The novel is narrated by François Seurel, son of a village schoolmaster in a small village in the Sologne, a region of pools and marshes in north-central France. François (age 15) is captivated by the charismatic new schoolboy Augustin Meaulnes (17 years old), who is known as “the great Meaulnes" not only for his large stature, but also the daring feats he pulls off. He may be called an embodiment of the romantic ideal. On a solitary excursion through the countryside, Meaulnes looses his way and stumbles upon a mysterious country estate where a strange wedding celebration is underway. There Meaulnes also chances to meet a young woman of otherworldly beauty, Yvonne de Galais, for whom he conceives a transcendent love. But abruptly, the party breaks up and Meaulnes has to return to the village, where he takes François in his confidence.
To his dismay, Meaulnes discovers that he cannot retrace the route to the country estate, which has become "lost," an unobtainable romantic ideal, and a symbol of perfect happiness on the borderline of childhood and adulthood. He keeps hopelessly trying with the help of François, and it is the narrator who a few years later succeeds in locating the castle after Meaulnes has already left the village - it is much closer than they thought possible. Meaulnes is called back, he revisits the estate and even marries Yvonne - but the perfect happiness he believed to find has evaporated due to the experiences he himself has had in the meantime.
The book is full of a haunting atmosphere, the sounds and colors of the countryside and the different seasons. It is also permeated by a feeling of irrevocable loss: the loss of the pure dreams of charmed youth to cruel experience, the loss of idealized love to the sordid reality of the flesh, and the realization of the evanescence of the world around us - and even our memories of that world.
Le Grand Meaulnes was one of the favorite books of the British author John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman) and he wrote The Magus under its influence. Another author who writes in the same vein of the loss of magic worlds is the today so popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, etc.). But Alain-Fournier is purer than these post-modern authors, he writes exactly in the adolescent spirit of the story, honest and without any cynicism. Le Grand Meaulnes is a most beautiful book that deserves to better known. It may be impossible to find our dreams, but we must keep trying.
I read Le Grand Meaulnes in the English translation by Robin Buss in Penguin Books. Here is the original French, and here a French audio version. Website on the novel.