Le Grand Meaulnes is a peculiar book in some ways, and one that it definitely helped me to read the Introduction (in the edition I happen to have) by Adam Gopnik, as well as a note from the translator.
It’s a novel that doesn’t even have a title that people can agree on. In French it’s Le Grand Meaulnes. “Le” of course is “the.” “Meaulnes” is the main character’s name—Augustin Meaulnes. The tricky one is the “Grand.” It more or less means “great” or “grand,” but translators have hesitated to use either of these English words, because neither of those nor any other word or phrase fully captures the nuance of the French “grand” in this context.
For my money, The Great Meaulnes is a perfectly good translation of the title, or at least the best available. OK, so “great” doesn’t convey everything the author meant by the French “grand,” but surely it’s a broad enough word with enough different senses to include most of it. (Or maybe even all. Gopnik comments in his Introduction that “In fact its title is exactly equivalent, in its combination of sardonic irony and appreciative applause, to that of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.”)
But almost every edition of this book in English has offered a different title, or combination of title and subtitle, including The Lost Estate, The Lost Domain, The Wanderer, and many more. Frankly I think titles like those are just dumb, because they’re not translations at all. They’re instances of translators simply giving the book an entirely new title of their own.
The Great Meaulnes is at the very least quite close to Le Grand Meaulnes in meaning. The Lost Estate, et al, are not remotely close in meaning to Le Grand Meaulnes. They might be excellent titles given the content of the book, they might be titles the author wishes he had thought of, but they certainly aren’t translations of the phrase Le Grand Meaulnes.
This particular edition of the book I have opts for The Lost Estate, but then hedges its bet with a parenthetical, untranslated, Le Grand Meaulnes in French.
For that matter, the author’s name is ambiguous. It was written by Henri-Alban Fournier, who used the pen name “Alain-Fournier” as his pseudonym for this work (if you can even call it a pseudonym when the last name is the same). Furthermore, I read elsewhere that he didn’t consistently use the hyphen, so the name—or pseudonym—is sometimes rendered “Alain-Fournier” and sometimes “Alain Fournier,” and occasionally some other slight variation.
It isn’t just the title (and the author’s name), but according to some commentators the book as a whole that cannot be satisfactorily translated. I don’t know French, so I can’t say one way or the other. All I can do is write about the English version, which may or may not differ relevantly from what the author expressed in French.
In any case, Le Grand Meaulnes takes place in rural France, around the turn of the (20th) century. François Seurel, the narrator (15 years old at the start of the novel), is the son of the local schoolmaster. The schoolmaster and his family live on the grounds of the school, and take on student boarders.
A new such boarder is the 17 year old Augustin Meaulnes, who is soon nicknamed “Le Grand Meaulnes” by his classmates, in part based on his literal size, and in part on his larger than life persona. He is charismatic, curiosity-inducing, somewhat non-conformist or self-directed, and mature for his age. His peers naturally admire or envy him, or both.
Seurel and Meaulnes quickly become good friends—somewhat equal and somewhat with Seurel in a kid brother/acolyte role. They don’t seem to be very close with any of the other kids.
One day Meaulnes spontaneously goes on a journey (to run an errand that is not his responsibility), and soon becomes hopelessly lost. In his exhausting wanderings, he stumbles upon an odd estate.
What he sees strikes him as almost dreamlike. There’s a great deal of hustle and bustle and seeming preparation for some grand event, but it’s out in the middle of nowhere where you’d least expect it. There also is some evidence that little kids are somehow running things. He climbs into a window into an unused room of the main house to rest and hide, but when he is discovered no one seems to mind he is there.
It turns out that there is to be a wedding shortly. Frantz, the son of the owner of the estate, has gone to fetch his bride for the ceremony. The son has been totally indulged his whole short life, given anything and everything he ever desired by his family, up to and including this extravagant, multi-day wedding party, with costumes, entertainers, decorations, fancy meals, and guests galore from all over the surrounding area—not all of whom even know each other, which is what enables Meaulnes to crash the party without raising suspicion. Apparently part of the revelry is that for part of the time children are put in charge, in sort of a Lord of Misrule reversal of the norm.
Meaulnes floats through all this in a state of wonder. The most significant thing he experiences is meeting and instantly falling love with a young woman named Yvonne who turns out to be the groom’s sister.
But then the groom arrives unnoticed, and slips into the house in a state of agitation. He runs into Meaulnes. “I don’t know you, Monsieur. But I’m not sorry to see you. Since you’re there, I might as well explain to you.” The bride, it seems, has panicked and run off at the last minute, apparently concerned that she is too humble a personage to marry into this family. Frantz disappears, without explaining to anyone else.
Soon, when it becomes understood that there will be no wedding after all, everyone disperses. Meaulnes catches a ride with a group that will be passing close to his village. He is so overwhelmed by the weekend’s events that he collapses into sleep for most of the ride, so he has no real sense of the route taken. Eventually he is dropped off and stumbles home the last short stretch.
Eventually Seurel is able to get the story out of him of what in the world happened to him when he disappeared for several days, and later the other kids at the school get at least the outline of the story.
The problem is Meaulnes can’t really identify where he was, and does not know how to get back there. He feels like he’s had a life-transforming experience, and that his destiny lies with Yvonne, but he has to somehow find a way back to the estate. That becomes his great quest, with Seurel to assist him.
Eventually his path again intersects with that of Frantz, who is just as frantic to find and reconcile with his would-be bride.
So, will Meaulnes find the estate and Yvonne? Will Frantz find his former fiancée? Will they work together, along with Seurel, in their efforts, or will they conflict? If one or both of the women are found, will they want to be? Will their perceptions of the relationships or potential relationships with Meaulnes and Frantz be anything like the pictures Meaulnes and Frantz have painted in their heads? If one or both couples do indeed get back together and marry, will the reality live up to the fantasy, or will a woman built up as a romantic ideal by a boy experiencing his first love inevitably disappoint? What of Seurel, will he always be content to be a sidekick, or will he become a rival for one of these women?
One of the interesting things about this novel, which Gopnik refers to in his Introduction in the edition I have, is how Meaulnes (and Seurel, Frantz, and the other students and young men) are depicted on the cusp of adulthood. Gopnik states that the juxtaposition of seemingly child traits and seemingly adult traits that might strike some readers as unrealistic is in fact a pretty accurate portrayal of how teenage boys develop in France.
Had I not read the Introduction, I would have wondered about that. Though these characters start as 15-17 and then age a bit more over the course of the novel, there are times it feels like you’re reading about younger boys and times it feels like you’re reading about grown men.
Especially when the author describes their interaction with each other and with their teacher as students they feel really young to me, like a bunch of 12 or 13 year olds, or sometimes even younger, like elementary school kids at recess. But at the same time it strikes no one as odd that they’d be dating, speaking of love as if they’ve given it a great deal of thought and had a great deal of experience with it, and even getting married.
Le Grand Meaulnes is often described as a metaphor for remaining attached to childhood: Meaulnes’s whole adventure when he stumbles upon the estate in the middle of nowhere which has such a fantasy dreamlike quality to it, the quest to regain the love and happiness glimpsed there which reads like the plot of a movie like Stand By Me about boys bonding and banding together in pursuit of a goal, the highly romanticized view of love and of finding one’s soulmate, etc. (Not to mention there’s the symbolism of the children having authority for a day during the wedding festivities.)
These truly are formative years, and Meaulnes’s experiences come across like just a more extreme version of what many of us experience at that time of life, and are shaped by and in some cases refuse to ever fully give up. My first love came when I was 17, and my greatest love only a few years later, and there has always been an important part of me that has craved to get back to that time..
Gopnik points out that Le Grand Meaulnes is as significant and as beloved to the French as The Catcher in the Rye is to Americans, and wonders if as a paean to childhood and to trying to retain one’s childlike idealism and romanticism into one’s adulthood, it benefitted from the timing of coming out shortly before France and much of the world was plunged into the very adult, pointless and disillusioning, bloodbath of World War I, making the loss of innocence and child values seem all the more lamentable. As Gopnik says, “There are worse things in the world to be captive of than childhood.”