In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses Alain-Fournier’s curious novel about lost innocence
Published in 1913, The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) (Penguin Classics) is the one novel by Henri Alban-Fournier, otherwise known as Alain-Fournier (the hyphen was supposedly left in to differentiate him from a racing driver of the same name). The English novelist John Fowles called this novel ‘the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature’; it is the one book carried around America by the protagonist of Jack Kerouac’s cult classic On the Road (1957), and it possibly even inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eventual title for The Great Gatsby (1925). Alain-Fournier spent some time in England in 1905, working for a wallpaper factory in west London (which may go a little way towards explaining his interest in houses and habitation in this novel). He died in action in the first few weeks of the First World War, in 1914. Le Grand Meaulnes has been popular with French and English readers for a century, but has received relatively little critical analysis. In some ways a coming of age novel, it combines fairy-tale elements with the realities of France in the early twentieth century.
The double title of the novel as it comes to us points up the difficulty of translating its original title, which refers to the larger-than-life, charismatic youth, Augustin Meaulnes, who arrives at the school where the book’s narrator, the fifteen-year-old François Seurel, lives with his parents (who are both teachers). And yet the English translation, ‘The Lost Estate’, refers to the mysterious country house which Meaulnes visits and which comes to embody his dreams – and those of the other characters, too. Immediately several things are apparent: first, that there is a connection between the character of Meaulnes and the ‘estate’, or mansion, which he finds in the snow. Second, that this ‘lost estate’ is not exclusively his, and not rooted in the bricks and mortar of the actual house itself: rather it is a symbol, an idea, a concept, and a dream, which comes to haunt other characters in the novel, including the narrator, as much as Meaulnes himself.
We can also draw several other conclusions from the basic premise of Le Grand Meaulnes. François’s name suggests a kinship with his home country, France, and from this we might deduce that he is meant to embody, to an extent, a sort of Everyman – he represents any average fifteen-year-old French boy. It is Meaulnes – who becomes known under the grandiose and less-than-ordinary-sounding epithet ‘Great Meaulnes’ or ‘Grand Meaulnes’ – who is the unusual one who will alter his new friend’s view of the world. The same can also be remarked of Frantz’s name, which is a near-homophone of ‘France’ and so points up the extent to which both François and Frantz are figured as two sides of the same coin, both young men (one poor, the other aristocratic) who will be dramatically changed by Meaulnes’s experience at the ‘lost estate’ and his subsequent account of it.
François’s parents are both teachers at his school, meaning that he is locked into a world of clock-like rigidity and education. (There is a touch of autobiography here, as Fournier’s parents were also schoolteachers.) This is compounded by the fact that his parents had moved to Saint-Agathe from their previous place of work (when François was five years old) because of the impersonal nature of the public education system in France; in a sense they are as much slaves to convention and the ‘real world’ as he is. François has his own ‘lost estate’ (making that title have multiple references, rather than merely denoting Meaulnes’ experience with Frantz and Yvonne), namely his previous home in the village which he lost when his parents moved to live in the schoolhouse at Sainte-Agathe.
Frantz is also searching for a ‘lost estate’, but in his case it is the real house in which he currently lives. What Meaulnes’s arrival at the estate forces him to realise is that he wishes to recapture the estate as it was in a past age, the time of his grandparents, and so – like François, but to a greater extent – he is seeking to reclaim the past. There are various ways of analysing Le Grand Meaulnes using psychoanalysis, that early twentieth-century phenomenon which invited us to reassess our relationship with our own distant pasts.
It is significant that the narrator of Le Grand Meaulnes, Francois, is the one who recounts Meaulnes’ adventure at the great house to us. It’s important that Francois acts as ventriloquist for the story, because it universalises it, and shows how he has become preoccupied by this search for a lost estate or domain. Meaulnes was the one who was there, but Francois can vividly imagine it, and so it is as real to him (in a sense) as it was to Meaulnes.
What makes the ‘lost estate’ of the house Meaulnes visits so special is partly the fact that it’s between childhood and adulthood, but whereas that’s usually a bad thing (adolescent people typically being seen as neither one nor the other, too old for some things and yet too young for others), the world of the estate shows the good side to this point in human existence: you get to run the show, and do what you like, thus you have power and control, but are allowed to play. Frantz’s house – a sort of makeshift Wendy house which he used to go and live in from time to time on his own, to play at being grown-up, also plays a key role in Le Grand Meaulnes: he plays (like a child) but at being an adult.
Meaulnes captures the lost estate and so recaptures some primitive memory of early childhood, but then loses it and spends time chasing after it (in the shape of a love interest, Yvonne), then gets with another love interest (called, pointedly, Valentine), then gets Yvonne, then goes off in search of Valentine, then comes back to take his daughter with him, and goes off again. This is what Jacques Lacan’s theory of desire states: that desire is an endless chain of objects which are self-perpetuating, since there can never be an end to desire. All of these desires stem from the initial desire the child had for the mother. This may be true of Meaulnes in Alain-Fournier’s novel: he may be le Grand Meaulnes but he is also a pathetic and pitiful figure in many respects. This is what lends The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) (Penguin Classics) its air of tragedy.
Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: Alain-Fournier in September 1905 (author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.