I have just finished Le Grand Meaulnes (translated in my Penguin edition as The Lost Estate), having found it lying in a charity shop, seemingly rather unloved and, if I am honest, I was enticed by the cover image, having never heard of the novel before. And I am not alone, it is barely known in this country, but is a set study text in its native France and voted there the 6th best novel of the twentieth century. It is a great shame that the work isn’t more widely read here as the book is an excellent novel and Adam Gopnik is right in saying that it is a work that leaves an impression on you, which it is hard to shake off. Listening to an album shortly after I couldn’t help be keep drawing parallels between the two and likewise reflecting on my own experiences of youth as I went through the day.
Written by Alain-Fournier in 1913 it was to be his first and only complete novel, as he fought and died in the First World War and to a degree the novel is autobiographical in the sense that it concerns a instant connection (love) between two people, for whom the hope of long term relationship is denied – he even names the ethereal main character after his own lost love; Yvonne.
One of the most striking elements of the book is the sense of freedom that prevails, more generally through their childhood, but specifically within the school and their relationship with Monsieur Suerel.
Many of the reviews of the book make a point of saying that it is a novel that means different things in youth than it does in adulthood and that it is only in this later state that one can understand the loss that Alain-Fournier writes so wonderfully about. Reading it for the first time in my early 30’s I am not too old to have forgotten many of the emotions and events that so easily span a hundred years, but likewise I am old enough to know that it is an age, that even in our current desire for eternal adolescence, that has passed me by. The fights and carefree adventures were never a part of my childhood, but the sense of longing for intimacy, identity and independence I can remember well, along with the frustration and repression of youth.
The arcadia of the early chapters, where we are lead around the estate and along the lanes of the countryside is slowly swept away, until at last in the final chapters it disposed of entirely. Leaving you feeling almost slightly foolish for having fallen for its charms; this is real life, this is adulthood, the book seems to say, here there is no place for dreams and utopias. A stubborn mule is beaten by the same children that led Meaulnes excitedly around the corridors; ducklings lay dead in the garden of the playhouse.
And yet the illness and death of Yvonne, suddenly and beautifully roots her in the world of the living. Gone now is the abstract and dreamlike fairytale princess and instead we have a girl, a woman, who feels, who suffers. With it goes also is our rose tinted youth as we emerge to find ourselves in a much more readily recognisable world of pain, responsibility and with a clearer sense of mortality.
There is no doubt that most of Le Grand Meaulnes was, for me, a melancholy read, particularly as it drew to its conclusion and all hope of the promised fairytale ending vanished, but for all that it carried with it a sense of the beauty of the human condition and captured wonderfully the transitory moments of dreamlike pleasure that make up a part of what it is to be alive.