May 21, 2014

Lit Snob Cheat Sheet: Grand Meaulnes


To impress anybody (for at least the time it takes to drink one glass of wine) at a party and sound like a very erudite French lit snob, here's more than you need to know:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo:

Set in 15th century Paris, Quasimodo is a hideous, deformed bellringer of Notre Dame. Both he (from afar) and the priest fall in love with the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda. Quasimodo wants her but does not feel worthy of her and, explaining why he won't enter Esmeralda's cell, says "The owl goes not into the nest of the lark." Esmerelda would rather die, literally, than be with the cruel priest, and when he makes her choose between himself and death, she chooses to be hanged. We learn that though the priest has the outward appearance of goodness, he is evil; and that Quasimodo, who is reviled for his ugliness, is a good person with a kind heart. Needless to say, it's way more complicated than this, with various of the main characters alternately tortured, imprisoned, in unrequited love, accused, prosecuted, persecuted, treating each other with both cruelty or small kindnesses for which they are punished, and just generally made to be unhappy. This takes about 600 pages, depending on your edition.

Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

 "L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." ("The essential is invisible to the eye.") Antoine de Saint-Exupéry did not, contrary to everybody's belief, write this book in France. Rather, he was living in NY at the time, and wrote it on Long Island. Oh. My. Gawd. It's about a small boy in a Charles Lindbergh-ish plane who travels to various planets which are existentially French-weird in a child-like way. It is considered a children's book but is largely incomprehensible even to adults, many of whom are too pretentious to admit that. It is a law that every person in France and every French-language student must own a copy of this; if found without your copy, the penalty is that you will be exiled to a small planet on which only a single flower grows.

Les Miserables, by Victor  Hugo:

This is the story of Jean Valjean, who spends 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread when starving, and then the rest of his life either disguising his identity or being hunted by the overzealous Inspector Javert. They hunt each other, save each other, and with great guilt hunt each other again, all in the shadow of the French revolution. Meanwhile, a poor young mother Fantine dies, leaving her orphaned daughter Cosette who ends up growing up with Valjean. Marius is the young man who ends up in love with Cosette but fighting in the revolution. They end up together, but pretty much everybody else dies. They're all miserable, hence the name. But, as Hugo writes, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” It's hard to imagine that somebody thought this would be great on a stage with singing and dancing, but it certainly makes a good musical.

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, (translated both as Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust:

It's a novel in 7 volumes and roughly over 3,000 pages, depending on the edition. I have fully read exactly zero of them, because the important thing to know is that in it, some character or other discovers that madeleines, the butter cookies, allow him to remember and re-discover his past. For you, the nostalgia trigger might be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or your grandmother's popovers, or -- like my brother -- Pepperidge Farm coconut layer cake. Proust is a classic, intellectual, somewhat depressive Frenchman who says in this massive tome, "Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”  

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas:

D'Artagnan is, for all accounts and purposes, the fourth musketeer and the protagonist of the story, but the actual three of the title are his friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. The Musketeers (swordsmen) belong to the Guarde Républicaine in the 17th century, whose Paris headquarters then -- and now -- is just around the corner from us. Clearly the most famous quote here is "tous pour un, un pour tous" or "all for one, and one for all."

Evidently, the small grocer's union (Syndicat de l'Epicerie Francaise, on the building above) thought the slogan was a particularly good one, too.

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas:

Three men frame the young, successful Dantès for treason as he carries a letter from Napoleon to sympathizers in Paris. On the day he would marry Mercedes, he is arrested. The kind judge is about to set him free when Dantès reveals he was to deliver the letter to the judge's father, so he instead gets sentenced to life in the Château d’If prison. There, Dantès befriends an Italian priest who tells him of a vast buried treasure on the island of Monte Cristo. When the priest dies, Dantès escapes by hiding in the burial shroud when it gets dumped in the sea and of course goes to find the treasure. Now rich, Dantès reinvents himself and exacts revenge, driving the three men who framed him into insanity, poverty, and disgrace. He also rescues a man's fiancée from an evil stepmother by giving her a pill to mimic death (very Romeo & Juliet) and hiding her on Monte Cristo. Her fiancé despairs for a month until Dantès reveals the truth, prompting one of the book's most famous quotes: "Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss." Dantès himself ends up happily married -- but not to Mercedes.

Grand Meaulnes (called The Wandered in English translatations) by Alain Fournier:

This is like the Catcher in the Rye of France in that nearly every French person remembers reading this as a young adult. Published in 1913, it doesn't seem to have made its way into the regular anglophone syllabus, which means you will sound even more erudite when you talk about it. The book is narrated by 15-year old François Seurel, whose boring life at school is shaken up by the arrival of the intriguing 17-year old Augustin Meaulnes. Meaulnes disappears for a while, finds a mysterious castle where he falls in love. After that, he spends his tortured life trying to refind the castle and recapture his love. It is a French story, so there is betrayal, destruction, death, and despair. Meaulnes does eventually refind his love, marry her, and get her pregnant, only to be obliged to leave her immediately, after which she has the child then dies. In the meantime, he is off seeking the woman who is his best friend's fiancée who he unwittingly bedded before his own marriage. It's a mess.

And here are some starter quotes from Camus, Sartre, Baudelaire, de Beauvoir, Balzac and more.

Honore de Balzac:

"A mother who is really a mother is never free." And another I find intriguing, but slightly depressing: "Equality may perhaps be a right, but no power on Earth can ever turn it into a fact."

Jean-Paul Sartre:

"If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I'm still waiting, it's all been to seduce women basically." At least he's honest. And the woman he most famously seduced...

Simone de Beauvoir:

"I am capable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept infinity."

Albert Camus:

"You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life." I find this richly ironic coming from one of the most philosophical, meaning-of-life seeking writers in history.

And one from Charles Baudelaire that I particularly like as I work through 365 cheeses:

"Nothing can be done except little by little."

THE CHEESE: Grand Meaulnes

Also called the Biquet des Meaulnes, the Grand Meaulnes is a raw goat's milk cheese from the foot of the massif mountains of Sainte Baume.

The goats roam free and gambol and graze at an altitude of 600m among the wild herbs of the scrubland -- thyme, rosemary. Not only is the milk subtly infused with these flavors, but the cheese itself is mixed with them. Sometimes, you can see the hints of the herbs trapped under the delicate white crust of the cheese. Other times, they make the reference more literal and place herbs on top.

Either way, it's a creamy, soft goat cheese with a wonderfully fresh, clean, herbaceous quality. It's lovely, easy to eat, very spreadable and soft, and one of the first cheeses to disappear off the platter. It's also a very unusual farmhouse cheese to come across, made in small batches and sold only at the rare high-end cheese store.


Why is this cheese named after one of the more famous books in France? Who knows. I could philosophize about it for 500 pages or so. Or not. But even without reading the tome, you'll sound super intelligent -- and somewhat pretentious -- when you talk about both this rare cheese and the book of the same name.


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