Robert Gibson has published on Alain-Fournier's work for over half a century. His latest book draws on new material that has appeared over the last twenty-five years that allows a significant reappraisal of the detail and influences of Alain-Fournier's life. Robert is retired Professor of French from the University of Kent and now lives and writes in Sidmouth, Devon. He is the world authority on Alain-Fournier in the English-Speaking world.
Mark Thwaite: Where, when and why did your interest in Alain-Fournier begin Robert?
Robert Gibson: I first read Le Grand Meaulnes in 1944 when I was still at my East London grammar school. It was a set-book in the London Higher Certificate in French (later to become "A-level").
I didn't immediately fall under its spell. That came a few years later when experiences in my own life filled me with a sense of loss which - for so many readers - so permeates the novel.
When I was looking for a subject for my doctoral thesis, I decided to try and uncover how Le Grand Meaulnes came to be written. I to to Fournier's sister who asked me why I was so interested in the subject. I replied in some detail. She was so impressed that she invited me to stay with her for as long as I needed to transcribe all the surviving notes and early drafts of the novel. This provided the basis of my doctoral thesis: "The genesis of Le Grand Meaulnes,"awarded a PhD by the University of Cambridge in 1953. My first book The Quest of Alain-Fournier was published the same year.
MT: You've been described as the foremost English language expert on Alain-Fournier and The End of Youth is a wonderfully thorough book, but does a minor writer like Alain-Fournier really warrant all your hard work? Or would you consider him a major writer?
RG: I don't consider the time I've devoted to Fournier and his background in the least wasted. Because he has only one novel to his name, he's technically a minor writer. As well as his one novel, however, he was a formidable letter writer. His exchange of letters with his best friend (later brother-in-law) Jacques Rivière, is the most vivid testimony we have to the cultural life of Paris in the decade preceeding the outbreak of war in 1914.
MT: Do you think Alain-Fournier is undervalued as a journalist? How was he as a playwright?
RG: I think Alain-Fournier's work as a literary columnist has been under-valued, though it's not so important as his letters to Rivière and their friends. The plays he began work on in 1913-14 are too skeletal to evaluate.
MT: How long did it take The End of Youth to write?
RG: The End of Youth took about six months to write. Much of it pre-existed in the earlier chapters of Land without a Name: Alain-Fournier and His World.
MT: Thirty years separate this biography from your Land without a Name. I know much has come to light in the period about Alain-Fournier, but what surprised you the most?
RG: The most important material which came to light between 1975 and 2005 comprised: Alain-Fournier's literary journalism; his correspondence with Simone Casimir-Perier; his body, dug up and identified in the woods of Saint-Rémy. I'd rate the correspondence as the most significant. I hadn't till then appreciated quite how much the liaison with Simone meant to him.
MT: Alain-Fournier seems, though not a widely read author, a widely loved one. Why is this do you think?
RG: I don't accept that Alain-Fournier was not a widely read author. In one format or another Le Grand Meaulnes has remained a best-seller in France ever since it was first published. It was regularly presribed in the UK until a few years ago when French literature disappeared from the A-level French syllabus. My school edition of Le Grand Meaulnes (published in 1968) brought me a royalty cheque of £500 or so for 25 years! Over the past ten years, not a sausage! The novel was much prized, I'd say, because it encapsulates emotions experienced universally by the 16-19 age group.
MT: Who do you think the best of Alain-Fournier's contemporaries were?
RG: Of French writers born in the 1880s, the most notable, I'd say, were Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958), Valéry Larbaud (1881-1957), Jean Giraudoux (1882 - 1944), Jules Romains (pseudonym of Louis Farigoule; 1885-1972) and Jacques Rivière (1886-1925). Alain-Fournier himself was born in 1886 (d.1914). The writers they all most admired were born a decade or so earlier: Paul Claudel (1868-1955), André Gide (1869 - 1951) and Marcel Proust (1871-1922). They all published major books in 1913-14, the same year as Le Grand Meaulnes. For the record, I've published books on a number of these eg Martin du Gard, Larbaud and Proust. I'm emphatically not a one author-man (or, as they say, a one-trick pony!)
MT: You are also the author of Best of Enemies. Tell us a little about that book Robert.
RG: Best of Enemies has been one of my consuming interests for almost as long as Le Grand Meaulnes. After you have been made a university professor, you traditionally have to deliver a so-called inaugural lecture which is a sort of mission statement. Mine, delivered in Queen's University, Belfast, in 1963 was entitled Le Mésentente Cordiale (ie the opposite of L'entente Cordiale). I've written various essays on this over the years. A first version of Best of Enemies was published in 1995.
MT: Do you read any literary websites!? What are your favourites?
RG: I don't know what a literery website is!
MT: Who is your favourite writer/book? What is the best thing you have read recently?
RG: Over the past few months I've been reading children's books with a view to recommending them to my two little grandsons. I'm particularly struck by Philip Pullman. I admired the His Dark Materials trilogy from the start. More recently, I particularly liked The Scarecrow and his Servant. Much better than Harry Potter! Otherwise, just about my favourite book is Great Expectations.
MT: What are you working on now?
RG: I'm trying to complete a memoir on what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and 1940s. In the course of it, I'll try to answer in much more detail the questions you post in one of your questions ... I went just a little way in that direction in the preface to the book I wrote on "my" Essex Annals of Ashdon: No Ordinary Village published in 1986.
MT: Thanks so much for your time, Robert.