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Customer Review

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The greatest French novel of the 20th century, 27 Feb. 2010
This review is from: The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I first read 'Le Grand Meaulnes' as an A-level text when I was 16. My French teacher, not a man prone to hyperbole, told me it was the greatest novel ever written in the French language. He also told me that it was necessary to read it as an idealistic young man in order to be captivated by its spell. 30 years on, much more worldly wise and full of life's routine disappointments, my youthful idealism has slipped away, but 'Le Grand Meaulnes' still has a compelling power to move.

The only completed novel written by Alain-Fournier, 'Meaulnes' perfectly captures the indulgent sadness, overwhelming sense of loss and unattainable love so typical of adolescence. It was written by a young man whose own life mirrored in many ways the content of his book. The search for Yvonne de Galais is the search for perfection that lies within us all; once found it is revealed to have been out of reach all along. Meaulnes is the young man that his companion Francois Seurel strives to be, the Boys' Own hero. The settings, deep in the French countryside at the turn of the century are steeped in mystery, darkness and isolation. The first part of the book is almost pure fantasy, which then develops into a deeper realism as the twists in the plot reveal its bitter truths.

'Le Grand Meaulnes' is magical, and if, like me, you read it at the right time in your life, it may well stay with you and influence you for the rest of it. Alain-Fournier was killed in action in the First World War, his body only discovered and identified in recent years. It is an ending as fitting and tragic as that of the poet Wilfred Owen or any of the lost generation of writers who never returned from that conflict, and it underlines the tragedy of Alain-Fournier's novel.

This is a fine translation of 'Meaulnes' for a modern audience, but for me Frank Davison's 1959 translation remains definitive, and is still widely available as a secondhand Penguin Twentieth Century Classic. For those interested in further reading, look no further than Robert Gibson's wonderful biography of Alain-Fournier 'The End Of Youth', which is as readable as any novel. The 1967 film of 'Le Grand Meaulnes' (sometimes known as 'The Wanderer') is hard to find, but DVD copies do exist if you search hard enough. Starring Brigitte Fossey and Jean Blaise, it is as close to a perfect rendering of the novel as we are likely to get; the perfect marrying of dreamlike sequences with cold hard reality. Sadly it is not currently available with English subtitles.

Strongly recommended, 'Le Grand Meaulnes' will catch you unawares and stay with you long after its final page has been closed. Not many works of literature can lay that particular claim, and 'Meaulnes' is truly one of the greatest.
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