by Alain Fournier (multiple editions)
I had known for a long time that Le Grande Meaulnes was author John Fowles’ favorite book. Since he was one of my favorite authors, I half-heartedly searched for a copy of this lost French classic. But something always stopped me, until I read Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life and realized that Fournier’s tale was one of his favorites as well. I immediately bowed to the wisdom of my elders and found a good translation.
The title itself does not translate well into English. Our word "great" doesn’t really capture the subtleties of the French "grand." So, this title sometimes gets changed to The Wanderer or The Lost Domaine, which I prefer. It captures the essence of the novel’s heart, Meaulnes’ mystical journey to a bizarre masked world that he and his narrator friend can never find again.
Fournier died in World War I and never had the chance to develop into what he surely would have been—one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists. The delicate descriptions and marvelous evocations of youth have never been more real and bittersweet. This is a book that can be enjoyed for its magic by a child or for its nostalgia by an adult. Still, this is a novel of the in-between time, of adolescence, of growing from that child who wonders happily at the mysteries of the universe to the adult who must take sorrowful responsibility.
We all wish for a place like the lost domaine and a magical experience like Meaulnes has there. But these experiences can consume us until the rest of life seems dry and flat, just as it does for the French wanderer and his friends. Never have the transitions and compromises of life seemed more painful than when Fournier’s fragile characters face them. And this is the central message of the text, that growing up is painful and even the most rebellious of us must bow to the inevitable.
Eric D. Lehman is an English professor at the University of Bridgeport.