Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Enchanting Distraction: Le Grand Meaulnes

Having been re-introduced to Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes back in March, when I was preparing for a wedding at which I would read selections from the novel, I've had a grand time. As I became reacquainted with the book, I decided to read it again, and I've just finished. I can't remember a nicer literary experience. Re-reading this wonderful book has provided me with a splendid trip down memory lane, both to the time I first encountered the book when I was studying French at university and, oddly enough, to the time in my life when I, too, was experiencing the emotions and feelings of youth and could - had I but known the book - have related quite enthusiastically to the hero's (and the narrator's) own emotions and feelings. And, yes, like they I was on the look-out for that enchanted place all young people are looking for as they transition from childhood to young adulthood.

As I prepared my readings for the wedding, much of the story came back to me. But not enough, and as I began my re-adventure with this wonderful story, I remembered why. I had first learned of the book in my French literature class but now that I recall the situation, we read only excerpts, and I think they must not have made the impression on me that they should have. On the other hand, not too many years later I did read a translation, but I think it must have been insufficient, for much of the story did not stay with me. Or perhaps in my latest reading of the book I am a much different person - the person I've become - and now at a place in life that makes Le Grand Meaulnes more of a pleasure for me. Perhaps I wasn't ready for it earlier.

Yet the book is dearly loved by young people in France (somewhere I heard that the book plays much the same role in their lives as The Catcher in the Rye does for American youth) and for that reason, I'm sort of sorry I didn't experience it as a young teenager. It's a lovely story, and I will be careful to recommend the book to young people in the future, when they come to me and ask me what to read. The edition I read (yes, on my Kindle - which now goes with me everywhere when I travel) is given the title of The Lost Estate, which I suppose is as good a title as any among the many that have been tacked on to the book. Still, the original - bringing as it does the reader right into the life of the protagonist - is best.

No matter. We don't read a book for the title, and by the time the reader is at the bottom of the first page of this book, they no longer care about the title. It's that good.

The plot isn't any sort of overwhelming fantasy, but I did get a little sense of "The King of Hearts," the delightful 1966 Alan Bates film (although set in a later period, at the end of World War I). Others have connected the book to Salinger's Catcher and to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. This latest version (a new translation, published just in 2007) has an introduction by our own Adam Gopnik (another delight for us New Yorker readers) and it is translated beautifully by Robin Buss. As for describing the book, and providing you with a taste of the plot, I can't do it any better than John Baker does in his own blog (and, curiously, which he was posting about the time of my own re-visit, when I was preparing to do the readings at the wedding).

If you want to be transported into another world for a few hours, take some time and spend an evening or two with Le Grand Meaulnes. You won't be sorry you did.

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