‘So there’s going to be a wedding,’ Augustin concluded. ‘But is this place run by children?... What a very strange domain!’
He was tempted to leave his hiding-place and ask where he could get something to eat and drink. He straightened up, and saw the second group of children walking away: three little girls in straight frocks that just reached their knees. They wore pretty hats tied with ribbon, a white feather curling down at the back. One of them, half turning towards her companion, listened while the latter embarked on a complicated explanation, marking her points with a finger in the air.
‘I should only frighten them,’ thought Meaulnes, with a rueful glance at his torn smock, and the uncouth belt that was part of his uniform as a pupil of Sainte-Agathe.
observations: This is the second entry on the book: read the first one here to get up to speed.
AS we mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, Le Grand Meaulnes is a reminder of the lost talent: the author died in September 1914, aged 27, leaving this book as his main memento - but not the only one: below is a tree planted in his honour in Paris. See the earlier entry for more details of the garden for fallen French writer-soldiers.
There are endless questions about Le Grand Meaulnes: did any of it really happen, was it just in his imagination? He is searching for something, but is it in fact his lost youth, his innocence, or something that doesn’t exist? The book title is sometimes translated as The Lost Domain, although domain (as in the extract above) does not have the same implications in English as it does in French. It is also sometimes called The Wanderer, which is the fate of Meaulnes. After the extraordinary, spell-binding opening section, parts 2 and 3 follow him and his friends over many years, with a winding plot and some dramatic events – one reasonable description of the plot is that it is ‘operatic’. (And it is undoubtedly the first third of the book that has given the book its reputation).
When I was young I assumed the whole thing was a kind of fairytale (trying so hard, now, not to say ‘he wandered into EuroDisney’): one noticeable thing is that Meaulnes takes off just before Christmas, and it is freezing cold with a glacial blasting wind, but at the lost domain there is no particular mention of cold weather, and all the young people partying are going out on the river, wearing their costumes outside, light dresses etc etc. But then, when he gets back he does seem to have the embroidered waistcoat from his party costume.
But do English-speaking people read it any more? When I was a teenager, it was something of a cult classic – a lot of people who did French A Level had it as a set text, and they passed it around (in English of course). But modern students of French don’t seem to know it, and when I asked on Twitter there was very little response. Apparently it comes high on any favourite books polls in France, where it is perhaps still studied in schools. (And Sophie, the privately-educated teenage daughter in Harriet Lane’s Her, is studying it for A Level.)
One side-issue: I had an exciting translation incident concerning the book.
I decided to get it onto my Kindle as well. And now I think this was a first: I paid £1.49 for a translation which had been done by a computer programme: I am fairly certain someone had merely put the text through the programme and packaged the result. My favourite sentence in the Turing Test version is this:
Then it was filled with a Chinese pencil compass and fun instruments that went by the left bank, sliding silently, stealthily, hand in hand, in the books, that Mr Seurel could not see anything.There’s a certain found poetry element to it – if it was Joyce you’d think it was meant to be like that. (in the proper translation above, this bit reads as follows: ‘Next came a Chinese pencil-box containing a pair of compasses and other curious instruments. This too passed down the line, slipping silently from hand to hand under the exercise-books so that M Seurel would not see.’)