A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Translated by Frank Davison.
The first time someone told me I MUST read Le Grand Meaulnes I was a teenager and studying for my French Literature ‘A’ level. We had a summer exchange student staying with us and the pair of us were having a stilted conversation (in a summerhouse in a deluge, I seem to remember) about ‘Books We Have Loved’. Our guest’s literary tastes (along with her dress sense) were, in her own estimation, far superior to mine and she greeted the news that I was reading Marcel Pagnol’s La Gloire de Mon Père with something very akin to a sneer. The book I should be reading – indeed, the book everyone should be reading – was ‘Le Grand Moan’ (or at least, that was what it sounded like at the time to my English ears).
Fast forward about 10 years to Cornwall and I’m visiting a friend who is taking an Open University course in French Literature. I’m dredging up my (vague) memories of Germinal and good old Pagnol … and the next thing I know ‘Le Grand Moan’ pops up again as a book my friend is positively astonished I haven’t read – what with me being so terribly well-versed in and knowledgeable about French literature and all …
And so it continued from time to time: almost every time the subject of French literature came up (ie: about once every five to ten years) I would inevitably be told that I MUST read ‘Le Grand Moan’. And such is human nature that the more I was told I had to read it, the less inclined I was to do so. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit that I was in my forties before I realized ‘Le Grand Moan’ was in fact Le Grand Meaulnes – which was at least a step in the right direction, but not one that really took me any closer to actually reading the thing.
Skip to 2013. I’m scanning an OUP catalogue and a book called The Lost Domain catches my eye. With my brain in neutral, and thinking I might like to read something a bit lighter than usual (non-fiction is normally my ‘thing’) I like the sound of ‘romantic and fantastical’ with a bit of ‘heart-wrenching yearning’ thrown in for good measure. Nice cover, too. (Book? Cover? Judge? Who? Me?)
When it arrives, I’m more than a little startled to discover that the universe is now apparently telling me I need to read Le Grand Meaulnes, because that is what The Lost Domain is – an English translation of Le Grand Moan. I promptly put it right at the bottom of my TBR pile, where it stayed until June of this year, when a close relative became terminally ill.
Spending long hours sitting beside a hospital bed and alternating chatting to people on social media with staring blankly at the brick wall outside the window, I eventually decided, howbeit reluctantly, that the time had finally come to read The Lost Domain.
And thus it was that – in far from auspicious circumstances – I finally made the acquaintance of François Seurel and Augustin Meaulnes – Le Grand Meaulnes.
The story is simple, dreamlike and profoundly strange. Meaulnes, an effortlessly superior young man with an unmistakable quality of ‘otherness’ about him, becomes a boarder at a provincial French secondary school where his fellow pupils soon dub him ‘le grand Meaulnes’ (‘the Great Meaulnes’ or ‘Meaulnes the Great’ – a term that loses almost everything in the translation) – in acknowledgement of his undoubted charisma. Escaping from the school one day on an unsanctioned trip to the local station Meaulnes loses his way and stumbles upon an isolated house, a fancy dress party and a beautiful girl, with whom he falls instantly in love. Finding his way back to school several days later, exhausted but elated, he tells his best friend Seurel about the house and the party and – not least – the girl, and immediately announces his determination to retrace his steps, and find again both the Lost Domain and his lost love.
Le Grand Meaulnes is the story – narrated by Seurel – of Meaulnes’ obsessive search for his dream world in the woods – a search that ultimately ends in tragedy. Part detective story, part love story, part fable, the book defies pigeon-holing. Is the Lost Domain and its magical occupants real – or was it a just a figment of the febrile imagination of a lost and exhausted young man? In the end, it’s Seurel who finds the answer. Seurel, who is the anchor in Meaulnes’ wayward and self-centred existence. Seurel, who picks up the pieces of the lives that Meaulnes leaves shattered in his wake. Seurel, who (as Hermoine Lee points out in her excellent introduction to the OUP centenary edition of The Lost Domain) in spite of being our guide and narrator and the calm centre of the story is completely sidelined by Meaulnes and ultimately becomes his final victim.
Le Grand Meaulnes is one of those books that you have to read more than once. I know I missed a great deal in my first reading of it. As a friend once said, classics don’t become classics for no good reason. Buried within the beautifully told, lyrically sad story are layers upon layers of deeper meanings, allusions and references. (And kudos to translator Frank Davison, who did a superb job.)
Alain-Fournier wrote only one book- this book – which was published in 1913. Within a year, he was gone – swallowed by the cataclysm of World War I. He was just 28 years old. Had he lived, we can only imagine what he might have gone on to achieve, but Le Grand Meaulnes ensured his immortality – his name enshrined in the Panthéon in Paris alongside those of the other fallen writers.
It’s taken me over 40 years to read Le Grand Meaulnes, and the irony isn’t lost on me that I now find myself in the position of saying: if you haven’t read it … you MUST.
Oxford University Press. 2013. ISBN 978-0-19-967868-6. 208pp.