Saturday, 28 September 2002

Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Translation: Frank Davison, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 1120

Catcher in the Rye has been an important novel in the lives of many of its readers, helping to re-define ideas of what teenagers are like in the English-speaking world. To a French person a generation or so earlier, Le Grand Meaulnes, which is also about growing up, might well have had a similar effect. A further similarity between Alain-Fournier and J.D. Salinger is that the one novel amounts to virtually their entire output, though in the case of the French author this was because of his tragic early death on the Western Front rather than the reclusiveness of Salinger's later years.

The narrator of the novel is Francois Seurel, the son of a schoolmaster. He is approaching the end of his education when a new pupil arrives at the school. Augustin Meaulnes quickly becomes the leader of the boys in their wildest escapades in the countryside around the school. On one of these adventures Meaulnes becomes lost and ends up at a ruined country estate which is being prepared for a bizarre wedding. (This is why a filmed version of the novel was entitled The Lost Domain.) There he meets a young woman and falls in love, but once he returns to the outside world he is unable to find the chateau again, even though he becomes obsessed with the search.

There are three things which mark Le Grand Meaulnes out as a classic. The first is its evocation of childhood, particularly the magical nature of some of our experience in that period which often produces nostalgic feelings in later life. The second is in the symbolic nature of the domain itself, which is really the same thing: it stands for that which is left behind on entering adulthood, something which we can never find again no matter how hard we search. The third reason, also connected, is the relationship between Seurel and Meaulnes. This is one of idealistic hero worship on Seurel's part; there aren't quite homoerotic overtones, but it comes close (and of couse, as narrator, Seurel would be able to censor the story as he chooses). It is something typical of adolescence; though one would usually expect one of them to be younger than the other, here Seurel is given a slight infirmity which makes his hero worship of a contemporary more credible.

Le Grand Meaulnes has rather suffered for non-French readers for two reasons. Alain Fournier's untimely death meant that he didn't generate the international reputation during his lifetime that he might well have done; it is easy enough to believe that he might have produced work equalling the front rank of twentieth century French novelists. The other problem is that two key phrases are difficult (if not impossible) to translate. One is crucially the title, because "grand" is being used to carry far more than its dictionary translations, "big" or "great". The choice made here is to keep the French title (also marred for English speakers because the character's name is nearly phonetically equivalent to "moan"); this can only be off-putting. Other titles which have been used are The Wanderer, which is rather vague, and The Lost Domain, which introduces the other untranslatable phrase. This is "domain", used of the run down chateau and (crucially) the world it evokes in itself and as a symbol. The problem is again the baggage which goes with the word; the literal equivalent "country estate" has different connotations in English. For Alain-Fournier, it also designates an unreal world beside our own, like that Faerie of George MacDonald. In this domain the normal rules do not quite apply; once experienced, it is never forgotten, remaining an influence for ever. This is what Alain-Fournier has to say about childhood, and he uses the domain as a symbol to do so.

Salinger provided Holden Caulfield with a mission - to proclaim that adults are not always right, that teacher does not always know best. Alain-Fournier's characters are gentler, less iconoclastic. Even though they do things against the wishes of adults, the novel is from a world long before the kind of cynical teenage rebellion documented by Salinger. Since Salinger's picture of the teenager has gone on to become so dominant in modern culture, Le Grand Meaulnes has something of the air of a period piece. Yet as an evocation of the magic of adolescence, it remains an unsurpassed classic.

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