Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) by Alain-Fournier

I never heard of this novel nor this author. After completing a survey for a publisher, they offered me a free Penguin Classic edition for my time. Of the six books on the list, I already had five, so I took this one. It was a lucky draw, because this is definitely an interesting novel.

Alain-Fournier (Henri Alban) was born in France in 1886. His parents were teachers, and he received a fine education. Le Grand Meaulnes was published in 1912, and he was killed on the Meuse in 1914. A second novel was published posthumously.

François Seurel is a student at his parents’ school when Augustin Meaulnes, a tall, handsome boy arrives. The two form an instant bond. A few days after his arrival, Augustin tries a practical joke which goes awry, and he is lost far from school. He stumbles onto an estate in the midst of preparations for a wedding. He is welcomed as a guest and given a costume. He glimpses a beautiful young girl and immediately falls in love. At the last minute, the wedding is canceled, and the guests disperse. Augustin’s horse and cart have disappeared, so he accepts a ride back to school and stumbles in late one night -- three days after he left the school. He is reticent about his adventures, but eventually he tells François all the details, including his plan to return to the chateau and find the beautiful maiden and marry her.

At first glance, this seems to be a “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy reunites with girl” story; however, this is only the beginning of the tale. It also seems to be some sort of dream or hallucination, but it is all too real.

An informative Introduction by the acclaimed New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, warns the reader of “roller coaster turns of the narration, at what Dr. Johnson might have called the improbability of the incidents and the extremity of the experiences” (ix). He is right about that, I found myself scratching my head on more than many occasions. But the prose is so detailed and so visual, as Gopnik later writes, “Once read, Le Grand Meaulnes is forever after seen” (x). The twists and turns of plot are a small price to play for 223 pages of magical, lyrical prose.

Meaulnes is a wonderful character, a little bit of Holden Caulfield in his rebelliousness, and a little bit of the dare-devil Phineas from Knowles’ A Separate Peace, while François neatly fills the role of Gene from the same novel.

Lots of other interesting characters populate the story as well. Frantz, brother of Yvonne, the beautiful maiden, suffers from “extravagant fantasies.” François refers to his mother as “Millie,” and a mysterious gypsy arrives to complicate Augustin’s plans to find Yvonne.

The story is more than interesting -- I was so absorbed I read it in a little more than two afternoons. This not to say it was an easy read. There are lots of passages which require savoring. Sometimes I found my mind wandering in the gardens and woods, so I had to stop, retrace the words, and pick up again. I was drawn into this story in an almost magical way -- as though while staring at an impressionist painting, I felt myself bathed in the light amidst the haystacks.

Adults seem to have limited authority in Alain-Fournier’s world, perhaps because he was still a young man when he was killed in World War I. The insanity of war! What might he have written had he lived to full maturity? Four stars because the ending was too sudden, too final. I would rather the story be extended another 200 pages.

--Chiron, 7/21/08

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