Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, and the Poignant Romanticism of Youth

Alain-Fournier's exquisite novel Le Grand Meaulnes seems less a crafted fictional tale than an ethereal dreamscape. It describes the arrival, at a rural school in Sologne, of the charismatic Meaulnes who captivates his schoolfellows with his brash confidence and inclination for adventure. After abruptly disappearing for several days, Meaulnes returns, travel-stained and disheveled, and confides in the young and admiring François: while lost among narrow pathways and rural lanes, amidst meadows and hedgerows, the older boy glimpsed "the spire of a grey turret rising above some fir trees". Meaulnes subsequently found himself welcomed to a  strangely dilapidated mansion with crumbling outbuildings and carefully raked driveways, festooned with colored lanterns and jumbled collections of antiquated goods. He moved through the estate with the dazed uncertainty of a somnambulist but imbued with an inexplicably idyllic contentment: "a feeling of perfect, almost intoxicating tranquility: the certainty that he had reached his goal and that henceforth only happiness awaited him."

This curious manor was inhabited, and organized it appeared, by an assemblage of children dressed in the formal attire of a bygone era: "frock coats with high velvet collars, stylish low-cut waistcoats...and patent leather shoes from the start of the century."  All seemed to reside under an enchantment, where innocent pleasures were defined by childish whimsy, where young girls in petticoats shrieked with exuberant laughter, and a distant piano-player evoked a sense of melodic serenity. Participating in the fete that followed, having discovering that it was occasioned by the imminent marriage of Frantz de Galais, Meaulnes is transfixed by the delicate beauty of Frantz's sister, Yvonne. When the wedding failed to eventuate and the guests dispersed, Meaulnes found himself unceremoniously deposited back at the Sologne school with little notion as to where he has passed these idyllic days, nor the route by which he may return.

The narrative, in the latter part of the novel, is depicted through the older eyes of François (who has acquired a certain wise pragmatism in the intervening years); he expresses his incredulity at Meaulnes' despondency: at "this emptiness, this distance, this inability to experience happiness" that persisted even after obtaining the affections of his Yvonne - his Beatrice, his Dulcinea. For it is not her Meaulnes seeks so particularly, as much as he is obsessed with the Lost Estate itself: "the little girls, the driver of the old berlin, the racing ponies...he was inquiring about this with extraordinary eagerness as though trying to persuade himself that there was nothing remaining of his great adventure...that they had not both dreamt it all." For Meaulnes, these later years are plagued by a dismal ennui. Frantz, likewise, is unable to relinquish the pampered permissiveness that characterized his time at Les Sablonnières (The Lost Estate): he is ever the "imperious, capricious, easily-discouraged" child who, despite chronological maturity, insisted upon "playing this ridiculous part of the young romantic hero." For it is those that persistently, and fruitlessly, sought happiness in a resurrection of the past, that seemed most doomed to misery in present times.

This Lost Estate is the distillation of happiness that Meaulnes desperately seeks, and the self-indulgent liberty that Frantz cannot escape. This is, in short, childhood; and these simple pleasures of youth have a tightly focused appreciative when remembered under the greater anxieties of adulthood; when, fraught and entangled by the necessity of wage-earning, burdened by the responsibilities of career-path, and confined by strictures of all that is deemed socially acceptable, the early years seem comparatively carefree. For childhood is the provenience of immortals; as far as the young are concerned, the days last forever, and the years stretch ahead in interminable succession. There will always be time: the hour glass perpetually turned, its sandgrains replenished; the darkly hooded figure with the scythe who lurks on the peripheries is disdainfully dismissed, if, indeed, he is thought of at all. But, when remaining years of a generously self-allotted lifespan seem to be dwindling, when one feels that they are accelerating with alarming rapidity down the other chronological side...the perspective is an entirely different one. In the face of diminishing time, one begins the restless quest for meaning and purpose; the grail often obstinately elusive. But perhaps the key to its whereabouts lies in the idyllic contentment of past remembrances, gilded and enshrined by the foibles of memory and the indistinctness of intervening time.

This notion, encouraged by the disillusionment that oft-characterizes maturity (and to which Meaulnes was particularly susceptible), is the quintessential dream of eternal youth; expressive, perhaps, of the adult yearning to  recapture that sense of simple delight, that ability to immerse oneself utterly within the present moment. For life becomes complicated as one ages. François' mother, so beautifully depicted within Alain-Fournier's novel, is so distraught by the appearance of frugality that she closets herself away to repair hats in secret, lest the family's necessary economies become the subject of village gossip. And Monsieur Seurel, François' father, seems a distracted, rather unapproachable fellow. Who would not prefer the rambunctious ramblings of boisterous boys through woods and grottos - climbing wild cherry trees, robbing woodpeckers' nests, with all their "stifled laughter" and physical exuberance? For Frantz and Meaulnes it was not a coming-of-age narrative as much as a refusal-to-age, and the poignant pain associated with this particular path.

What a marvelous theme it is upon which Alain-Fournier expounded! It brings to my mind the mythic island of Hy-Brasil that appears once every seven years somewhere off the Irish coast, shrouded in fog and mist and inhabited by fairies and wizards. Any so fortunate to set foot upon this miraculous isle are granted eternal life, but to those who seek it, it remains perpetually elusive, invisible between the waves, impenetrable and indiscernible. As Les Sablonnières becomes for Meaulnes - a mirage that lures him on, that promises fulfillment but leaves him perpetually yearning.

The Lost Estate takes its place alongside palaces of memory, where reminiscences become inextricably located in architecture, and childhood is indeliably linked with the overgrown manor house, pregnant with possibility. I remember something of this kind from my own early years - the old Raffles hotel in Singapore, before the modern renovations, before the whitewashed exterior and the sleek website. It had been a dilapidated mansion, dusty and cobwebbed, redolent with myth and legend. We would come for tiffin, for that rich succulence of Sunday curry, then we, the children, would be released from the company of adults, free to explore - and one could not, indeed, imagine a more enthralling place. We would scamper up narrow back stairways, through cavernous rooms filled with heavy colonial furniture, gaping at billiard tables beneath which tigers had crouched (or so the story went!), entranced by faded photographs of bearded men and solemn women in sepia; fascination existed in forgotten corners, in dark remnants of bygone times, in the faded carpet and timeworn stairs. And so, perhaps, it was for Meaulnes and his lost estate. For he must have imagined, as did I, that this crumbling architecture was more than just a receptacle for neglected furniture and dusty books. Perhaps it is the notion that some sort of old wisdom resides in places such as these, that past inhabitants still dwelled within its walls, whispering ancient secrets to those who would listen. But time, and progress it seems, wait for no man. Raffles was sterilized, revamped and regenerated, reborn, glorious and pristine - all vestiges of  inconvenient colonial embarrassments concealed beneath a freshly painted exterior. And the fate of Les Sablonnières? Utterly demolished, so that scarcely even memory remained; a wasteland, the provenience of rabbit burrows and tangled weeds. Gone with the rapidity that is youth. For when Meaulnes returned, years later, the Lost Estate was again irretrievably lost to him - as indeed it had always been. It existed only in the remembrance, in the later re-telling.

Perhaps, this yearning for a pristine past characterizes societies and nations as well as individuals. Napoleon Bonaparte comes to mind, and his attempt to evoke the glories that were Rome within architectural facades, ranking nomenclature, and the organization of a nation of which he crowned himself emperor. Because this illustrious past, this glorious heritage that all acknowledged to be the very root and legitimacy of power, this was better, surely, than the humble Corsican parentage from whence he had come?

It is not that childhood is always idyllic, or that maturity is bound to be the wellspring of malcontents, but it is, instead, about the dream of perfect happiness. A place of peace, a haven from the turbulent upheavals of life. Reminiscent of mythic after-worlds where virgins abound, and perpetual peace and contentment reign. Not only does such a place not exist in the earthly realm (as Meaulnes and Frantz find to their respective grief), but perhaps the irony lies in the probable dissatisfaction one would find there after residing overlong! Perfect peace? Calm contentment? Where, then, is the passion, the heat, the dissension, the conviction, argumentative or otherwise, the dialectic that engenders growth? The debate that stimulates further thought? The emotional upheavals that define the human experience?

This marvelous novel Le Grand Meaulnes is all the more poignant due to Alain-Fournier's own tragic death on the Meuse in 1914 at the tender age of twenty-seven. Little more than a youth himself. This novel captures, in all its sensitive intensity of prose, this yearning that has subsequently come to characterize so many brilliant works of literature, and to which readers today remain equally enthralled.