Le Grand Meaulnes
by Alain Fournier
It is the late 1800s. A small French country school is turned upside down by the arrival of a charismatic new pupil Augustin AKA Le Grand Meaulnes. Augustin leads the boys into exciting adventures, which turn to tragedy when he disappears. The hero returns, but is greatly changed and is powerfully obsessed by his determination to revisit a wonderful chateau or 'Lost Domain', despite disbelief and rejection from the group. This is a powerful allegory about memory, belief and the possibility of going backů
I first read Le Grand Meaulnes in 1978 (I still associate it with the 1970s). I was seventeen, and this novel made a huge and slightly disturbing impression on me. For years I felt strangely private about the novel, keeping it a secret, not to be shared, and never quite understood what precisely happened in the story, but I always knew that it is a very dark and affecting book. Not many books have had such a power over me, with the exception of Catcher in The Rye and I Capture The Castle. The poignancy of the writing is completely overwhelming, particularly knowing that Alain-Fournier died in the Great War, aged 27.
A few years ago and pregnant with my fourth child, I made a sort of sentimental journey to Epineuil-Le Fleuriel near Bourges, Northern France where Alain-Fournier was a schoolteacher, and where possibly (hopefully) Le Grand Meaulnes was actually set. We stayed at a cottage, which had once been the mill house to Epineuil's grand manoir, which seemed both delightfully and disturbingly familiar. My memories still have a sort of dreamlike quality and I have the strong feeling that I actually got closer, possibly even entered The Lost Domain that is evoked so powerfully in the novel. The manoir (or chateau, as it is grandly described in the novel) is exactly as I imagined - beautiful and lush, overgrown with creepers, shutters half-closed. It is set among formal gardens, with peacocks on the lawns, surrounded by rustling willows and bordered by a small river, complete with mill. Time seems to stand still here and it does not take too much imagination to conjure up the world of Le Grand Meaulnes.
The story is set in the late 1890s. The narrator is Francois Seurel, a timid and inexperienced son of a schoolteacher at a small French country boarding school. A new boarder arrives - Augustin, who becomes known as Le Grand Meaulnes. The 'Grand' of his (and the book's) title can mean many things - tall, grown-up, 'good old', and charismatic, larger than life or even mythic. Augustin is all these things and more, and soon he inspires powerful feelings among the boys, including hero-worship from Seurel. The language does not actually spell out homoeroticism, but the passion and sentiment may hint at it. Augustin quickly takes control of the small school, leading the boys on great adventures and bringing excitement and danger to their peaceful and ordered lives.
One day, to the boys' complete horror, Augustin disappears, returning 3 days later greatly changed and haunted by his experiences. Augustin cannot really explain how he has done this, but he claims to have made a fantastic journey to a chateau, where, like a medieval troubadour he met and fell in love with a beautiful woman. These adult experiences contrast sharply with the humdrum schoolboy lives of the others. He is actually asking the group to believe the impossible. Can they (or we) believe this weaver of dreams? Where is the castle and why has no one heard of it? What actually transpired during his 'lost' 3 days? Augustin's alienation tests his relationships with the boys, with Seurel staying fiercely loyal to him.
From this point on, Augustin is obsessed with going back and taking Seurel with him, they embark on a quest to rediscover the chateau and the whole Lost Domain. Their exact or single purpose is open to interpretation; Is it to re-experience the magic, re-visit the lady of the castle or simply prove that it was all true? It may be many things and this novel is packed with allegory and symbolism. No two readers can reach the same conclusions.
I was worried that the memory of reading this mysterious novel would prove stronger than the reality of re reading it. My worries were unfounded and my conclusion is that you do not have to be a teenager or young reader to love this novel, but that my interpretation of the plot and symbolism is inevitably different as an older reader. In fact, I found the allegory and symbolism in this novel stronger than ever, and on second reading, the desperate attempts of Le Grand Meaulnes to claw back his fairytale experience seemed more edgy and poignant than I had remembered.
Like Proust's Les Recherches du Temps Perdu, this book is about growing up, memory and whether it is ever really possible to go back, both physically and metaphorically. This is a superb book for adults, teenagers and older children readers. What remains a mystery to me is why I haven't re-read it in 26 years. Now that is really odd!