I was at the checkout at Sprouts grocery store the other day, buying wine, chocolate, and cheese as nibbles for my book club. The cashier asked what all the cheese was for, and when I mentioned the book club, she became suddenly animated and asked me what we were reading. “The Lost Estate,” I replied, wondering how I was going to answer what would almost certainly be the next question. The cashier immediately obliged: “Oh neat! What’s it about?”
What was it about? I pondered for a moment. Well, it’s a story about schoolboys and teenage rebellion and young love and searching for your heart’s desire. But don’t read it for the plot, I thought, or you’ll get frustrated by the dream-like quality of the storytelling and strange passage of time. It’s a story about growing up. But don’t read it as a typical bildungsroman, because you won’t find all of the traditional archetypes. It’s a story about small-town life in the French countryside. But don’t read it for the cultural and geographical details, because there’s too much surrealism.
But what it’s really, truly about is a defining truth of adolescence, one that for many people is itself the marker of the transition to adulthood: coming to terms with lost dreams. What I told the cashier was, “It’s about the futility of trying to recapture the lost dreams of youth.” She looked confused and a little weirded out.
In the story, a restless young man runs away from his boarding school and stumbles across a beautiful, almost magical estate deep in the forest. It’s a place of costumes, light, dancing, and feasting. He stays for nearly three days of celebration, which include boat rides and horse races. It is a lavish affair, but what he comes to realize later is that it’s put on by a family on the brink of financial ruin. The reader identifies small details in the narrative that reveal that all is not well: panes are missing from the windows, most of the boats are borrowed, and the guests don’t seem to know much about the family. The youth, Augustin Meaulnes, is blind to these realities, seeing only the glamorous magic of the party. When he leaves the estate and returns to school, he is unable to find it again, and it becomes an idealized object of fantasy over which he persistently obsesses (ostensibly over a girl, but in actuality, over the whole experience). Many years later, he tries to return to the estate, only to be bitterly disappointed to find most of it gone and his dreams in a crumbling ruin.
It’s a sad parable of something that most of us experience. Consider the way you experienced Christmas when you were a child. There was something almost magical about the stockings, the fireplace, the tree, the ornaments, the candles, the food, and especially those all-important presents. Now think about Christmas as an adult–it’s a time of stress and hassle, and sometimes even debt. Some parts of the holidays are enjoyable, but not in the same luminously surreal way. That’s why it’s so enjoyable to be around children at Christmastime: we are observing the pure wonder and delight of our own youth.
And then there are the castles we build in our minds as children, our ideals of what the future will be like. We start building our dreams of our future families as soon as we begin to play with dolls. We start building our dreams of our future vocation from the first day of kindergarten when the teacher asks us what we want to be when we grow up. We visit these magical estates so frequently in our minds that they take on a life of their own. When we actually reach them as adults, we find that the reality is vastly different from the fantasy. Marriage involves sacrifice, dirty socks on the floor, and bills to pay. Jobs and parenting involve long stretches of mundane punctuated by moments of intense frustration.
There’s a kind of grief we experience when we confront the realization that our magical estates are lost. Some people continue to build more estates, convinced that the dream is still out there. Others sink into cynicism, ennui, or depression. But these are not the only options. Grieving lost estates is a natural part of growing up, but it needn’t be the end of the story. We can discover purpose and meaning in the most ordinary aspects of everyday life.
I’m not sure that the author of The Lost Estate, Henri-Alain Fournier, was ever able to make it to the other side, to come to terms with his lost dreams and see how beautiful ordinary life can be. He wrote only this one, semi-autobiographical novel before he tragically died in the trenches in World War I. However, he left with a striking allegory of growing up and and an important message: we must not lose ourselves so thoroughly in the castles of our minds that we neglect the beautiful ordinary of the reality that is before us.