Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) is a tricky little thing. A charismatic new boy comes to school, and our lives would never be the same, and we all remember that magical summer, and on like that. We have all read, or seen, plenty of versions of this story. They are rarely as well-written, or as surprising, as Alain-Fournier’s little novel.
The first surprise – this one comes early – is that the magical event is not caused by The Great Meaulnes, the natural leader, the friend of every schoolboy, but actually happens to him. The narrator has to spend the rest of the novel assembling the fragments of the story. It is as if Mary Poppins, rather than taking the Banks children on adorable adventures, instead disappears for a long weekend, cannot quite explain what happened to her, and is frankly never again such a good nanny, always somehow distracted.
Let’s have a sample of Alain-Fournier:
The children, waking up in fright, pressed closer to one another, saying nothing. And while he [Meaulnes] was shaking the window, with his face pressed to the pane, thanks to a bend in the road, he noticed a white shape running along. It was the tall pierrot from the party, haggard and distraught, the gypsy in his carnival dress, carrying in his arms a human body , which he was holding against his chest. Then they vanished. (I.17.)
So that’s another difference from the usual schoolboy coming-of-age stories: Le Grand Meaulnes is really desperately weird. It keeps shifting back and forth between some semblance of ordinary life and these eruptions or invasions from Dream-world, often with no preparation, leaving the reader, or me, at least, pleasantly disoriented. Not that I haven’t seen this before. Le Grand Meaulnes is one of the two most German French stories I have ever read, if you know what I mean. Maybe I’ll explain tomorrow. This is another surprise, another trick, since the novel begins with an invocation that reminds me of that other great French novel of 1913:
At least, this is how I imagine our arrival today; because whenever I try to recapture the distant memory of that first evening, waiting in our courtyard at Saint-Agathe, what I remember are, in fact, other times of waiting, and I see myself with both hands resting on the bars of the gate, anxiously looking out for someone coming down the main street. (I.1.)
But Alain-Fournier’s search for lost time is of a different character and tone than Proust’s.
My understanding is that Le Grand Meaulnes is a genuinely beloved novel in France, spiritual kin to The Little Prince, Little Women and The Catcher in the Rye. Why it is not better known to American readers is perplexing. Is it the title, just the title? Translators always want to fix it. The Penguin Classics edition I read, translated by Robin Buss, goes with The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes), an admirable surrender.
The Great Meaulnes would be a fine title, accurate and perfectly, ironically analogous to The Great Gatsby, but I suppose we’re still stuck with the peculiar-looking Meaulnes. It is very close to “moan” – now slip in the “l,” but gently, please, and go easy on the “n.” Close enough, unless I am wrong – please let me know.