Le Grand Meaulnes (translated as The Lost Estate in the most recent Penguin classic) was a set text for our A level French and like The Catcher in the Rye it should be read in adolescence.
I can still picture the classroom in Barnstaple Grammar School where we’re trying to translate the unfamiliar words. It’s sunny and my friends are too big at this point for the individual desks. We’re the same age as Francois and Augustin and the book is more about friendship than love.
The novel, written in 1913 is narrated by Francois Seurel, the son of a rural schoolmaster. This was relevant to me: my father was the head teacher of a tiny primary school and I was always an outsider among the local kids. Like Francois I called him by his surname in class. Augustin Meaulnes arrives at the school in winter and immediately the two forge a bond that will last for a life time. Meaulnes is older, braver, a hero. In a childish impulse for adventure, Meaulnes runs away and becomes lost. After dark he stumbles onto a grand, but now ruined house, in which the preparations for a party are taking place. There are delightful children in fancy dress and it seems that the whole community has gathered to celebrate a wedding. Here Meaulnes meets Yvonne de Galais, the bridegroom’s sister. There’s a romantic connection but the party ends in chaos: the bride doesn’t turn up and Frantz de Galais, the
prospective groom, is so
distraught that he attempts suicide. Meaulnes wanders out into the night and eventually finds his way back to the school without ever knowing the name of the house or its location.
The remainder of the novel involves Meaulnes’ search for the lost estate and for the mysterious Yvonne. At one point he becomes involved with another woman and even after becoming reunited with Yvonne, when he is forced to choose between her and the demands of friendship, he deserts his love again. In some places the plotting is preposterous but that didn’t register then. The book created a tone and mood that haunted us. It conjured the intensity and possibilities of adolescence and we tried to recreate something of its magic in our own lives. In class we argued over the significance of each scene. It taught me that reading can be a social activity, and that was useful later when I set up reading groups in public libraries.
Also that reading is subjective; the group that followed us called the book the Big Moan and hated every word.
Ann Cleeves’s ‘Harbour Street’
is published by Macmillan