For a certain generation of Americans, J. D Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" was the quintessential youthful "coming of age" novel. For the French, perhaps of a slightly earlier generation, this novel is. Other reviewers came by this book via John Fowles. I did via Simone de Beauvoir, specifically in the first volume of her autobiography, "Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter," where it is repeatedly referenced. Of one of her first boy friends she says that "the novel that Jacques loved above all others... Le Grand Meaulnes." Concerning another friend, Zaza, de Beauvoir says: "... she had read Le Grand Meaulnes three times over: she had never been moved so much by any other novel."
This is the only novel of Alain-Fournier, who was killed in action in September, 1914, so early in the war that it pre-dated the trench system, which is the enduring image of the First World War. His novel is set in the fin-de-siecle countryside, in a region fittingly called today "Centre", yes, the very heartland of France, near George Sand's "The Berry." The novel is told through the eyes of the youthful Francois Seurel. The person who is called "Le Grand Meaulnes" arrives at Francois's father's small schoolhouse to become a boarder. Meaulnes is slightly older, tall, and has had a couple experiences in the world, earning him the "Grand" moniker, and he serves as a "mentor" to others, particularly Francois. He is the "leader of the pack." A central scene involves a grand "fete," a party at a mysterious chateau. Much of the novel involves efforts by Meaulnes, and others, to find, and return to this idyllic setting, hence the theme of a sense of youthful innocence and loss. There are adults in the novel, but mainly they serve only as a backdrop for the youthful action. Alain-Fournier's style resembles an impressionistic painting, like the one of Sisley which adorns a cover to one of the editions--it is always a bit out of focus, teasing the reader with light and shadows of the events described. The central themes involve first loves, youthful commitments, and betrayals, and the sorrow, disappointments and losses that are inevitable as one attains adulthood.
I tried hard to make allowances for over a hundred years of difference with the present, and even a different culture and standards, but I could only give the novel a 4-star rating despite its "classic" status, and even though it is an essential read for anyone wanting to understand the French culture. Youthful infatuations, well, yes, I've had a few, but this novel carried them to an unrealistic third power. In addition, there are too many coincidences and unlikely chance encounters. Finally, without truly issuing a "spoiler," the actions of Meaulnes towards the end of the novel seem to overcome any plausible or even implausible motivation, and seem difficult for any French youth to admire and emulate.
John Ardagh has written an excellent book, with numerous pictures of the settings, entitled "Writer's France," which is also available through Amazon. Ardagh investigated the settings of Alain-Fournier's youth, including his birthplace at La Chapelle-d'Angillon, on the "edge of the melancholy forest and lagoons of the Sologne" as well as the school scenes set in Epineuil, near Sand's Nohant. Ardagh says that Alain-Fournier used parts of each area as background for his novel. Also included in this book are pictures of a couple chateaux that were used as models for the one in the book and there is even a picture of the modest schoolhouse, still extant, even with the ivy.
Finally, what of the actual fate of Alain-Fournier? Yes, he was killed in action in September, 1914, but what were the circumstances? Such is the fame of the author in French society that Alain Denizot undertook an extensive examination of these events -- and it was from the era of not only trench-less warfare, but when French soldiers would wear red pants into battle. He published his findings in "L'Enigme Alain-Fournier" which at present is only available through Amazon.fr. In the next to last paragraph of the book he said: "Presently with the handshake of Mitterrand and Kohl at Douaumont, the reconciliation is incompatible with the episode in the woods of St. Remy." Basically Denizot was saying that in the era of French-German reconciliation, you don't want to know, and for those who have idolized this novel, and the author, the same is also almost certainly true.