The name of Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was familiar to me, but it wasn’t until I read a piece by E.M. Forster, written on Rolland’s death (‘Romain Rolland and the Hero’, in Two Cheers for Democracy), that I became intrigued to read him. Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 on the strength of Jean-Christophe, a roman-fleuve in ten volumes, the committee citing ‘the lofty idealism of his literary production and … the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings.’
It’s not that I dislike lofty idealism of literary production exactly, but it’s rarely the first thing that attracts me to a book. Forster, though, made it sound good, recalling the excitement with which friends would ask one another if they’d read the latest volume, and stressing the musical aspect.
There is a scene in the opening volume … where the hero, still a baby, touches the piano for the first time, and experiments in the marriage of sounds. I have never come across a scene like it in literature, for it is not merely poetic, not merely good child psychology: it seems to take us inside a special chamber of the human spirit, and make us co-creators.
Given that Forster is never one to overstate anything, these are strong words indeed, and so I dug out (well, the staff of the University Library dug out) the first couple of volumes, Dawn (L’Aube) and Morning (Le Matin), in the hundred-year-old translation by Gilbert Cannan that no one has yet attempted to improve upon. It shows its age: Cannan anglicises the hero’s name as ‘John Christopher’, which would never be done these days. (I’ll stick to Jean-Christophe, if you don’t mind.)
Cannan’s introduction made me wonder whether it was too late to turn back:
The first volume … carries John Christopher from the moment of his birth to the day when, after his first encounter with Woman, at the age of fifteen, he falls back upon a Puritan creed.
This sounds like precisely the kind of posing small-minded macho conservative moralism I despise, and Forster isn’t blind to that aspect, suggesting that Rolland’s ‘lifelong insistence on the Hero … has its distant parallel in the sinister cult which has produced Hitler.’ That said, there’s some of that in Montherlant, whose writing I love, and how much of a male chauvinist can a newborn baby really be? I decided to power through.
It didn’t take long for me to see what Forster was on about. Dawn opens with Jean-Christophe, a few hours old, being nursed by his mother while his paternal grandfather waits nervously for J-C’s profligate father to come home. In the scenes that follow, Jean-Christophe grows gradually, almost imperceptibly, learning to play. The reader shares his joy.
He was also a magician. He walked with great strides through the fields, looking at the sky and waving his arms. He commanded the clouds. He wished them to go to the right, but they went to the left. Then he would abuse them, and repeat his command. He would watch them out of the corner of his eye, and his heart would beat as he looked to see if there were not at least a little one which would obey him. But they went on calmly moving to the left. Then he would stamp his foot, and threaten them with his stick, and angrily order them to go to the left; and this time, in truth, they obeyed him. He was happy and proud of his power.
(Perhaps there are hints of fascism here too.)
Rolland is not a sentimentalist. He ends the first chapter with a warning that his ‘little salamander’ will be ‘brought to reason’ by life. The dawn of the book’s title doubtless relates to the dawn of Jean-Christophe’s life, but also to the several dawnings on him of life’s brutalities. These start at an early age, the realisations of his family’s social inferiority and of the merciless cruelty of others, both at school and at his mother’s place of work. (There are scenes in both Dawn and Morning that strongly recall Pip’s childhood humiliations in Great Expectations, which I like to imagine Rolland cherished, though it’s probably my sick fancy.)
Rolland notes almost boastfully that Jean-Christophe never has a day’s illness, and I thought: Heroism, tick. Heroes can be so boring. But while he has an iron constitution, Jean-Christophe is an intense boy. Sent back to school against his will following an episode of bullying, he attempts to strangle himself. He is troubled by various spectres: the spectres of a boy born to his parents before him and now dead, whose recycled name he has inherited, and of any number of mysterious things that scare him. He invariably suffers in silence, trying to be grown up, not knowing how to communicate his fear to his parents. The loneliness of childhood is brilliantly depicted.
The members of Jean-Christophe’s family embody radically different approaches to life (which is convenient). His musicality is nurtured by his grandfather, who notates Jean-Christophe’s various hums and turns them into piano pieces for him to play; his father encourages his pianism with thoughts of exploitation; his uncle Theodore cares only for the mercantile, and favours Jean-Christophe’s younger brother Rodolphe; but his uncle Gottfried becomes a vital influence: he dismisses Jean-Christophe’s early compositions as ugly, not out of cruelty but because he sees only the beauty of nature, which Jean-Christophe comes to see too.
Jean-Christophe had often heard these sounds of the night, and he loved them. But never had he heard them as he heard them now. It was true: what need was there to sing? … His heart was full of tenderness and sorrow. He was fain to embrace the meadows, the river, the sky, the clear stars.
Jean-Christophe’s unhappiness deepens in Morning: his patron, the Grand Duke, is a philistine, and the conversation at home leaves him intellectually stifled. If you’re a hero, you’ve got to be a bit miserable. Unexpectedly, he falls in love with a boy, Otto (Rolland’s quite explicit that it’s love), but the fact that J-C’s never had so much as a friend before means he goes somewhat overboard in his correspondence.
It is three days now since I heard a word fall from your lips. I tremble. Would you forget me? My blood freezes at the thought … Yes, doubtless … The other day only I saw your coldness towards me. You love me no longer! You are thinking of leaving me! .. Listen! If you forget me, if you ever betray me, I will kill you like a dog!
Out of context this reads as highly comical, but surrounded by the details of their torrid relationship it’s perfectly convincing, if tiresome. I suppose adolescence is boring, though I don’t think I ever wrote anything that overwrought when I was in love, or if I did then I had the decency to keep it to myself. The relationship is cruelly curtailed when Jean-Christophe’s brother Ernest discovers the correspondence, calls J-C a major-league fag (you have to read between the lines), and that’s that. The young can be very puritanical, can’t they.
Before the end, though, comes Woman. To be specific, Minna, a girl the same age as Jean-Christophe whom he is teaching to play the piano. To begin with he thinks he’s got the hots for her mother, but his affections change subtly, and she finds she feels the same way. This relationship is rather more engrossing than the one with Otto, partly because, nineteenth-century morality being what it is, something might actually end up happening. I particularly liked Rolland’s observation of the selfishness of love, of how when you’ve got only one person on your mind everyone else can fuck off. (I’m paraphrasing.)
To tell the truth, they were kind only by fits and starts … Jean-Christophe, who was consumed with love for all humanity, and would turn aside so as not to crush an insect, was entirely indifferent to his own family. By a strange reaction he was colder and more curt with them the more affectionate he was to all other creatures; he hardly gave thought to them; he spoke abruptly to them, and found no interest in seeing them. Both in Jean-Christophe and Minna their kindness was only a surfeit of tenderness which overflowed at intervals to the benefit of the first comer. Except for these overflowings they were more egoistic than ever, for their minds were filled only with the one thought, and everything was brought back to that.
Excuse my quoting at length, but though I didn’t love it wholly I thought there were parts of it that were very good indeed. I won’t go into detail about what happens with Minna, but you already know about his Puritan creed, yawn.
Getting back to Forster: ‘As the series proceeded, our excitement slackened,’ he writes, and he seems to suggest that the award of the Nobel Prize was as much for Rolland’s having completed his proposed ten volumes as for the volumes themselves, which fall off in quality when Jean-Christophe reaches Paris at around the halfway point. Forster doesn’t think Rolland’s work will survive as Proust’s (in which respect, well predicted), but he singles out Rolland’s internationalism for praise. That’s something I can certainly get behind, and if I end up not returning to Rolland I hope it will be because I have other authors from other countries demanding my time, and not because of indifference.
I’m sorry this has been so long.
Tags: Adolescence, Charles Dickens, Childhood, Dawn, E.M. Forster, France, Gilbert Cannan, Great Expectations, Heroism, Jean-Christophe, John Christopher, L'Aube, Le Matin, Love, Morning, Nobel Prize for Literature, Romain Rolland