Sunday, July 27, 2014

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

A boy can’t find his way back to a mysterious country estate and its beautiful mistress

Augustin Meaulnes, a tall handsome boy, a bit spoiled, joins the small country boarding school run by Francois’s parents. François is immediately fascinated by Augustin’s obvious superiority. One day, as a practical joke, Meaulnes borrows a peasant’s horse and cart. Getting lost in the winter landscape, he falls asleep. When he wakes, Meaulnes finds himself near a beautiful villa. Children laugh in the shadows and he realizes the chateau is preparing for a large party. He explores the many rooms and outbuildings of the crumbling estate.  In one room, a pretty girl plays the piano for the children's entertainment. Later, boats take the partygoers to an island so the children can play. Meaulnes engages the girl in conversation. After some meaningful looks, they part. The party gets ruined, Meaulnes gets a lift home, but once again falls asleep. Returning to the school and real life, he spends a lot of energy trying to figure out the location of the villa and the girl. Meaulnes is near despair, but methodical loyal Francois is the one who eventually tracks down the beautiful girl. For his own reasons, however, Meaulnes is torn and cannot commit to happiness.

The mysterious party scene is wonderfully done.  It reads like a fairy tale and it wasn't until Francois actually tracks down the real live girl that I realized the party wasn’t a dream, but an actual party. Also, I loved the opening section and its descriptions of French rural life at the turn of the last century. I really got a sensual sense of a vanished world. However, my enjoyment of the book was permanently marred when Le Grand Meaulnes turns out to be despicable. There is NO excuse for what he does near the end of the book. None.

I’m not sure if I understand what the big deal with this book is. It seems kind of slight. Is it because World War I wiped this fairy tale world and its hierarchies away? So far I’ve read three French novels, Mme. Bovary, Nana and this one and they all end with a beautiful young female body in extremis. What’s going on? 

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