Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate)

There is a wonderful kind of strangeness to Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes that is difficult to describe. It’s a set text in France — most people read it at school and then never read it again — but it remains beloved, something like To Kill a Mockingbird. The title is hard to translate (Meaulnes is a surname, and it works out to something like The Great Meaulnes, or even The Magnificent Meaulnes, but since Meaulnes is an unfortunate homonym of moan in English, translators usually want to do something else.) But the plot seems simple enough at first glance: schoolboy finds a mysterious castle and loses it; same boy finds a mysterious girl and loses her. Despite Tom’s reassurances over at Wuthering Expectations, I feared it would be sappy and sentimental. What I found was not what I expected.

This book is perhaps above all a grand evocation of adolescence. The narrator, the schoolboy Seurel, finds his comfortable world shaken when the charismatic Meaulnes bursts on the scene. But when Meaulnes disappears for a few days, the story goes more or less off the traditionally-realist rails.

Meaulnes has found the Lost Estate. After a blow to the head, he finds his way to a castle where all the people (mostly children and the elderly) are dressed for a party in clothes from the early 19th century. Meaulnes dresses, too, and in a dreamlike state he joins the group. The children claim they can do “just as they like” — adolescence with no consequences; remaining a child while reigning as an adult. This is the novel’s definition of freedom. The wild, indulged son of the estate, Franz Galais, has been seeking this all his life, and even had a small house built for him when he was a child in which he could live alone. By the end of his time at the party, Meaulnes has not only tasted freedom and fear, he has fallen in love.

But as the rest of the novel makes clear, this kind of freedom is not feasible. Children are too foolish to live alone, and when they take the consequences for their own actions, it’s harsh indeed. Love may be pure and high-minded (these are the last few blooms of Romanticism before the first World War, in which Alain-Fournier was killed), but it is also doomed. After his trip to the lost estate, Meaulnes is never quite the same person again; he has fallen in love, he has seen the world differently, and a shift has taken place toward an adulthood full of regret and pain.

So far, so possibly sentimental. I wished, in fact, that Seurel and Meaulnes had never retraced their steps and found the lost estate: wondering whether the castle and the girl ever existed was perfectly satisfying to me. Still, to my mind the prose is vivid enough to keep it out of the territory of sugariness and nostalgia.

What really holds it apart, however, and makes it into something unique to my experience, is its flashes of complete and utter weirdness. I referred you to Tom’s writing about this book, and he gives you a good taste of this. From the dreamlike appearance of the estate itself (complete with costumes) to the gangly pierrot running through the forest holding a human body, to a little slimy doll full of porridge, to an operatic scene near the end, Alain-Fournier provides us with tiny glimpses into the world beneath the world: not Romantic but ghastly, chaotic, inexplicable, modern. I loved it.

This is a short novel with a tremendous amount to offer: cultural capital, powerful prose, and a streak of strangeness running right through the nougaty center. I highly recommend you read it. I read this in French, but there are several translations to English, most recently a Penguin edition translated by Robin Buss.

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9 Responses to Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate)

  1. Another book I’ve owned a copy of for some time, and now need to read as soon as possible. The ‘streak of strangeness’ makes it irresistible. Thank you for the intriguing review.

    • Jenny says:

      It was well worth the read! It was also a major gap in my own reading, since I’m a 20th-century specialist, and I was very happy to have gotten around to it.

  2. Ah, that doll, that amazing doll.

    Your idea is good, too, a novel where the characters do not pursue the dream vision but merely live with it or bring it into their normal world or something like that.

    That world beneath the world in fact is Romantic, but German Romantic, which is a whole ‘nother place. A wonderful place. A strange, strange place.

    • Jenny says:

      No, you’re right! I said it was not Romantic, but it absolutely is. I saw that you identified it as German Romantic, but that’s where all Romanticism comes from anyway, and even the English Romantics do a nice line in twins, doppelgangers, trances, automata, vampires, Frankenstein, etc. I would say that this is right along the Romantic line no matter which country it’s from — my error.

  3. anokatony says:

    I read “Le Grand Mealnes’ a couple of years ago (in English). I liked it a lot, but wasn’t sure of what it meant. I saw it more as a paean to adolescence.

    • Jenny says:

      It is that, but it’s more than that, too, because Alain-Fournier recognizes that you can’t stay there. Another thing I wondered was about the passive and even crippled narrator. By the end, everything is taken from him. What can we read into that? It’s been noted elsewhere that he’s quite like Nick Carroway in that way.

  4. I don’t think of it as an error! French and German Romanticism in particular have so little to do with each other except at a high level of generality. A big part of Alain-Fournier’s sensibility is rare in French literature but common in German.

    This is my cheap escape, but the ending, with everything taken from the narrator, is very German – Goethe’s idea of renunciation, subsequently used and abused by many other German writers, and also by Gerard de Nerval, and possibly by Emily Brontë.

    Rather than explore or develop an idea I just bury it in literary history.

  5. Jeane says:

    Of course, I haven’t read the book but the lost estate, the castle that can’t be found again, the party atmosphere, the suspension of time- it sounds like a visit to faeire world where one must avoid eating the food and risk emerging into the world again having lost years, perhaps decades as the world moved on…. am I wrong, or does it have that element to it?

  6. Pingback: Book Review | ‘The Lost Estate’ – Henri Alain Fournier « Wordly Obsessions

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