This Week's Must Read
4:17 pm
Fri August 22, 2014

As Summer Winds Down, Wistful Dreams Of A 'Lost Estate'

Originally published on Fri August 22, 2014 6:23 pm

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 rereader, 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.

Alexander Aciman's latest book is Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's that time again. The smell of fresh pencils is in the air. School supply aisles bustle with shoppers. Visions of class assignments dance in the minds of teachers and maybe some students too. The school year is at hand and to capture that late summer feeling here's author Alexander Aciman with a reading recommendation.

ALEXANDER ACIMAN: The summer before I went to college my grandfather died. And since he was a compulsive re-reader I kept a few his books - the ones that looked the most hadered. One of them was "The Lost Estate" by Henri Alain-Fournier. It turned out to be the perfect book for someone just days away from school. The story begins with the arrival of a student in a small French town. Through the eyes of the headmasters son we meet Augustin Meaulnes and the two quickly become friends. This new boy is restless. He can't seem to settle into a routine. He loves life as a student, he's always the first in line for morning inspection but he also sneaks away from the school. One night he stumbles on a party at a hidden and possibly magical estate. He returns claiming he fell in love with a girl there. Years later in his letters to the narrator he still talks about her. I like to imagine that someone will gently take my arm, he writes, I should look around and she would be there.

ACIMAN: Without ever actually announcing it "The Lost Estate" is about feeling tied to life as a student but hoping that something more enchanting will come along and distract us. Meaulnes embodies this push and pull. He's uncompromisingly youthful, refusing to abandon this adventure from his days as a student. But at the same time he can't be tied down to school. He wants to be set off course, to live in a perpetual summer vacation. It's the same thing I always felt when summer began to wind down and staples started pushing back-to-school specials. I prepared for the inevitable but still hoped to avoid it, noticing a desire to take off at night and peer into the strange unknown estate, ready to be swept off my feet.

SIEGEL: The book is "The Lost Estate" by Henri Alain-Fournier. It was recommended by Alexander Aciman. His latest book is "Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books In 20 Tweets Or Less."

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.