I got to know about ‘The Lost Estate’ (‘Le Grande Meaulnes’ in French) by Alain-Fournier after Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ recommended it. As the only novel of a writer who died young and as a novel which is known to deeply resonate with readers, it had a lot of romance attached to it. I couldn’t resist reading it. I finished reading it yesterday and here is what I think.
‘The Lost Estate’ is about two friends Francois Seurel and Augustin Meaulnes (the ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ of the title). Seurel is the narrator of the story, but most of the story is about Meaulnes. Seurel’s father is the headmaster of the school in the village where Seurel also studies. One day a tall boy comes to stay in Seurel’s home and also joins him in school. This boy is Meaulnes. From the day he joins school, he becomes the most popular boy and leader at school resulting to a few other boys getting jealous of him. Then one day Meaulnes takes the cart with the horse to pick up Seurel’s grandparents from the station, but disappears. When he comes back after three days, his clothes are dirty but he is quiet and doesn’t tell anyone what happened. Slowly, after a while he tells his friend Seurel where he had been and what happened. When Meaulnes goes to pick up Seurel’s grandparents, he loses his way and ends up in an old château, where the celebrations for a wedding are in progress. He meets a beautiful girl there, with whom he falls in love at first sight. He later discovers that she is the groom’s sister. While the celebrations are on, people are waiting for the bride and the groom to arrive. When finally the groom comes he says that the wedding is off. Everyone leaves the château and it is empty like nothing ever happened there during the past three days. Meaulnes is dropped near his school by one of the locals. He keeps thinking about the beautiful girl everyday and wants to find the château once again and go back and meet her. But he doesn’t know the way. The rest of the story is about whether he is able to find his way back to the lost castle and win his beloved’s love.
I don’t know how to describe ‘The Lost Estate’. It is a story of the loss of adolescence (when we read the narrator’s line ‘inside that old carriage my adolescence had vanished for evermore’ a deep pain seeps into our heart), of how the dreams of adolescence, even if they are realized at a later time, look different in new light. It is a story which will resonate with most of us – about a dream place, sometimes real sometimes imaginary, which if we are lucky, we might discover when we are adolescents, a place where we are able to spend only a few fleeting moments or days, but moments which are joyful, idyllic, blissful, exhilarating and happy and which change our lives forever, a place which we spend the rest of our lives trying to find again. It is a beautiful, sad, poignant and haunting story. The ending is bittersweet – part tragic and part happy, but mostly tragic. Alain-Fournier’s prose is lush, luscious, delightful, beautiful. It is the perfect companion to the haunting story.
The Penguin classics edition I read had a wonderful introduction by Adam Gopnik which was a beautiful education in itself. The introduction had this beautiful line which made me smile – “It is left to ordinary books, of which there are many, to teach realistic lessons and point out morals; good books cast spells and cast out demons”. Gopnik’s introduction had this wonderful passage which summarizes the book beautifully and which I partially agree with :
But if the novel’s incidents are improbable, its images are unforgettable. Hard to enter, it is still harder to abandon. Once read, Le Grand Meaulnes is forever after seen. Seen rather than remembered. I have noticed that most French readers who are devoted to the book hardly notice or recall, or even brood much on, the somewhat improbable entanglements of the second part of the book…The force of the imagery…is…so strong that it blissfully erases the apparent point of the story.
The translator’s note by Robin Buss was beautifully written too and addressed the challenges of translating a fascinating work, starting from the title – a work which is supposedly untranslatable.
I also discovered some interesting facts through the story – that French schools had holidays on Thursdays (instead of Saturdays) during the 19th century and an acrobat called Jules Léotard gave his name to the garment. I was also surprised at the use of the word ‘speechifying’ in the story – I had always thought that this was an ‘Indian English’ construct.
I loved reading ‘The Lost Estate’. If you like reading poignant stories with beautiful prose, you will love it.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
I am looking for something still more mysterious. I’m looking for the passage that they write about in books, the one with the entrance that the prince, weary with travelling, cannot find. This is the one you find at the remotest hour of morning, long after you have forgotten that eleven o’clock is coming, or midday. And suddenly, as you part the branches in the dense undergrowth, with that hesitant movement of the hands, held unevenly at face height you see something like a long, dark avenue leading to a tiny circle of light…
From time to time, the wind, laden with a mist that is almost rain, dampens our faces and brings us the faint sound of a piano which someone is playing in the closed house. At first it is like a trembling voice, far, far away, scarcely daring to express its happiness. It’s like the laughter of a little girl in her room who has gone to fetch all her toys and is displaying them to a friend. I am reminded, too, of the still timorous joy of a woman who has left to put on a lovely dress and returns to show it off without being sure of the effect it will have…This unknown tune is also a prayer, an entreaty to happiness not to be too cruel, like a greeting and a genuflection to happiness…
…in the old days, my mother would get worried and come out to tell me, ‘It’s time to come indoors’; but she would take a liking to this walk through the rain and the night, and just say gently, ‘You’ll catch cold!’ then stay with me, talking for a long time.
This evening, which I have tried to spirit away, is a strange burden to me. While time moves on, while the day will soon end and I already wish is gone, there are men who have entrusted all their hopes to it, all their love and their last efforts. There are dying men or others who are waiting for a debt to come due, who wish that tomorrow would never come. There are others for whom the day will break like a pang of remorse; and others who are tired, for whom the night will never be long enough to give them the rest that they need. And I – who have lost my day – what right do I have to wish that tomorrow comes?
Have you read ‘The Lost Estate’ (‘Le Grand Meaulnes’) by Alain-Fournier? What do you think about it?