Tuesday, March 03, 2015

[Books] Book Look: The Lost Domain, by Alain-Fournier

Also known by the titles Le Grand Meaulnes, The Lost Estate, the Wanderer, The End of Youth, and probably others, The Lost Domain suddenly popped up on my radar when I read somewhere that it was a major influence of F.Scott Fitzgerald and could be thought of as an French equivalent of Catcher in the Rye. It was also spoken highly of by Nick Hornby of High Fidelity and About a Boy fame. Given its pedigree as a hidden influence on some great literature I almost had to read it.

There are really three aspects to the book. First is an idyllic description of rural life in France before the World Wars; a flowery, poetic existence filled with gentle youthful activities and provincial comforts (instructively, to my 21st century senses it seems rather like poverty). This is the world of the narrator, Seurel, who is in his mid teens. Into this mix appears a stranger named Meaulnes --
Le Grand Meaulnes -- an older and larger teen who quickly becomes a dominant force among the youth of the area and a great friend to the narrator. So it is clear this book is of the "stranger comes to town" genre.

Then a turning point comes. Meaulnes sneaks away on some juvenile escapade, gets lost, and finds himself at a private estate where a wedding is imminent. He is mistaken for a guest and joins in the festivities, which take on the feel of an otherworldly fantasy. In the midst of all this revelry, Meaulnes is lovestruck a beautiful young girl and develops strong bonds of friendship with the groom. Then, suddenly it's over. The groom receives a message that his bride is not going to marry him after all, he flees in shame and disappointment, all the attendees filter away and Meaulnes staggers back home completely changed by his experience.

The next section, the 2nd aspect, of the book takes the form of a quest. Meaulnes cannot remember where this estate was and so cannot follow up on his desire to help the former groom or find the love of his life. With the help of the narrator he leaves no stone unturned in his search to find the girl who bewitched him. They explore the area, make maps, pursue clues in the stories of their elders, until a final clue comes that compels Meaulnes to abandon his provincial life and his narrator friend Seurel, and make his way to Paris.

Without giving away details, let's just say this all ends in sorrow and tragedy and regret. So...yay for love and romance! The book's 3rd aspect, and in truth the overall theme of the book, which is clear from the outset more or less, is the loss of youth and innocence to the cold reality of adult life. A well trodden theme, but perhaps not so well trodden well over a century ago.

It's easy to see the F Scott Fitzgerald connection. The misguided juvenile motivations and obsessions show up in This Side of Paradise, and the tragic hero whose story is told by a well fleshed-out narrator form the structure of Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye not so much; there is little cynicism.

Should you read The Lost Domain? I have to go with a qualified "no". The translated prose is rich and well-coiffed, if occasionally bordering on overwrought, but the Innocence Lost theme has no novelty for even a casual reader and in this case, it feels very distant culturally and chronologically. I could identify quite well with the actions of the characters in This Side of Paradise, but here the small actions, which (I think) were intended to be familiar and build an image of rural life, were not in my realm of understanding. More importantly, the teenagers presented seem overly precocious, filled with profound inner thoughts and a strong sense of solemn purpose. I cannot relate to that at all. In my experience youth equates to thoughtlessness, shallow beliefs, and a near total lack of self-awareness. This generated an underlying feeling of implausibility that I couldn't shake.

Alain-Fournier never wrote another book. He was killed in the trenches in WW1, so if this book came from his personal experience that youthful glee leads to tragedy, he sadly never got to experience the adult joys that balance it.