Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier

A magical book. I started it in French and, unfortunately, had to switch to English because my renews ran out at the library (I was going pretty slow). I wish I had stuck with it in the original language, because I could always feel when the English was inadequate; things that had a certain enchanting vagueness in the French (the word "domaine," for example, comes up again and again) just felt goofy in the English.

But the spell remains, in the end, even in translation. Le Grand Meaulnes is a story of childhood and adolescence, lost worlds, schoolyard fights, love at first sight, and that sort of thing. I don't want to describe the plot, because it would sound ridiculous. And the book is always, in fact, threatening to become silly. But one of the marks of its genius is that it succeeds in creating a mood in the reader where she doesn't have the slightest inclination to protest that the plot is ludicrous. You pass through it like a dream, and it seems to be telling you the truth about a certain period in your life like no other book.

I noticed something while I was reading it: one of the marks of works of adult literature that deal primarily with childhood -- David Copperfield, for example, and My Antonia -- is a narrator who is almost tangential to the plot. In so many of these books, the narrator is continually on the sideline while other people act out their dramas, and never seems unhappy about it. Perhaps this is because children feel this way when looking at adults, or maybe it is just a characteristic of the sort of people that tend to read and write books. I remember being in thrall even to slightly older or bigger children, happy to help them succeed in their own adventures with no thought to my own. Part of what makes these books magical is the fact that they are not happening to the narrator, who is only looking in and experiencing it all second hand; this might also be what gives all of these books an air of impossible nostalgia. It is as if all of these events, the show that other people put on, have already become memories which we can only deal with as spectators, and never change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You might enjoy this translation that I stumbled upon recently. Unlike others this ones starts with the premise that this particular French book cannot be translated directly into an English prose. Jennifer Hashmi's translation seems to attempt preserving the narrative poetic style of the original. I think she mentions somewhere it is written for the English speaking student of French literary fiction and in that goal it seems to succeed ... at least to my rather mediocre command of French.

Here's the kindle edition: