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The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) Paperback – Dec 18 2007
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"I read it for the first time when I was seventeen and loved every page. I find its depiction of a golden time and place just as poignant now as I did then."
About the Author
Robin Buss is a writer and translator who works for theIndependent on Sunday and as television critic for The Times Educational Supplement. He studied at the University of Paris, where he took a degree and a doctorate in French literature. He is part-author of the article 'French Literature' in Encyclopaedia Britannica and has published critical studies of works by Vigny and Cocteau, and three books on European cinema, The French Through Their Films (1988), Italian Films (1989) and French Film Noir (1994). He has also translated a number of volumes for Penguin Classics.See all Product Description
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The story begins to unfold as Meaulnes, a popular newcomer at a small village boarding school, sets of on an impulsive errand which he hopes will secure his reputation among his peers. Like most journeys (both literary and real) which have life-changing results, Meaulnes has no idea what he is getting himself in for. Losing his way in the French countryside, Meaulnes by chance happens upon a lavishly surreal wedding party where he briefly mets a beautiful young woman with whom he falls madly in love. After the party suddenly and tragically breaks up, Meaulnes again loses his way, finding himself back at school with no idea how to get back to "the lost estate" and his love. Meaulnes' obsession with finding this young woman and the happiness he knew only briefly compose the heart of this novel. I won't give too much away, but Meaulnes' quest is complicated by friendship and honor, with heart-breaking results.
This is a very moving story, and one which certainly everyone can identify with. Reading this book is like experiencing a bittersweet, haunting dream of childhood innocence. How sad that this was the only novel Alain-Fournier ever wrote; he was killed in World War I. I have to thank Penguin Classics for reissuing this beautiful classic, which has remained largely unknown in the English speaking world for far too long.
I discovered this book by accident. I was in the French section of my university library, restlessly searching for something to read, something with life to it. I found an earlier Penguin translation by Frank Davidson. It was like discovering an unknown treasure buried amongst the known classics.
The first part of this book deals with the discovery of the "Estate", the second part takes on Meaulnes search for his dream girl. It is a small piece but haunting. There are passages you want to return to again and again. This is the book for anyone who wants to reclaim some memory of innocence and simplicity in their lives. It is a golden world, a time before World War I (Alain-Fournier, the author was sadly killed in action on the Meuse in 1914), right after the fin-de-siecle.
The book has a beautiful, albeit melancholic tone to it. I won't say more but that it reminds me of the feeling you get when you listen to Debussy piano pieces. If you want something less heavier than Proust and Joyce, something with depth but also wondrous, pick this beautiful work up. This is a rainy, Sunday afternoon read.
This is the only novel of Alain-Fournier, who was killed in action in September, 1914, so early in the war that it pre-dated the trench system, which is the enduring image of the First World War. His novel is set in the fin-de-siecle countryside, in a region fittingly called today "Centre", yes, the very heartland of France, near George Sand's "The Berry." The novel is told through the eyes of the youthful Francois Seurel. The person who is called "Le Grand Meaulnes" arrives at Francois's father's small schoolhouse to become a boarder. Meaulnes is slightly older, tall, and has had a couple experiences in the world, earning him the "Grand" moniker, and he serves as a "mentor" to others, particularly Francois. He is the "leader of the pack." A central scene involves a grand "fete," a party at a mysterious chateau. Much of the novel involves efforts by Meaulnes, and others, to find, and return to this idyllic setting, hence the theme of a sense of youthful innocence and loss. There are adults in the novel, but mainly they serve only as a backdrop for the youthful action. Alain-Fournier's style resembles an impressionistic painting, like the one of Sisley which adorns a cover to one of the editions--it is always a bit out of focus, teasing the reader with light and shadows of the events described. The central themes involve first loves, youthful commitments, and betrayals, and the sorrow, disappointments and losses that are inevitable as one attains adulthood.
I tried hard to make allowances for over a hundred years of difference with the present, and even a different culture and standards, but I could only give the novel a 4-star rating despite its "classic" status, and even though it is an essential read for anyone wanting to understand the French culture. Youthful infatuations, well, yes, I've had a few, but this novel carried them to an unrealistic third power. In addition, there are too many coincidences and unlikely chance encounters. Finally, without truly issuing a "spoiler," the actions of Meaulnes towards the end of the novel seem to overcome any plausible or even implausible motivation, and seem difficult for any French youth to admire and emulate.
John Ardagh has written an excellent book, with numerous pictures of the settings, entitled "Writer's France," which is also available through Amazon. Ardagh investigated the settings of Alain-Fournier's youth, including his birthplace at La Chapelle-d'Angillon, on the "edge of the melancholy forest and lagoons of the Sologne" as well as the school scenes set in Epineuil, near Sand's Nohant. Ardagh says that Alain-Fournier used parts of each area as background for his novel. Also included in this book are pictures of a couple chateaux that were used as models for the one in the book and there is even a picture of the modest schoolhouse, still extant, even with the ivy.
Finally, what of the actual fate of Alain-Fournier? Yes, he was killed in action in September, 1914, but what were the circumstances? Such is the fame of the author in French society that Alain Denizot undertook an extensive examination of these events -- and it was from the era of not only trench-less warfare, but when French soldiers would wear red pants into battle. He published his findings in "L'Enigme Alain-Fournier" which at present is only available through Amazon.fr. In the next to last paragraph of the book he said: "Presently with the handshake of Mitterrand and Kohl at Douaumont, the reconciliation is incompatible with the episode in the woods of St. Remy." Basically Denizot was saying that in the era of French-German reconciliation, you don't want to know, and for those who have idolized this novel, and the author, the same is also almost certainly true.
The narrative is fluid, vivid and nuanced, a testimony to the translator of this Penguin edition. I regret I did not study French and have not read this in its original language, but this version has a grounded, natural expressiveness that does not feel removed from another tongue. The novel captures provincial French culture and its values on the cusp of the 20th century, particularly illustrating the perspective of what defines childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Francois serves as an ideal foil to Augustin providing gentle shading around the large outline cut by his friend.
Penguin is to be commended for including a spoiler warning at the outset of Adam Gopnik's critical introduction. I read it as an afterward and it proved to be a pleasant conversation working out the experience of reading this classic, putting it in historical and artistic perspective.
Monsieur Seurel and his pupils seem to spend as much time in the countryside as they do in the classroom, and the life of that countryside is precisely situated in the Cher region of France, not far from Bourges. But in the midst of it there is a lost estate that is almost like a dream, never to be found again. Meaulnes arrives there by accident one night, after falling asleep in a horse-drawn wagon, and finds himself in the midst of preparations for a wedding. It is a passage of sheer magic: a Watteauesque fête champêtre populated by extravagantly-dressed children and figures from a harlequinade. He meets the daughter of the manor and falls instantly in love. But the wedding is called off and the guests disperse. Meaulnes spends the next years trying to find the way back again, eventually following his distant beloved Yvonne to Paris. The waking dream is not unlike the mysterious chivalric world of Maurice Maeterinck's PELLEAS ET MELISANDE of 1892, seen here through the eyes of childhood as a lament for childhood's end.
As Gopnik observes, Alain-Fournier places "what is essentially a medieval allegory of love in the terms of a late nineteenth-century realist novel." The realist element is always there even at the beginning -- the routine of the school, the peasant life of the region. As the book moves on, however, the realism becomes stronger, not weaker. The lady setting out for the enchanted isle will become a housewife and mother; the absent bride at the wedding feast threatens to become a prostitute in Paris. Fantasy butts heads with life. Gopnik again: "The intensity of the romance of childhood -- and the attempt to marry it (literally) to an erotic-romantic dream -- glow bright for Fournier with the light of something not quite real, a flare not a fire." A flare, certainly, for within a year of publication, France would enter the Great War; and within a month of that, Alain-Fournier would be dead.