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.