Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Reading group: Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

I've been so busy I've got behind with our book group write-ups, and I'm a bit hazy now about our September discussion. The things I remember most vividly are that there were very few of us and that when John and I arrived Clare and Doug were discussing their respective forthcoming surgical operations.

Clare had chosen the book, a French classic and one of her favourites which had had a great impact on her when she first read it as a teenager. It was published only a year before its author, Alain-Fournier, was killed in World War I at the age of 28. The Grand Meaulnes of the title is the young lad who enters the life of the (initially) schoolboy narrator when he becomes a boarding pupil in the village school of which the narrator's father is the headmaster. Meaulnes is his surname, and because of his impact on the other boys - he's older, bigger and with a somehow enigmatic presence - he becomes known as Le Grand Meaulnes. The defining moment in the book comes when he 'disappears' or runs away and stumbles upon a seemingly entranced world- a grand but crumbling estate in which a party is being held - and encounters a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love. After his return, he and the narrator are constantly longing for and planning to re-find this lost world.

Clare said that what she loved this book for was its atmosphere, its descriptions of the seasons and the French countryside and its depiction of a mood of longing which conjures beautifully the adolescent condition which the book is about.

We all agreed about the atmosphere, but didn't find that it overcame our other doubts, mainly the fact that the book wasn't simply a depiction of adolescence, but was adolescent in itself. As Adam Gopnik says in the introduction to the current Penguin Classics edition, there's a lot of 'mooning about', and John had taken to calling this book (which has apparently had many different titles in translation) The Big Moan. Clare pointed out that after all the romantic yearnings, the ending of the book leads to a kind of disenchantment, but she then agreed with the rest of us that this disenchantment, rather than a growing-up, amounts to a failure to accept the realities of maturity. As such, I found it rather depressing. As Gopnik says, it's not so much a rites of passage novel as a Peter-Pan type tale of rejection of maturity. Clare also said that she was surprised when she re-read the book to remember that the 'adventure' occurs fairly near the start of the book, and that the rest of the book deals with repercussions continuing for years - which underlines the notion that the force of the book, and the true colour of the author's attitude, lie in those romantic adolescent longings.

Trevor said he thought that maybe the book's classic status owed more to the 'romantic' early death of its author than anything. Someone else suggested something subtler: that the book's theme of a lost world chimed with the sense of irrevocable change which the first world war brought. Everyone agreed that the rural French world in which the story takes place, and which is contemporary with Fournier's own life, is singularly archaic, thus adding to the impression of an old world only recently lost.

Before we met, Clare had met John in the street, and had said she wondered if she shouldn't have suggested a book she was so fond of, and she did indeed seem a little disappointed by the fact that we weren't swayed by the lyrical prose. And then she noticed that she was the only one with the earlier Penguin translation. She borrowed a copy with the new one and took it away and reported back that, as we had discovered with Camus' The Outsider, the newer Penguin translation was far less lyrical and thus less persuasive.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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