In English, the meaning of the word disillusioned carries a subtly different meaning than it does in French. An English speaker who is disillusioned, say because of something they learned about someone they love, would at first feel disappointed but would eventually be relived to know the truth. A French speaker would also feel disappointment but instead of glad they now know the truth would wish they had never known it, they would wish to continue to be deceived and so use the word to convey that particular meaning. An English speaker, lacking a word for the feeling would say ‘ignorance is bliss’.
Yet aside from a subtlety of translation, this small novel from 100 years ago in France by a young man who died just a few months after the book was published in WW1, a war that disillusioned the entire world through its brutality, is immediately recognizable in what it is trying to say, even if our own vocabulary is limited. The story is quite simple: a young man comes to a small French village and happens upon a wedding party where he meets a young woman whom he falls in love with but because he doesn’t remember how he came to the party is not able to find his way back to her and spends years obsessed with this love.
Now it would seem at first that this is a very sentimental and nostalgic book, and in a way that’s true, but it comes at sentiment and nostalgia from the opposite direction. This novel is a book about the danger of nostalgia, of not seeing the world for what it is, for failing, like Valentine later in the book, to accept what we’ve been given without making it into something it can never be. And the real danger is hurting someone you love because they are not what you wanted them to be – it’s unfair to everyone.
The novel is quite timely too because of the onset of the war after its publication. The world very definitely changed after WW1, and all preconceptions of how Europe thought wars were fought and how governments and civilizations should behave were destroyed in the trenches along the fronts and in the meat-grinders of mechanized battle. The world grew up after WW1 and there is no going back to the simpler time of the 19th century, a scene reenacted at the wedding party as the guests all wear costumes from the early part of that long ago time.
Most striking, however, is the novel’s beauty. The novel reads like an impressionistic painting, as if Monet were a writer describing his paintings. Schoolchildren playing in the snow, the drip of rain on a mans boot, the looming church, the old farmhouse, a young man with two small children sitting on his lap before a fireplace. And this language, this beautiful imagery works to not only draw you into the story, but also to return you to your own youth, to a time when everything was new, when all life was possibility and everyone you met was a potential friend.
Remarkable that this novel was written by someone so young and it leaves you wondering what loss, what pain he may have endured to have created this work of art before being sent to die on some battlefield in France. Yet in a way we are returned to his youth through this book and so his youth is immortal, his young life is always preserved for us in a sort of soft amber.
Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes translated as ‘The Big Meaulnes’ or ‘The Great Meaulnes’ or ‘The Magnificent Meaulnes’, ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Lost Domain’, or ‘The Lost Estate’ (my choice for best possible translation), is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The book is sad, and sometimes even a little uneven in the middle third of the book, but across time and across language it speaks to a feeling we all have that we wish we never really grew up to learn how the world, how other people, and how we really are.