The Great Gatsby may have been inspired by it, and Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road, carried a copy of it on his travels. But few Americans have heard of “the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature.” That’s what the British novelist John Fowles called Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, a revered French classic published in the fall of 1913. This centenary edition of the short book is timed to the anniversary of the author’s death barely a year later: Henri-Alban Fournier (his real name) was killed during the early months of World War I, just before he turned 28.
A story of restless youthful questing, The Lost Domain (the translator wisely gave up on a literal rendition of the title) casts a fairy-tale spell—without feeling merely old-fashioned. The haunting account of two teenage companions, one a bold wanderer at 17 and the other a little younger and a lot warier, is steeped in Alain-Fournier’s long-gone rural past. Yet the protracted adolescent limbo it evokes is familiar.
Romantic obsessions, infantile delusions, bullying peers, bewildered adults, elusive paths through dark woods: Alain-Fournier, who said he aspired to create a “perpetual to-and-fro between dream and reality,” doesn’t stint on drama as the boys traverse the disorienting boundaries between childhood and maturity. The novel isn’t The Catcher in the Rye, but the journey—with surreal twists and vivid details worthy of a high-definition video game—is mesmerizing.