Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier

Often, later, when he was falling asleep after trying desperately to recall that lovely, vanished face, he would dream that he saw rows of women like her going by, one with a hat like hers, another with her slightly stooping manner; yet another had her candid expression, another her slender waist, and another her blue eyes; but none of these was ever the tall young woman.

When Augustine Meaulnes first arrives at his new school in France's snowy, rustic Sologne region, his classmates nickname him "Le Grand Meaulnes," the epithet referring not only to his height but the size and grandeur of his personality.  In fact, is the title of the work in French, and though Fitzgerald borrowed the double-sense for his own The Great Gatsby, no English word quite approximates it (or so I'm told), which has led many to use a different title.  Here, translator Robin Buss shifts the focus from the Great Meaulnes himself to the object of his great desires: The Lost Estate.

"The Lost Estate" is a place, but it is also a moment, a state of being; the place and time that shines most brightly in your memory that you spend the rest of your life trying to return to.  (Do you have a place like this?  I certainly do.)  Meaulnes' "Lost Estate" is a country house he discovers after he skips school, borrows a horse and carriage, gets irretrievably lost.  It is a beautiful, half-ruined mansion full of strange and friendly characters in historic dress; they have gathered there for a wedding and welcome Meaulnes into the festivities with open arms.  He meets a girl there, Yvonne de Galais, the sister of the groom, and falls deeply in love with her, but when the wedding is abruptly called off and Meaulnes ushered back to his ordinary life, he pledges his life to finding both the house and the girl again.

The story is told from the point of view of Meaulnes' friend, Francois Seurel, but Fournier saves the most haunting and elegiac bits for Meaulnes himself.  Here he is, having tracked Yvonne to Paris, where he sits outside the window where he has been told she lives:

I still go past that window.  I am still waiting, without the slightest hope, out of pure madness.  At the end of these cold autumn Sundays, just as night is falling, I cannot bear to go back home and close the shutters on my windows, without returning there, to that icy street.

I am like the madwoman in Saint-Agathe who would come out of her front door all the time and, shading her eyes, look towards the station to see if her dead son was coming home.

Sitting on the bench, shivering, miserable, I like to imagine that someone will gently take my arm... I should look around and she woulkd be there.  'I'm a bit late,' she would say, simply.  And all the sorrow and the madness fade away.  We go into our house.  Her furs are icy cold and her veil is damp.  She brings in the taste of the mist with her from outside, and while she is going over to the fire, I can see her frosty blonde hair and her fine profile with its sweet lines bending over the flames...
It seems as if Fournier is setting us up for a story about the dangers of obsession and the cynical impossibility of recapturing one's youth, but The Lost Estate moves continuously in directions that defied my expectations.  Though it hinges on a laughably improbable plot, Meaulnes does find--and marry--Yvonne.  Yet shortly after she becomes pregnant, he leaves again, pursuing shadowy obligations that, in the interests of not spoiling the novel, I'll leave unremarked on.  Ultimately, Meaulnes is caught between adolescent romanticism and the pragmatic moralities of adulthood; what is so remarkable about the book is the way it manages to suggest that, while not without some sadness and loss, there is a space in life for each of these.  The fulfillment of Meaulnes' yearning becomes tragic, but not hollow, and The Lost Estate shows us that while the joys of our youth may be altered, fleeting, and strange, yet they are not inaccessible.

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