The Lost Estate
Alain-Fournier is the pseudonym of Henri Alban, a talented writer killed at the Battle of the Meuse in 1914. This novel tells the story of a mysterious love.
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I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.
A publisher once offered me a free Penguin Classic for my time spent on a survey. Of the six books on the list, I already had five, so I took Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Estate. It was a lucky draw, because this is definitely an interesting novel. Alain-Fournier, whose real name was Henri Alban, was born in France in 1886. His parents were teachers, and he received a fine education. The Lost Estate was published in 1912. Unfortunately, he was killed on the Meuse in 1914. A second novel was published posthumously.
François Seurel is a student at his parents’ school when Augustin Meaulnes, a tall, handsome boy arrives. The two form an instant bond. A few days after his arrival, Augustin tries a practical joke which goes awry, and he is lost far from school. He stumbles onto an estate in the midst of preparations for a wedding and is welcomed as a guest and given a costume. Augustin glimpses a beautiful young girl and immediately falls in love. At the last minute, the wedding is canceled, and the guests disperse. Augustin’s horse and cart have disappeared, so he accepts a ride back to school and returns after three days away. At first, reticent about his adventures, he eventually shares all the details with his friend, including a plan to return to the chateau and find the beautiful maiden.
At first glance, this seems to be a “Boy meets girl, loses girl, and reunites with girl” story; however, this is only the beginning of the tale. The Lost estate feels like some sort of dream or hallucination, but it is all too real.
An informative Introduction by the acclaimed New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, warns the reader of “roller coaster turns of the narration, at what Dr. Johnson might have called the improbability of the incidents and the extremity of the experiences” (ix). He is right about that. I found myself scratching my head on more than many occasions. But the prose is so detailed and so visual, that, as Gopnik writes, “Once read, [The Lost Estate] is forever after seen” (x). The twists and turns of plot are a small price to pay for 223 pages of magical, lyrical prose.
Augustin Meaulnes is a wonderful character, a little bit of Holden Caulfield in his rebelliousness, and a little bit of the dare-devil Phineas from Knowles’ A Separate Peace, while François neatly fills the role of Gene from the same novel. Lots of other interesting characters populate the story as well. Frantz, brother of Yvonne, the beautiful maiden, suffers from “extravagant fantasies.” François refers to his mother as “Millie,” and a mysterious gypsy arrives to complicate Augustin’s plans to find Yvonne.
Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Estate is more than interesting -- I was so absorbed I read it in a little more than two afternoons. This is not to say it was an easy read. There are lots of passages which require savoring. I was drawn into this story, as if I became bathed in the light of an impressionist painting. 5 stars
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