Impossible Time

On the French Catcher in the Rye, cinematic memory, and cave diaries



For his 2007 translation of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Robin Buss chooses to render the title as The Lost Estate, followed by Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses. However, since reading it, I refer to it solely as Le Grand Meaulnes, because Buss’s note on the translation describes the French title as nearly untranslatable: “There are, in fact, more titles of this book in English than there are translations of it”! (Even the author’s name is not consistently “translated.” A pseudonym — he was born Henri-Alban Fournier — it appears on some editions as “Henri Alain-Fournier” and on others simply as “Alain-Fournier.”)

The novel, considered a coming-of-age classic in France on par with our The Catcher in the Rye, tells the story of Augustin Meaulnes, known as grand at school for both his height and his charisma, a dashing boy who escapes one day on an adventure. It’s a few days before Christmas, and one of his classmates has been chosen for the important task of picking up the schoolmaster’s parents at a nearby train station. In a fit of competitive jealousy, Meaulnes steals a horse and carriage and races off to beat him to the station, but he takes a wrong turn and gets lost. He stops to sleep and the horse runs away. Eventually, cold and exhausted, he stumbles upon a secluded estate where some kind of celebration — “a strange fête” — is taking place: There are children in costume, dancing, a great feast. (You can picture it, can’t you? Stone walls? Fairy lights in the trees?) It’s a wedding, and Meaulnes crashes it. He is assumed to be a guest, and when everyone leaves at the end of the weekend, he catches a ride back in the direction of his town. By the time he returns he has been missing several days and, when the horse turned up with an empty trap, feared dead.

In a narrative move I always associate with The Time Machine, this is all related second-hand, in the first person but not by Meaulnes directly — by his friend and confidant François, the schoolmaster’s son. (François is younger and smaller than Meaulnes, and seems to take up less space than Meaulnes even in his own life.) Meaulnes has become obsessed with the estate, and an angelically beautiful girl he met there, and François takes on the obsession by proxy; together they hatch a plan, staying up late and drafting secret maps, to find a way back.

You don’t need to read the novel to grasp the metaphor — the lost estate is youth, and you can probably guess that Meaulnes never finds his way back there, or that when he does, it’s not the same. Naked symbolism notwithstanding, the reader, like Meaulnes and François, is inevitably enchanted by the estate. We see it only through many filters, both intra- and extra-novel. First, there is Meaulnes’ dream-like, almost delirious experience of it through hunger and deep fatigue:

Lying there, Meaulnes even began to wonder if in spite of his strange encounters, in spite of the voices of the children in the avenue, in spite of the carriages piled up against one another, this was not, as he had first thought, merely an old estate abandoned to the loneliness of winter.

Soon after that, he thought that the wind was carrying the sound of some distant music. It was like a memory, full of charm and nostalgia.

So from the beginning, we cannot be sure what is dream, or fantasy, and what is “reality” (none of this really happened), how much has been enhanced or obscured. The fête seems to exist outside time and space, or inside perhaps, like a smaller dimension, as though Meaulnes had entered it through a wormhole. We then hear of the events on the estate through his unreliable memory, and again through François’s, recounted many years later. Then there are the further filters of the narrative devices, the translation into English, the translation across time (the novel was written more than a century ago, in 1913). These filters, however, do not dilute the place’s magic but distill it, like liquor. Just as the lost estate represents an unreachable place to Meaulnes, it has become, through my reading, my own unreachable place, completely interior and yet remote, an imaginary memory of an imaginary memory that only I can see.

The Spanish writer Javier Marías pulls off a neat trick in his novel A Heart So White — the final, climactic chapter is full of repetitions, phrases and sentences we’ve already read earlier on in the novel. In retrospect, then, it feels like those sentences come out the way they do the first time because the telling of the story, of the events that lead to the climax, is influenced by later events (the reader doesn’t know those events yet, but the narrator, the protagonist, does). In other words, later experience reshapes earlier experience. Once we know the future, the past is changed, and we lose access to whatever purer version of it might have existed.

This happens in the real world too, not only on the scale of years but in our experience of the “present.” What we think of as now is actually a construction built slightly after the fact. Stimuli reach us at different speeds (light, for example, traveling faster than sound) and then need to be processed and synced up to form a coherent gestalt. Through careful studies of optical illusions such as the flash-lag effect, the writer and neuroscientist David Eagleman has determined that humans sometimes misinterpret reality not based on faulty prediction, as previously thought, but faulty postdiction. The brain doesn’t guess where the object is going, but where it has been, in the very near past, and the guess is a miss. But through the interface of consciousness, the very near past feels like now.

I wonder, too, how much my projections about the future can affect my experience of that future when I reach it in the present, and my memory of it later, when it’s lost to the past. Prior to November 8, 2016, I had imagined a possible, seemingly unlikely but fathomable outcome, the moment of the announcement of a Donald Trump win. In this anti-fantasy, I could see myself sobbing or, alternatively, my mouth simply gaping in horror. The real version of events was not a perfect analog. I did not stay awake for an official announcement (I drugged myself to sleep). But the moment closest to what I had imagined occurred when my husband, to my left on our couch, where we were watching, with increasing panic, the results come in on his laptop, turned to me and said, in the gravest of tones: “He’s going to win.” A bottomless moment. It did not seem possible until then. (Does the horror I had imagined compound the real horror I felt? Is it additive? Perhaps, but the real horror felt like the physical maximum.)

Accidents and traumatic experiences can disrupt our sense of timing, causing a state called “slow-motion perception.” (Eagleman has studied this effect, too; he experienced it when he fell off a roof as a child. He has concluded through experiments that the effect is retrospective, something that happens in the mind’s editing room, not in real time.) The French speleologist (speleology is the study of caves) Michel Siffre has done multiple isolation experiments, living alone in caves with no access to clocks or sunlight for months at a time. In 1961, he was planning to spend 15 days studying an underground glacier and suddenly had an idea, “the idea of my life”: “I decided to live like an animal, without a watch, in the dark, without knowing the time.” He slept and woke when he pleased, with no alarm, and found that his “day” became longer than 24 hours so that his own calendar was increasingly out of sync with the calendar above ground. On the small scale too, the fabric of time felt different:

There were two tests I performed every time I called the surface. First, I took my pulse. Secondly, there was a psychological test. I had to count from 1 to 120, at the rate of one digit per second. With that test we made a great discovery: It took me five minutes to count to 120. In other words, I psychologically experienced five real minutes as though they were two.

It’s almost like Siffre had discovered a method of time travel on Earth, without needing to approach near light speeds. Could cave living, like interstellar travel, slow down the aging process? It seems unlikely since extended isolation would become a source of constant stress. (Chronic stress not only disrupts your sleep, weakens your immune system, and leads to increased risk of heart disease; it also lowers your empathy.) In 1972, Siffre descended into Midnight Cave in Texas with plans to remain for more than six months. But after two months alone, his mind is going. He writes in his cave diary: “I recall nothing from yesterday. Even events of this morning are lost. If I do not write things down immediately, I forget them.” He even contemplates killing himself and making it look like an accident. (Why? Why not just leave?)

In the first chapter of Le Grand Meaulnes, François tries to recall the day his family moved into the house where he was living when Meaulnes arrived ten years later. His mother is taking a kind of inventory of the house — “And I, meanwhile, under a large straw hat with ribbons on it, stayed back on the gravel of this unfamiliar courtyard, waiting.” Or did he?

At least, this is how I imagine our arrival today; because whenever I try to recapture the distant memory of that first evening, waiting in our courtyard at Sainte-Agathe, what I remember are, in fact, other times of waiting, and I see myself with both hands resting on the bars of the gate, anxiously looking out for someone coming down the main street.

François’s memory is not a mental recording of a single event, as we tend to think of our memories, but an amalgam of other memories (an amalgam of amalgams) — something that never happened, in a time that never was. And while he did not yet know that Meaulnes existed, it’s as though he was already waiting for his future friend to arrive and bring meaning, as though he knew even then he was only a supporting character. •

Images courtesy of via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.