In the 1960s there was a junk shop in North London that made you shiver, its two front windows filled with guns and knives. Inside were knock-off watches and electrical goods of all descriptions, manky fur coats and pearl necklaces scattered among the heavy wardrobes and piled-up chairs. The proprietor, Mr Caesar, was usually at his counter, perhaps arranging a selection of rings or cigarette boxes. Slipping past him, I’d go into the back room where all the best items were kept, R & B vinyl albums ‘imported’ from the States and books, heaps of musty old books piled up in gaping suitcases. But one afternoon, as if it had been waiting for me, I found a brand-new Penguin with two titles: Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Domain). I’d never heard of the author but the blurb on the back claimed that this was ‘one of the greatest French novels of the century – the only novel of a brilliant young man who was killed in action in 1914 at the age of 27’.
The note on the first page told me that the author, Alain-Fournier, was christened Henri-Alban Fournier. (I found out later that he adopted his pen-name in 1905 when he began to work as a journalist and wanted to avoid being confused with a racing driver.) As for his eponymous protagonist, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce his name. Should it sound like the English word ‘meal’, or ‘moan’?
Behind me, an argument had broken out, then Mr Caesar began to shout at someone in Italian. I had only recently arrived in London from the sticks and was still a teenager though, in many ways, even younger than my years. I skimmed the first few pages.
The narrator, François Seurel, timid, lonely and a compulsive bookworm, is 15 and at school in the village of Sainte-Agathe, where his father teaches the upper and lower forms and his mother looks after the youngest boys. A new boarder arrives, Augustin Meaulnes, almost too old for school at 17 and tall. Straightaway he goes up to the attic,
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in