Archive for July, 2010

In Search of the Lost Domain

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Le Grand Meaulnes: by Alain-Fournier

It was thinking about Le Grand Meaulnes that first led me to the idea of Common Ground. I’d read it in my early 20s, about the same age at which Alain-Fournier had written it just before the First World War. A feeling for the book had then lingered in my memory for many years. The book itself became, in my mind, a metaphor for elusiveness.

It’s an almost impossibly romantic book. About brief, obsessive relationships in adolescence that initiate a lifetime of fruitless searching to rediscover the place, the person, the emotion that once inspired that obsession. Always there, always vivid, always just out of reach. So the book’s characters – particularly its young men, Meaulnes, Frans and Seurel – are constantly trying, and failing, to recapture a particular time and place from the past.

The memory of the book remains vivid – not in any of its plot details or characters – but in keeping fresh the idea that there is a vanished moment in the past that you can almost taste and touch. A moment that will remain forever after untasted and untouched. Elusive, the very essence of elusiveness.

Re-reading Le Grand Meaulnes cannot bring it back either. I now read the book with less rapture than I did in my youth. I try reading it in French and I discover another aspect of elusiveness.

Once, a few years ago, I thought I might visit the place in central France where Alain-Fournier had grown up, the setting for the novel. The area was called the Sologne, to the north east of the Loire, an area not much visited. Perhaps I would find the lost domain that’s at the centre of the book? Perhaps in visiting the places so hauntingly described by Alain-Fournier I would put something to rest inside me? But I never made it. It would have been a long detour to get there, and we had a ferry to catch.

Now I visit France regularly and the lost domain seems always likely to be at the end of the country road; just down that path through the trees; that house glimpsed through the bars of the gate. There’s always a mythical, romantic, golden France just out of reach. I keep returning to try to find it. Often it feels close, but it remains elusive.

I suspect that the place itself, its reality, would be a disappointment. Perhaps no common ground. The fact is, it’s not really a place. I’m remembering a book written by a young man I never knew, about whom we know little because he was soon to die in the Great War. I’m also remembering a book read by a young man I probably wouldn’t recognise, who went on to do other, possibly better things but kept regretting that he hadn’t been able to return to the way he was then.

John Simmons