Our narrator, François Seurel, is the bookish son of a schoolmaster, residing in a provincial French village in the 1890s. Passive and impressionable, he yearns for adventure, but will never be the architect of his own life. When the charismatic adventurer, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to board at his home, Seurel’s life is changed irrevocably. A French classic, often described as the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature, The Lost Estate deserves to be more widely read on this side of the Channel.
A blast of cold night air smote his cheek and lifted a flap of his cloak
Cloaks and capes recur throughout the book, a symbol of Meaulnes’ adventuring. He’s forever striding out, with one flung across his shoulder. And it’s his restless spirit that leads to the defining episode of his subsequent life. Becoming separated from his horse in unfamiliar countryside, Meaulnes stumbles upon what he assumes is an abandoned chateau. A bohemian party appears to be taking place there, and once Meaulnes crosses its threshold, he will experience three magical lost nights of music and laughter. Feasts around a blazing fire, magic lantern shows, and wandering minstrels. And then, Yvonne de Galais, the girl who will steal his heart, never to return it. These are heady scenes indeed. The intoxication of first love, along with the universal experience of a time that’s so joyously perfect, its memory resonates throughout our lives.
When subsequent dramatic events take Meaulnes away from this ‘Lost Estate’, and back to provincial village life, we understand that his spirit will never recover, he will not rest until he finds Yvonne and his magical chateau again. Meaulnes recounts his strange tale to a dazzled Seurel, who will continue to live vicariously through Meaulnes, unable to imagine his own adventures.
Interesting parallels have been drawn between this book ( titled Le Grand Meaulnes in French), and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald would very likely have read Alain-Fournier during his Paris years, and appears to have borrowed not only the title, but also its passive narrator, enigmatic hero, and theme of consuming love. We certainly know that Fitzgerald also appreciated a lavish party.
Alain-Fournier’s poignant writing more than makes up for the numerous plot contrivances and coincidences. Seurel’s hero worship of Meaulnes is an example of the intense nature of adolescent friendship, and our author is nothing if not intense. He really captures that sense of bittersweet yearning, and uses the lost estate as a metaphor for those shining, vanished days of our own young years.
I’m sure now that when I discovered the nameless domain, I was at some peak of perfection, of purity, to which I shall never again attain
When I first read this book at 17, it captured my imagination, but I didn’t understand then, what it is we lose by growing up. Now I do, and I intend to revisit this book in future years, in the hope of ever greater appreciation.
The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier is published by Penguin Classics, 256 pages.