Monday, May 26, 2014

(RNL #27) "Le Grand Meaulnes"- Alain-Fournier (France)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Since last year, I've read over 50 books; some the size of small dictionaries(!) Regardless, I would say that this small tome was the most intimidating to date, and my having read it, marks a great achievement. You see, "Le Grand Meaulnes" is the first book I've read in French since highschool- and by Jove, I did it!

But let's talk first for a bit about the book's author, Alain-Fournier. M. Fournier (1886-1927) was born in central France to a school-teacher Father. In 1907, he interrupted his studies and began his career as a writer.

"Le Grand Meaulnes" was his first and only novel; a novel inspired by a young woman named Yvonne Marie Elise Toussaint de Quievrecourt whom he met during a stroll along the Seine. A.F. was immediately captivated by the young mademoiselle; however, he did not manage to win her favours and only saw her again, eight years later, when she was married with two children. 

"Le Grand Meaulnes" was first published in 1913 and even nominated for France's most prestigious book prize, Le Prix Goncourt. It did not win but has since, become a classic of French literature. In 1914, Alain-Fournier started work on a second novel, which, sadly, was never finished, as Alain-Fournier joined the army that same year and was killed in combat at the young age of 27.

Returning to the novel, as alluded to above, pretty much every French speaking person knows of "Le Grand Meaulnes". It was part of my highschool French literature curriculum, although sadly, I did not read it at the time. Many years later, I've made up for my oversight, stubbornly reading the book in the original. I must say though, that this is a good book to try reading in the original. Armed with a good electronic dictionary, you can read the novel chapter by chapter over several weeks (as I did). Each chapter is short enough not to exhaust the reader and the story is simple enough not to be forgotten over weeks of slow reading.

As compelling as "Le Grand Meaulnes" itself were the works and the people that "Le Grand Meaulnes" inspired. Apparently, "Le Grand Meaulnes" was an inspiration for Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"; a novel which I adored!! 

"Le Grand Meaulnes" is essentially the story of two schoolmates in rural France; one sort of good, plain and ordinary (the narrator), and the other, (Meaulnes), the tall, silent, dreamy adventurer type. One fine day, Meaulnes, up to trouble as usual, accidentally finds a hidden country estate where this marvelous sort of holiday is being celebrated, right out of a fairytale. And in this magical place, Meaulnes encounters the most beautiful girl he has ever seen; the princess of the great estate....

The title of the novel "The Grand Meaulnes"; which literally means "The Great Meaulnes" in French, is often translated as "The Wanderer" or "The Lost Estate (Domain)" in English. And in essence, the latter half of the book is all about Meaulnes' vain attempts to retrace his steps; to find that beautiful estate and that unforgettable girl....

In the middle of this, the two friends meet a third, mysterious companion who has a fateful effect on the course of the boys' lives...

Now there was a dash of mystery to this novel, although, for me, it wasn't, in that sense, equal to the mysterious atmosphere of "Rebecca", "The Great Gatsby" or "The Secret Garden". I actually wasn't too pleased with the denouement as well which I just didn't like. I really felt as if the novel should have ended in a more satisfactory manner for the reader. 

UPDATE: After a night of...well...being rather haunted by the book, I've gone back and upgraded my rating to 2.5 You see, I think that the ending did achieve its purpose.. **spoilers**

It didn't at all end the way that I wanted it to and I now am accepting that that was part of the point. The first part of the book led up to a happily ever after ending that went unexpectedly topsy-turvy (to our dismay) with a full 'hero reversal' that was unique and interesting. The heroes from the first half of the novel (Meaulnes and Frantz) turned out to be the novels true 'villains', while the initial 'villain' (Jasmin) turned out to be the only one with sense who confided to the narrator that it would have been best had they never met Frantz, as all that he had brought into their lives was trouble.


The novel, for me, was also about childhood; how, to a child, things so prosaic and simple can assume grandiose, mysterious proportions, as well, as the fatality of getting swept away in childish dreams in adult life. Overgrown dreams can not just ravage one's own life, but the lives of many others. Its like the famous French song by Joe Dassin:

"At times, like children, we build sand castles
Sandcastles of sand and wind...
But the waves come, and the child that returns
finds nothing but sand..."

Its funny that had Meaulnes been a bit more rational; done the common-sense thing and just asked his schoolmates if they knew where the lost estate was, he would have found it in a few days...but then, we wouldn't have this novel, right?

2.5 out of 3 for me.

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