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À mon chevet: Le Grand Meaulnes

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
I had never made a long trip on a bicycle. This was my first one. But, some time ago, despite my bad knee, Jasmin secretly taught me how to ride. For most ordinary young men the bicycle is a lot of fun, so why should it not be the same for a poor boy like me, who not so long ago was still limping badly on my leg, soaked in sweat, by the fourth kilometer of an outing! From the height of the hills, to descend and get lost in the hollow of the countryside; to discover as if on the wing places far from the road that became distinct and flowered as you approached, to cross a village in the space of an instant and carry it all away in a single glance. Only in my dreams had I known up to this point a trip so charming, so easy. Even the hills seemed full of allure for me. Because it was, it must be said, the way through the land of Meaulnes that I was taking in now.

"Just outside the entrance of the town," Meaulnes used to tell me when he he described his village, "you will see a large wheel with paddles turned by the wind." He did not know what it was for, or maybe he pretended not to know to whet my curiosity even more.

It was only at the end of this day trip in late August that I made out, turning in the wind in the midst of an immense prairie, the large wheel that must have drawn up water for a small property nearby. Behind the poplars of the field, the first outskirts of the town were seen. As long as I followed the large detour that the road took to follow the stream, the countryside opened up... When I got to the bridge, I finally found the town's main street.

-- Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, pp. 183-84 (my translation)
This book is a classic, one of the great books of adolescence, often described as a French counterpart to A Separate Peace or something like that. I had not read it since taking AP French in high school and was happy to find that it is a remarkably easy read, with characters drawn with striking economy. It follows the son of a country school teacher and the older boy who becomes his friend, a tall boarder named Meaulnes ("le grand Meaulnes," as everyone calls him -- Big Meaulnes or Tall Meaulnes). Little details abound, like the narrator saying that he calls the teacher Monsieur Seurel just like the other boys, even though the man is his father. This passage about the joy of riding a bike, how it can open up a young person's world, made me smile. Beyond that, I won't give away anything more of the story.

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