Wednesday, September 10, 2014


It's that time of year when most of us academics head back to school, only this year, for the first time in many moons, I am not. Instead, I was able to read an insightful NPR piece by Alex Aciman on the 1913 French novel, "Le Grand Meaulnes" ( "The Lost Estate") by Henri Alain-Fournier, killed in combat in 1914, but whose body was not found until 1991. This was Alain-Fournier's only book.

 Aciman makes an eloquent, compelling case for why this is "such an appropriate last book for someone days away from becoming a college student....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." Like the novel's young hero, "we wish we could be set off course."

I think I know what he means. 
Le grand Meaulnes
Oh, Les beaux jours!
Does one ever get over the complex cocktail of feelings at the start of a new academic year--anticipation, excitement, anxiety, dread?
Here I am not far from my seventh decade, and on fall leave from my academic post, to boot. Yet while Aciman laments hearing about the Staples back-to-school specials, I can still hear the jingle of the Robert Hall song:

"School bells ring and children sing,
It's back to Robert Hall again

Mother knows for children's clothes
It's back to Robert Hall again

You'll save more on clothes for school
Shop at Robert Hall!"

Although that song is just once click away on Google, I easily found it imbedded in my head. Maybe there never was a real Robert Hall behind that chain of clothing stores (he does sound suspiciously like Betty Crocker, another invented face of Americana), and those stores probably closed more than a half century ago. But the company that produced that musical ad deserves an A+: not only has its evocative power stuck with me, but so did the name and vision of the target product itself.

Alex Aciman's piece reminded me of my own discovery of "Le Grand Meaulnes" as an adult while auditing the wonderful class of Yale colleague, Jacques Guicharchnaud. It's to his credit that in his last year of teaching, instead of sticking to his expertise in French theatre, Guicharnaud decided to revisit his youth by teaching for the first time a course on "The Adolescent in French Fiction" that included the favorite, formative books of his youth.

I think that since I have the privilege of not having to head back to school right now, I'm going to follow the lead of Alex Aciman, his grandfather, and Jacques by rereading this classic.

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