The Lost Estate And The Happiness Right Beside Us

So I read Le Grand Meaulnes.  The English version was re-titled from “The Great Meaulnes” (Meaulnes being a character’s name) to The Lost Estate.  I typically disagree with severe and reckless title changes when a book is translated.  Sometimes, imported titles are greatly altered even when the book was originally written in the same language, as with the original “Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone,” which was changed by the book’s American publisher to “Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone.”  I think they did it just because “sorcerer” sounded like more fun than “philosopher.”  And who knows?   Maybe that more exciting title really did get people’s attention more and started the gigantic ball rolling.  Problem is, the whole connection with the real-life ancient search for finding a way to transmogrify one substance into another was lost.

Another example of title tweaking is in foreign films.  This one slays me.  Few people have much incentive to lay bare the truth about the golden age of “art house” cinema in the United States circa the 1960s, but a large reason that foreign movies brought in such relatively large audiences was that foreign flicks showed more skin.  Hollywood movies were still self-censuring; nudity and sexual situations were kept off the screen.  Not so in parts of Europe.  Furthermore, when the movies were brought over for their Art House runs, sometimes their names would be changed to something more sexually charged.  For example, Wim Wenders’s “Wings Of Desire” was originally titled, “Der Himmel über Berlin,” or “Skies Over Berlin.”  Some of those names have been “changed back” for today’s DVD releases, so this aspect of the art house scene in America could easily drop one day from the collective memory.

Anyway, I guess I’m stalling my spiel on Le Grand Meaulnes because I have so little to say about it.  The book was written by Frenchman Alain-Fournier (I guess just the one name?).  Alain-Fournier, like millions of other young men, was killed in action in the early days of World War One.

The story is about 15-year old boy at an all-male school whose sedate life is disrupted by the arrival of an exciting, slightly older boy by the name of Meaulnes.  Meaulnes is charismatic and adventurous, and very quickly alters the social dynamics of the boys at the school.

The “lost estate” in the book’s English title is the main engine of the plot, and concerns an escapade of “le grand Meaulnes” in which he runs-off from the school and spends a magical night partying at a great house and talking to a beautiful girl.  Unfortunately, when he returns to the school, he cannot remember the location of the party, and thus, cannot go back to visit the girl again.  Needless to say, his heart pining, he desperately desires to find the estate again, and our loyal main character tries to help him.

The story is told in short chapters that are fashioned in such a way that I wonder if the story appeared originally as a serial in a newspaper or magazine.  Most of these mini-chapters end with a small and gentle mystery (not so much of a cliff-hanger as a bank-dangle), but even more suspiciously (concerning the story’s possible serial origins):  each little chapter is of roughly the same length.

In the days before publishers produced the massive number of books for children of all ages that they do today, I’m sure Le Grand Meaulnes was a lovely little story, for both nostalgic adults and adolescents (I’m not sure the word “teenager” was invented yet—much less “tweener”).  However, for today’s audiences I think the pace of the story is too slow and the mystery of where the house is located too tame.  The word that keeps entering my head when I think about this book is:  GENTLE.  Yes, it is a gentle read.  No witches, no monsters— not even abusive adults.  Actually, the adults presented are more loveable than the children, as Alain-Fournier has presented us with teenaged boys acting just as meanly as teenaged boys are wont to do.  But alas, the mystery of the Lost Estate is not exciting enough, and the prose not charged enough, to sustain keen interest for even the short length of this novel.

I will say this, however:  the tale’s underlying theme is timeless and universal:  namely, the longing to leave one’s restrictive home and boring hometown and go off to some more exciting and exotic place where life is lived more grandly.  And if this story has a moral, it is the one spoken by the girl in the latter third of the book, when she tells our young narrator:

“I’d teach the boys […] how to find the happiness that is right beside them, but which they don’t see.”

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