was painting the heat as well as the light. And Fournier is also evoking heat as much as light. He is more interested in the intensity of his perception than in some impression of reality.

He is very aware of colour in his poems, but his eyes are not divorced from the other senses. He celebrates texture — little dresses and dishevelled silks, a straw hat, a satin parasol — and sounds — the sobbing of a piano, the pealing of bells for weddings, the snoring noises of combine harvesters. Lavender is gathered to the sound of the bells, and thus we become immersed in his experience through all our senses.

And very often this is an experience of the outdoors. Interiors are dusty, out of focus in their corners, the shadowy realm of the aged who maintain the hearth, often asleep behind lowered curtains.

What is extraordinary is how this small oeuvre — fourteen poems in all — so utterly engages us in a plastic world of light, sound and atmosphere, and since it’s nearly always a sunlit world, it seems that the greatest threat can only be a shower.

Alain-Fournier is well aware of his own typicality:

We were twenty then, in our thousands.
Our love-sobs strayed across the town.

His poems are unashamedly adolescent. They are often constructed like brief stories, and they unfold their own narratives, culminating in endings which are also always presenting us with the presiding image of the poem.

Nearly all these verses come across as pre-war, and they seem intent on invoking an idyll of remembered time, an idyll similar to the recalled but never to be revisited chateau of Le Grand Meaulnes — his novel that reads like a compulsive dream — a celebration of loss, where loss is some sweet nostalgia for an interval of erotic communion and juvenile adoration. The novel seems essential as the backdrop to many of these poems. Readers are advised to refresh their minds by returning to its pages in order to read ours with enhanced enjoyment. However, an exception to this lyrical view of his poems is Road Song:

One invader, then all of them, sing:

We caught the fever
From your marshes,
Caught the fever and we went away.
We had been warned
That we would discover
Nothing but the sun
In the depths of your forests.

We have been through stories
Of broken stretchers,
Lost horseshoes, wounded horses…

Now in this poem the sun becomes incendiary, explosive, lethal, and it is through reading it that one begins to notice that for Fournier the sun is not always benign. Actually the hearth indoors has a more human warmth. The sun is always there in the poem, or noted for its absence, but there is the sense that what nourishes can also prove malignant, eager to destroy — and outside human control.

This malign sun is the dominant force of The Sun and the Road. The sun beats down on the road with a white heat, and:

Above all else it’s him I see, as the sun heats up for joy;
This boy who has lost to that dusty wind that blows,

His nice new hat, of crisp silk-banded straw,
And I see him on the road, chasing after it,
And lost to the march past of belles with their beaus
Runs after it — despite their jeers — runs after it, blinded
By the sun, and by the dust and by his tears.

There is often a woman who is the focus of attention, sometimes an old woman, a woman who epitomises the ways of the village, the spirit of the country existence that is being celebrated (and with hindsight we cannot help but sense the poignancy of this rendition of a world that will be gone before the war that kills the author has come to an end).

More often she who he addresses is at least as young as the poet, possibly younger. She is regularly spoken to in these adolescent poems, this girl by whom he is smitten. Again, there is a sense of his awareness of the typicality of all this: adolescent poems addressed to her, the one you have a crush on.

But it is with considerable skill that Alain-Fournier gets us caught up in the imagined dialogue that could almost be a pastoral eclogue, for there is a sense of us inhabiting a terrain, of walking through it, going in and out of hedges, through gates or along little lanes. His poems are idyllic journeys through a landscape soon to be blown to smithereens.

And here’s a complete poem:

Tale of the Sun and the Road
                    (To a little girl)

There’s a little more shade in the squares
Beneath their chestnut trees,
There’s a little more sun beating down now on the road.

In ranks of two, a wedding passes by
On this stifling afternoon  — a long bridal procession
In all its country finery, remarked upon by everyone.

Look how lost in the midst of it all are the children,
Their fears and upsets ignored.

I think about the One, and one little boy who resembles me.
A light spring morning, under the aspens,

Mild sky scented with dog roses.
He is alone, although he’s been invited,
And at this summer wedding he says to himself,

‘What if they place me in line next to her,
The one who makes me whimper in my bed?’

(Mothers, do you wonder of an evening,
About the tears, the sadness, the passions of your children?)

‘I’ll wear my big white hat made of straw,
My arm may be touched by the lace of her sleeve,
As I dream her dream in my Sunday best.

What a love-filled summer’s day we’ll see!
She’ll be sweetly leaning, on my arm.

I’ll take little steps — I’ll hold her parasol
And softly say to her, ‘Mademoiselle…’

But firstly, well, in the evening, perhaps,
If we’ve walked a long way, if the evening is fresh,
I will dare take her hand, I will hold it so tight.
I will speak the truth until I’m out of breath,

And closely now, without the need to fret,
I will say words so tender
That her eyes will go all wet,
And with none to eavesdrop, she will answer…’

So I dream, as my current glances fall
On a mundane groom together with his bride,
Such as one views on any baking noon,
Poised above the steps of a town hall

Then spilling out to music onto the blinding street,
Trailing several couples en cortège,
All in their first-time outfits;

Dream, in the dust of this processional affair,
Where two by two go by, the girls with their noses in the air,
Girls in their white, with lace-embroidered sleeves,
And the boys from the big cities, maladroit,
Gripping gauche bouquets of artificial flowers;

I dream about those small forgotten boys;
Panicked, placed last minute with no-one in particular;

Dream about the village boys, those impassioned lads
Jostled at a rhythmic pace in these absurd parades;

 — Of others caught up in the rhythmical process, confident
And pulled along, heading for a liveliness
Which loves to make a noise, peal without a purpose.

 — Of the very smallest — going up and down the rows,
Who can’t find their mummies, and one above all

Who looks just like me, like me. More and more,
Above all else, it’s him I see, as the sun heats up for joy;
This boy who has lost to that dusty wind that blows,

His nice new hat, of crisp silk-banded straw,
And I see him on the road, chasing after it,
And lost to the march past of belles with their beaus
Runs after it — despite their jeers — runs after it, blinded
By the sun, and by the dust and by his tears.


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