From the favourer: "It is as close as a book has come to being a dream that I have ever read."
Le Grand Meaulnes, alternately translated at The Lost Estate or The Wanderer, is a book I have a fairly long history with.
When I was 19, I went into Alice's Bookshop in Rathdowne St, and like many students before me, started chatting to the bookshop owner Anthony. For reasons I have absolutely no recollection of, he gave me a free copy of Le Grand Meaulnes (my copy's title was translated as The Wanderer), said it was his favourite book, and asked me to come back when I'd read it and tell him what I thought. I never told him. I've been back to the shop many times since, and he knows me because he knows Paul (partly because our courtship involved Alice's Bookshop in a big way*), but I've never told him what I thought about the book he so freely gave me.
So it's funny that this book should end up as being one of Paul's nominated favourites (though he first read it years after me).
Le Grand Meaulnes is a book about finding something perfect, losing it, and then spending the rest of your life trying to find it again.
In a quiet French village, a new schoolboy named Augustin Meaulnes arrives, and his charismatic nature leads him to be nicknamed Le Grand Meaulnes (The Great Meaulnes). His magnetic spirit and country charm make him popular with the other boys, but he disappears for a few days and comes back changed. On his travels, it is revealed, Meaulnes arrived at an isolated chateau (the 'Lost Estate' that titles many translations of the book), a crumbling, abandoned building that is suddenly populated by children, and enlivened for the purpose of a wedding. A stranger in their midst, Meaulnes is curiously welcomed as a guest, and catches sight of a beautiful woman who he instantly falls in love with. One night, however, the wedding is suddenly cancelled. All the guests hurriedly depart the chateau and Meaulnes is set down on the road. He spends the rest of his life trying to recapture the mysterious happiness that he found at the estate.
From when I first read Le Grand Meaulnes in about 1999, to my recent re-reading in 2010, I've discovered nothing much has changed for me about this book. It's a book where the plot is blurred by memory. I couldn't remember exactly what happened, who met/married who, who had children with who, who died. And on re-reading, I think it's because it's not the point of this book.
This book is like a dream. When you are reading it, you return to the page not entirely sure what is happening, and not convinced that the events of the last chapter actually happened. You discover the Lost Estate with Meaulnes, you lose it with him, and you suffer the dreamlike agonies of not being able to find your way back. He pores over maps, his friends are infected with his longing and try to map out the details of his travels, but the Estate remains elusive. And, just like in a dream, when he finds what he is looking for - suddenly it wasn't really what he wanted at all.
It's a book where the turn of the seasons is incredibly important. This is such a novelty for me - I can't remember reading a book where a frost or a spring breeze had such impact on my reading:
"Everything was icy: the waxed tablecloth with no linen one covering it, the wine cold in the glasses, the red tiles beneath our feet."
"I went down into the yard and suddenly realized it was spring. A delicious breeze, like warm water, was flowing over the wall, and during the night a fall of rain had noiselessly dampened the leaves of the peonies...We were leaning against the low wall on the little street and talking, bareheaded and with our hands in our pockets, while the wind alternately made us shiver with cold and at other times, with gusts of warm air, aroused some long-buried excitement in us."
I think a lot of this book is about the contradictions of adolescence. What Meaulnes - at fifteen - discovers at the mysterious chateau is that he can preserve the wonder of his childhood, but also capture the beautiful woman. He can have his cake and get laid too. Of course, this doesn't happen. He is dumped unceremoniously at the roadside of childhood, and can never quite remember how to get back to that magical place. But he continues to search for the woman and the chateau that seemed to hold the essence of his future happiness.
I think the way the title is translated is important. We're all familiar with The Great Gatsby, and how the title relates to Jay Gatsby. But Le Grand Meaulnes is rarely translated as The Great Meaulnes in English (partly I think because of the similarity to The Great Gatsby and partly because English speakers often mispronounce 'Meaulnes') - more likely we get The Lost Estate or The Wanderer. The first shifts the emphasis from the character to the place, the second shifts the character from being a person to a figure. Neither are really appropriate. The book is not really about the chateau, or the journey that Meaulnes spends his life trying to recapture.
As I write this, I'm furious that I'm writing all about Meaulnes. It's not all about him. The narrator, for one thing, is his best friend, one of several friends who are drawn into Meaulnes' orbit and his search for the chateau and the mysterious woman. They are drawn into his longing so much that their whole lives come to be about Meaulnes, his search, his longing. His hauntedness becomes their hauntedness. And it becomes the reader's, too.
It's a frustrating book, just like dreams are frustrating. It's not a book you read for rigorous characterisation, or continuity of plot. You read it like you are dreaming. You have to accept dream-logic. I finished reading this book for the second time about a week ago, and just like the first time I read it, the details are fading. I think this is why I never went back and told Anthony what I thought about it. I can't find my way to an evaluation of this book any more than Meaulnes can find his way back to the chateau. But what I will remember are the snap of the images, the huge sense of longing and pleasant melancholy, and the furious burning that if I could just look hard enough at the pages, I would find my way to the centre of this book.
*For those of you who are wondering, shortly after Paul and I first met, he gave me an envelope that had $40 of Monopoly money in it. The instructions in the envelope said that if I went to Alice's Bookshop and asked for the copy of Jules Verne's The Moon Voyage in the window, I would find that my money was welcome there. I did as instructed, and Anthony handed over the lovely copy of The Moon Voyage, already inscribed to me by Paul. I was embarrassed and excited and nervous and every time I look at that book, I remember that with a bit of love and eccentricity, scraps of toy paper can buy you a flight to the moon.