The summer before I went to college my grandfather died. I spent that season clearing out the shelves in his bedroom. And since he was a compulsive re-reader, I kept the books that looked the most tattered. I thought he must have loved those the most.
One of them was The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes), by Henri Alain-Fournier. I couldn’t have known when I picked it up that it would be such an appropriate last book for someone just days away from becoming a college student. In the late August heat I sat on my grandmother’s balcony and read it in two days.
The story begins with the arrival of a new student at a school in a small French town. Through the eyes of the headmaster’s son we meet Augustin Meaulnes — and the two boys quickly become friends.
While the narrator is cautious and sickly, his new friend is restless — Augustin can’t seem to settle down into a routine. He’s the first student in line for morning inspection at school, but he also wakes his friend at midnight so they can set off on an expedition.
One day he sneaks away from school and stumbles upon a party at a hidden, possibly magical, estate. When he comes back, he tells his friends that he has fallen in love with a girl he met there.
Years later he imagines meeting her, writing to the narrator: “Sitting on the bench, shivering, miserable, I like to imagine that someone will gently take my arm … I should look round and she would be there. ‘I’m a bit late,’ she would say simply.”
Meaulnes — uncompromisingly youthful — is unable to abandon the years-old adventure, and is unwilling to leave his adolescent fantasy unsatisfied. We perhaps understand him best when the narrator describes his friend’s journey to the estate: “Anyone but Meaulnes would immediately have turned back.”
Without ever actually announcing it, The Lost Estate tells a story about feeling inescapably tied to one’s life as a student and a child, but hoping that something far more enchanting will come along and distract us. Just like Augustin, we wish we could be set off course.
Incidentally, it’s the very same thing I always felt when summer begins to wind down, and Staples starts pushing back-to-school specials, and textbook lists are sent out in the mail: We are preparing for the inevitable, but still hope to avoid it. We’re like Meaulnes, who cannot be tied down to school, or to his little village; he lives in a perpetual summer vacation.
Just as I was during those August balcony days, students heading out to university are all a little bit like Meaulnes himself: feeling those pangs of the beginnings of the familiar school year, but nevertheless, nursing a desire to take off, and peer into the strange, unknown estate, ready to be swept off their feet.
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