Born in the rural village of La Chapelle-d'Angillon, Cher, where his father was a schoolteacher, Alain-Fournier was educated at the local school and subsequently in Paris. After his military service (1907–09) he became a journalist, writing literary columns. He was killed in action in 1914, at the first Battle of the Marne.
Alain-Fournier completed just one novel in his short lifetime: Le Grand Meaulnes (1913; translated as The Lost Domain, 1959). Based in part on the author's own experience, it centres on the young hero's search for a beautiful girl he met by chance at a party in a dilapidated country house. The pervading atmosphere is one of nostalgia, powerfully evoked in Alain-Fournier's prose, as Meaulnes yearns for his lost world of enchantment. The setting of the novel, the familiar countryside of Alain-Fournier's childhood, is also realistically and vividly depicted.
At his untimely death in 1914 Alain-Fournier left manuscripts of poetry and short stories, collected in Miracles (1924); a second unfinished novel, Colombe Blanchet; and letters to his close friend and future brother-in-law, published posthumously as Correspondance avec Jacques Rivière (1948).