(This is an edited version of a previous post.)
A Peripatetic Review of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaules
Also translated as: My Quest for the Lost Domain of the Great Wanderer Meaulnes
My poetry group and podcast comrade Nick has a blog
where he's mobilized a brilliant concept: he’s "working through [his] extensive backlog of video games and books.” Since I am shortly to be short of funds, I thought I would shamelessly imitate Nick by embarking on a readthrough of books already owned. Because I fetishize the process of obtaining, discovering, salvaging, or manifesting a book almost as much as the book itself, I'll also record how each book came to me and What Happened After.
I present to you: my backlog, and how it got to be there.Beginning in the North
(novels), and proceeding around to East
(cookbooks, short stories, genre fiction, and children's lit), and West
(poetry and erotica), I will read and report back on my large stock of untouched books, more or less alphabetically. Since North is Novels, this means that fairly soon I'm going to have to read Northanger Abbey,
but I am ignoring that unpleasant fact.1. Alain-Fournier, Le Grand MeaulnesLe Grand Meaulnes
is a classic of French adolescent literature, first published in 1913. It went the rounds on the BBC not that long ago. They talked about it here
, and here
. Translators have struggled with this book, and especially its title, to a perplexing degree. Perplexing to me, anyway. There seems to be consensus that “Le Grand Meaulnes” cannot successfully be translated as “The Great Meaulnes” or “Meaulnes the Great.” (What about The Great Brain?
What about Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great?
Clearly I have much to learn about the art of translation.) In my copy (well, my first copy, but I’ll get to that), the title remains in French. The BBC podcasts also refer to a translation called The Lost Domain
This is important. If you go looking for this book, you need to know that it has aliases and secret identities.
I bought Le Grand Meaulnes
because it sounded like it might be a book that worked magic. Not a book about wizards, but one that both described and conjured in its reader a state of ecstatic perception, an experience of the world as charged with undiscovered energies and possibilities. That’s sort of my thing. Luckily, Le Grand Meaulnes
is exactly that kind of book.
What is it about? If I tell you that Le Grand Meaulnes / The Lost Domain
is a dreamy French novel about the transition from childhood to adulthood, you would be forgiven for thinking of Proust. Forgiven? I'd make out with you for thinking of Proust. So please, think of Proust, but not quite so wordy.
Let's see. It takes place in that year of so much historic activity, 189—. The book is narrated by Seurel, the son of a schoolteacher. I don't think we ever get Seurel's first name. He has either a knee problem or a hip problem, depending on the translation (I know how he feels). He is 15 when the story properly begins, the day that the older and wilder Augustin Meaulnes comes to stay.
Meaulnes is a rapscallion, y'see. He immediately steals a horse and cart, takes a wrong turn, falls asleep, and stumbles—not quite out of reality, but into one of those moments where reality seems to soften, to bend to your unarticulated desires, to become saturated with possibility. He finds himself at a party. This is the kind of party where children in antique costumes chase a Harlequin through a half-ruined manor. He stays the night in this enchanted place, which is the setting for a wedding that never happens—and Meaulnes is the only one who knows why. In the morning, he’s driven back to a road he recognizes, then left to walk home alone. He spends the rest of the book (and probably his life) trying to recover the feeling of that night. Spoiler for Familiar Literary Downers: he probably doesn’t recover it. Yet because of Alain-Fournier's gift for heightened prose, the reader is luckier. We get to go on experiencing the trance of his language.
“Meaulnes, his head half buried in the collar of his cloak which stood out like a ruff, was losing all sense of identity. Infected by the gaiety he too joined in the pursuit of the pierrot through corridors which were now like the wings of a theatre where the spectacle had spilled over from the stage.” See? Magic.
The second half of the novel feels compressed. Not just time, but space and possibility seem to shrink. This could simply be awkward writing. Alain-Fournier was only 27 when he wrote the book, and he died the next year in the First World War, so he didn't have a lot of time to evolve as a writer. The acceleration in the novel feels like something else to me, though. We often speak about how the world opens up to us as we reach adulthood. It's also true that it constricts. We discover that our acts and words do not go into a vast infinite space and vanish. What we do has consequences. We each exist within a community, a family, a network of relationships, and as we grow into adult roles, we have to confront our responsibility to these structures, even if we reject some of them.2. I Struggle for the BookLe Grand Meaulnes
is more a 19th century book than a 20th century one, but my purchase and possession of this novel presented enough fragmentation, misdirection, and deferral to delight any modernist. Meaulnes is always trying to repeat his original journey, and I seemed to be doomed to imitate him.
I originally purchased a Penguin Modern Classics paperback circa 1976. Its pages seemed to have been toasted around the edges like a home-made treasure map. The book cost me $3.68, including tax. I know because the slip was still tucked into the book when I took it down from the shelf three months later. The pages immediately began to snow gently out of the binding.
On Day Two of my Reading Plan (time: lunch), I thought I'd read while I ate my almond energy bar and pretended it was either actual food or actual candy. I rummaged in my bag for the book. It was not there. I searched my few possessions. Nothing. Somehow, within days of finally deciding to read it, I had lost the book.
By that evening I was wild to go on reading. Like Meaulnes, I hunted the land of dreams and abstractions. Or, you know, I searched the Internet. First, I tried several times to sign up for an ebook service that at no point reminded me it was not available in Canada. Next, I tried to get the ebook via a major online vendor, but could only find it in French. Then I downloaded the English ebook from the library, but I couldn't get it onto my unspecified MP3 device.
The next day I went back to the used bookstore, which like the Library of Congress has two copies of everything. I found Alain-Fourner, but "Rats," I said, "No Grand Meaulnes
. Just three copies of The Wanderer,
whatever that is." I picked it up and scanned the back. It seemed to cover similar territory. I flipped it open. "Meaulnes and I," I read. It turns out that Le Grand Meaulnes
is not only The Lost Domain
but also The Wanderer.
This copy had the Edward Gorey cover, affectionately lampooned by Hark a Vagrant here
. There was also a third edition, also called The Wanderer,
but with a different cover (swirly sexy 70s line art). I couldn't leave Edward Gorey behind, but I liked the other translation better. Clearly, I had to buy them both. Cost for each book: $3.68, including tax.
Then, of course, I found the first copy under the bed. In my defense, “under the bed” is a fairly complicated realm in my house. So now I have three copies of Le Grand Meaulnes
, two under the title The Wanderer. Savings: Negative $7.36.
I do have the basis of a fascinating comparative translation paper. Here are the three books’ three takes on the main character's nickname: Le Grand Meaulnes, Admiral Meaulnes (!), and (victory!) The Great Meaulnes. I'll take it.Next up: Hubert Aquin's Prochain Episode
Note: Wikipedia says Seurel's first name is "François."