Classic Thoughts: Castles in the air: Simon Blow looks back in affection to Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes

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The Independent Culture
IT IS 80 years ago this month that Alain-Fournier, a young Frenchman of 27, published one of the greatest novels ever to describe the moods of adolescence. I was wanting to get away from school myself when I fell in with this Augustin Meaulnes, who couldn't stop pacing the room for thoughts of adventure. But when he skips school, borrowing a farmer's horse and cart, it is for a more sophisticated journey than one might have expected. After miles of travelling, he stumbles accidentally on a party in a decaying chateau. On entering the tumble-down outbuildings, he experiences 'an almost intoxicating serenity . . . he had nothing but happiness to look forward to'.

With its coloured lanterns, strange avenues, and rooms full of surprise - fantastic carriages and fancy clothes - the chateau is a lost paradise, which long before Fournier had called his Land Without A Name. Meaulnes too wants only to live among those vivid first impressions which, as a child, set him dreaming. Real life is captive evenings at home and the classroom. Class and the winter rain make a place where 'we were bored to death'. Hope is in the decayed chateau where there is Harlequin and Pierrot, the dancing of minuets and farandoles, and young children in frock coats giving mechanical bows. When Meaulnes sees a blue-eyed maiden across a lake, his eyes fill with tears.

Fournier had an early broken attachment that marked him. He didn't trust the world, and neither does Meaulnes. But the party has no boundaries, no smallness. 'How can a man who has once strayed into Heaven ever hope to make terms with the earth]' exclaims Meaulnes. Le Grand Meaulnes has been criticised for being escapist, but Fournier had to capture that transitory moment - the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. When Meaulnes marries the blue-eyed maiden he is terrified that, now earthbound, the dream will break. He turns to another adventure.

And yet the book is totally honest, and not escapist, in that it catches our fear of life. The latter part of the novel, which deals with the steady let-down into adult life, is dashed by tragedy. 'It's best to forget me. It's best to forget it all,' says Meaulnes to his friend Francois, as they look back to the bitter-sweet chateau party. Yet both are sustained by it. Explaining Meaulnes to a friend, Fournier wrote: 'He thinks that with every adventure his childhood will come back. But already he knows that this dream will never come again.'