The land of lost content
Literary attraction is rather like the sexual kind, the factors governing it are far too complex for words: one is either smitten or one is not.
John Fowles' afterword to Le grand Meaulnes published as The lost domain.
*Major spoiler alert*
When I was at university my friends and I each had a book that was a sort of talisman. Mine was John Donne's English poems, which has followed me round, rather like Mary's little lamb ever since; another friend had a beloved paperback of Lord of the rings, and another had a translation, by her father I think, of Alain-Fournier's Le grand Meaulnes. Meaulnes was one of those books I always intended to read, but also half feared to read; a book that has been so loved and highly praised that you fear it's not going to live up to the standards that have been set for it. I think John Fowles has it bang on about the similarities between literary and sexual attraction - you may know that you're attracted to a clever mind and a sense of humour (or whatever your personal preference is), but why does this person make your heart do cartwheels, and yet that one, although he (or she) is sweet and funny and kind, leaves you cold? Why do you love this novel and yet that one, so similar in many ways, completely fails to do it for you?
And that's rather how I felt about Meaulnes. I so wanted to love it, the first half which centres around the narrator's childhood was well written, in many ways quite reminiscent of Colette's Claudine. It also has similarities to L.P. Hartley's The go-between, which I'm sure was influenced by the earlier Alain-Fournier, and yet for me there was something lacking. I think the central problem that I had was the way in which the women were portrayed. Although no woman is really centre-stage, and no female character is truly well-formed, they are completely vital to the plot. Indeed there would be no plot without Yvonne, Valentine, and the unnamed girl-child who carries the novel forward beyond its last page.
Set in France in the 1890s, the central character, Meaulnes, a school-friend of the narrator Seurel, chances by accident on a country estate in which celebrations are in hand for a grand wedding. While there he meets and falls in love with Yvonne (think a young Julie Christie). The wedding festivities are broken up when the bride-to-be runs away, and the groom, Yvonne's brother Frantz, comes over all German Romantic and attempts to commit suicide. Meaulnes returns to his boarding school, but is unable to find his way back to the lost domain where Yvonne lives, in spite of his and Seurel's attempts to do so. In despair he moves to Paris, and haunts Yvonne's Parisian home, while wandering there he meets Valentine, a young dressmaker, who every reader (but not Meaulnes) has quickly realised is the missing fiancee. He is attracted to her, and they sleep together, but he then shuns her having discovered that she's the runaway bride. She goes back to Paris, apparently to become a prostitute, Meaulnes, now on a major guilt-trip decides to find her and reunite her with her ex, but then Yvonne appears again. Meaulnes marries her, and then departs abruptly on the trail of Valentine and Frantz. As you can imagine it's not going to end happily, the ending actually is rather more positive, but just feels, at least to me, supremely unlikely.
The lost domain of the English title, which also appears throughout the book, refers on the surface to the physical country estate, but also can refer to Yvonne herself (in a rather Donneish way - "O my America"), or just a memory - a time when everything seemed good, a time that you want to go back to, but can't, or perhaps even a return to the simplicities of childhood.
What I found so frustrating about this book is that there are moments when it is supremely well written. The scenes leading up to the death of Yvonne are Zola-like in their realism. Indeed they were so powerful that they reminded me of a deathbed that I had been at, when I was around Seurel's age. This is really good writing, but then you have the improbability of Meaulnes' not realizing sooner who Valentine is - and why the heck does she have to go and be a prostitute except for literary effect? It's clunkingly clumsy. And Meaulnes own reaction after finding out who she is - I could neither really see why he felt any deep loyalty for Frantz (it wasn't clear earlier in the narrative that the friendship had been that deep), nor why he, who had slept with the poor girl, now appeared to think she was "damaged goods" too. I just felt at one point like hurling the book across the room. All the women are either madonnas or whores, it's just ridiculous.
I think too that there's another point to be added to the Fowles' quote that I quoted at the beginning - which indeed he comments on further in his afterword. Sometimes timing plays a part too. I think that perhaps if I had read this when I was much younger I would have reacted slightly differently to it. I think in my late-teens / early-20s I would have loved the romanticism and adventure of the book, and caught up in that would have been, perhaps, a little more accepting of the faults in the portrayal of the female characters. Re-reading it as an older me, I would have been less forgiving, but would still have remembered the book I had loved. But you can't change the circumstances surrounding your first time either sexually or with the discovery of a new book, and reading Le grand Meaulnes now I find there's much to admire, but it is seriously flawed.
I'm glad I read it - it's clearly been a hugely influential book not least on some authors that I genuinely admire such as John Fowles, who was very heavily influenced by it, and L.P. Hartley; but sadly for me there will be no wedding bells, my feelings towards it will always remain strictly and very definitely platonic.