For those French literature purists who are horrified that I have titled my post on Alain-Fournier’s only novel The Lost Estate, please be assured I’m only doing it because that’s the title the new Penguin Classics translation (by the late Robin Buss) gives it. So don’t write in. The title is normally left untranslated, as Le Grand Meaulnes, which is presumably why they’ve clumsily bracketed it. Such eccentric policies are pretty much in keeping with an eccentric book.
First published in 1913, Le Grand Meaulnes (which I am after all going to keep on calling it) is narrated by Francois Seurel, who remains a secondary character in favour of his friend Augustin Meaulnes, whose arrival at his school “was the start of a new life.” Everyone at school loves le grand Meaulnes, and we are left to believe that he is a young man of irresistible charm, though we don’t see much direct evidence of this.
Certainly though the book is rich in sensory detail, which helps involve the reader in its seductive (and sometimes suffocating) world. Every sense and scene is smothered in detail: a disused room contains “drying lime leaves and ripening apples;” people stand “in the magical light” of fireworks, watching “two sprays of red and white stars bursting;” a wheelwright’s workshop has “the bellows of the forge squeaking … in this murky, clanging place;” to give examples just from the first few pages.
Meaulnes disappears from school one day with a pony and trap, unaccounted for until his return a few days later. He tells of his discovery of a mysterious estate where a wedding fete is about to take place. He is “dazzled” by the sights:
He could hear doors opening and see two fifteen-year-old faces, pink with the cool of the evening and the heat of the chase, under their wide-brimmed bonnets with laces, all about to vanish in a sudden burst of light. For an instant, they twirled around, playfully; their full, lighted skirts lifted and filled with air. He glimpsed the lace of their long, quaint knickers and then, both together, after this pirouette, they leapt into the room and shut the door behind them.
He is dazzled also by the sight of a beautiful young girl, and his discovery of her is to become the centre point of his life, to which everything before had been a prelude, and everything after an unwilling retreat. Meaulnes’ obsessive search for the lost estate and the beautiful girl, and his sense of lifeless loss, pervade the remainder of the book.
Although Le Grand Meaulnes is not a long book, at times I could have wished for it to be shorter yet. The end of the second part of the story is so complete in its own way that to continue seems unnecessary. And the remainder of the book moves away from the modern, ethereal, mysterious nature of the early chapters to a more concrete and clear, but unsatisfying, 19th century mix of hardened plotting and sudden developments.
But the most striking feature of all was that Le Grand Meaulnes seemed to me a clear precursor to The Great Gatsby. (Now we see the importance of the original, untranslatable title.) Both have an unassuming narrator – Seurel becomes Carraway – who has an almost worshipful fascination for the central character, an actor against the narrator’s observer. He in turn leads us to further outposts of hedonism and irresponsibility – here the wealthy wedding guests, there the “careless” Tom and Daisy Buchanan. And unless I am seeing things, the following passage from Le Grand Meaulnes looks to have striking similarities to the famous last paragraph of Gatsby:
One morning, instead of waking up in his room where his trousers and his coats were hanging, he found himself in a long green room with tapestries like forest greenery. The light flowing into this place was so sweet that you felt you could taste it. Beside the nearest window, a girl was sewing, with her back turned to him, as though waiting for him to wake up. He had not the strength to slip out of bed and walk through this enchanted mansion. He had gone back to sleep. But the next time, he swore that he would get up – tomorrow morning, perhaps!
The imagery of greenness, of light, of the girl, of expectations for tomorrow, all seem too much to be coincidental. And after all, what better epigraph for Le Grand Meaulnes’ tale of the tragedy of irrecoverable nostalgia could there be than this?
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.