For its 100th birthday, “Le Grand Meaulnes,” translated by Frank Davison as “The Lost Domain,” has been handsomely repackaged with a ribbon for a bookmark — an honor befitting a classic French novel that can haunt the reader as deeply as its seminal incident haunts the title character.
From the moment he arrives as a boarder at a village school, Augustin Meaulnes is larger than life — and not just in a figurative way. Bigger and older than the other kids, taciturn but forceful, the 18-year-old collects jealous detractors and faithful followers (above all, François Seurel, the fellow student who narrates the story). Augustin separates himself from the pack even more after borrowing a horse and cart to run a pre-Christmas errand.
Days go by, and he doesn’t return.
Finally, the missing boy turns up, disheveled and exhausted. As François listens enrapt, Augustin tells of losing his way, becoming separated from the horse and wandering around until he stumbled upon a chateau lit up against the winter sky. The place proved to be swarming with children and a few adults rigged out as Harlequins for the children’s entertainment.
The newcomer is accepted without question, allotted a room and encouraged to don a costume. Soon, he discovers the reason for his easy entry: Everyone has assembled for the marriage of the young master of the house, Frantz de Galais, who is expected to show up with his fiancee at any moment — and Augustin has been mistaken as an invited guest. His fairy-tale experience becomes even more rapturous when he falls in love with a beautiful but aloof young woman who happens to be Frantz’s sister, Yvonne.
Frantz arrives alone and in despair. To Augustin (whom he accepts as readily as the other partygoers have), Frantz explains that his fiancee has rejected him because she feels unworthy — “a dressmaker, not a princess.” The party ends abruptly, and Frantz disappears. Augustin finds his way back to school but, try as he might, can’t retrace the route to the “lost domain.”
The rest of the novel follows his and Frantz’s intersecting attempts to track down the loves of their young lives, though in Augustin’s case it’s hard to say which captivates him more, the elusive Yvonne or the ethereal world of which she is part.
Alain-Fournier was the pen name of Henri Alban Fournier, who at 28 was killed at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. A year earlier, he had published this, his only novel, inspired by his struck-by-lightning crush on a beautiful young woman encountered in Paris. Few writers have better captured the tumultuous transition from childish idylls to adult concerns. Even while having the boyish time of his life, Augustin is responding to a grown-up’s emotional urges.
In her introduction, Hermione Lee astutely compares the admiring François to Nick Carraway, the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” upon which, she writes, “Le Grand Meaulnes must surely have had an influence.” Alain-Fournier said he tried to write fiction that darted back and forth seamlessly between dream and reality, and in “The Lost Domain,” he succeeded unforgettably.
Drabelle is an editor of Book World.
THE LOST DOMAIN
Le Grand Meaulnes
Translated from the French by Frank Davison; Oxford Univ. 208 pp. $19.95