Saturday, February 14, 2015

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes

Introduction

Opening Passage:

He arrived at our home on a Sunday of November, 189-. I still say 'our home,' although the house no longer belogns to us. We left that part of the country nearly fifteen years ago and shall certainly never go back to it.

Summary: Le Grand Meaulnes is a nostalgic work; but this is perhaps not to convey entirely how thoroughly permeated with nostalgia it is. 'Wistful' is perhaps the best word for it. It is also a melancholy work, in which happiness is always somewhere else and our knowledge of it is never of happiness itself but only of a memory of a promise of it. At one point, Yvonne de Galais asks sadly, "can the past come to life again?" The answer given by Meaulnes is, "Who knows?" But the truth of the matter is that there is only one answer to that question, and it is No. The opportunity, once lost, stays lost; the day, once wasted, is wasted forever; our stumbling cannot be undone. It is a truth as obvious as the air we breathe, and yet sometimes as invisible.

François Seurel, the narrator, tells us of his friend Augustin Meaulnes, a boy who had an adventure. He found himself at a strange party, thrown by a young wealthy man, Frantz de Galais, who has gone to bring back the woman he will marry and wants the house to be in celebration at his return. Alas, though, the fiance has fled, and Frantz will run away. At the party, Meaulnes meets Yvonne de Galais, and becomes obsessed with finding her again, but all for nothing, so that he will despair of finding her again. By chance, however, Seurel will find her years later, and now everything can be put to right and Meaulnes can marry Yvonne -- and yet, of course, years are not as they seem to be in a story, just splices between paragraphs and pages; the things that have happened in the meantime, out of Seurel's eye, change the texture of everything. Failure, ruin, attempted suicide, death, loss: they are around every turn.

This could have very well been an extremely brutal novel; the heavier hands of most novelists would likely have made it so. But it is saved from such coarseness by its innocence. It borders quite close to sentimentalism; but innocence again keeps it from falling into maudlin melodrama. Nothing is played for the mere drama of it. Events are not intensified for excitement. Sometimes we human beings just have impossible dreams. Sometimes our paths tangle up tragically with other paths. There is nothing much to be done about it. Sometimes the best we can do with our lives is shrug sadly and say, "If we had only known...." But it is these very things that make up the adventures of our lives. Like the house mentioned in the very first sentence of the story, our past is ours, though we will never go back to it again.

Favorite Passage:

But while I hope thus and am enraptured, I unexpectedly come out into a clearing, which is simply a meadow. Without giving it a thought, I have reached the other side of the Commons, which I had always imagined a very long way off. And there, on my right, in between stacks of logs, and astir with life in the shade, stands the forester's house. Two pairs of stockings are drying on the window-sill. In previous years, whenever we had reached the entrance of the wood, we used to point to a patch of light at the end of a long, dark avenue, and say: 'That house out there, that's the forester's cottage, Baladier's.' But we had never pushed on as far as that. We had often heard people say, as if referring to some extraordinary venture, 'He's been as far as the forester's cottage!...'

This time, I have been as far as Baladier's cottage, and I found nothing.

Recommendation: Recommended. But this is my first time reading it, and I suspect that this is also one of those novels that becomes better the more one reads it.

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