What the Swedes Read: Romain Rolland

Daniel Handler
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  • LAUREATE: Romain Rolland (France, 1915)
  • BOOK READ: Jean-Christophe, translated by Gilbert Cannan

This great brick of a book—somewhere in the 1,500-page range, if you pick up the three-books-stuffed-into-one Modern Library edition—is the sort of book that makes people say that people don’t write this sort of book anymore. It’s not generally said nostalgically. More than once, when spotting me lugging Jean-Christophe around, friends said, “What is that?” like it was a giant bug on my shoulder. When I explained, “It’s a ten-volume novel about a man modeled after Beethoven, written by the 1915 winner of the Nobel Prize,” they’d take it from me and flip through it for a second. Then, returning it, they’d say, “They don’t write books like that anymore,” and although they never added, “thank god,” it was clearly implied. Nowadays people don’t want to sit and visit with the same characters, wrestling with the same themes, over and over again, for a very long time. They’re busy watching all five seasons of The Wire. (They don’t make shows like that anymore.)

It’s true that Jean-Christophe contains several characteristics one might call old-fashioned. The book’s second paragraph—if you don’t include the first chapter’s epigram in untranslated Italian—announces the birth of a baby; I stopped there and checked the back of the book, where I found the soul entering the afterlife. Between the cradle and the grave, the book gives us not only the life of a man but the lives of people who know him, and the lives of a few of the people who know people who know him. This means that a section ends with “But as it turned out, she began to confide in him that night, and told him all her life from her childhood on,” and the next begins “A sad childhood!” and goes from there.

But Jean-Christophe is no Dickensian sprawling tapestry of humanity, nor a multigenerational saga in which key historical events are spliced into the proceedings, nor is it one of those novels where people sit around debating the meaning of art. The novel is flavored with all of these scenarios, but while it offers life’s banquet, it’s a little difficult to see which dishes are the speciality of the house. The title character is a composer—maybe you guessed that after the Beethoven thing—but Rolland is so busy observing his hero’s life and recording his thoughts that he seems to forget the composing thing, and shoehorns it in at the last minute:

Like the Apostle Paul,—in Raphael’s picture,—silent and dreaming, leaning on his sword, he is beyond exasperation, and has no thought of fighting: he dreams, and forges his dreams into form.

During this period of his life he mostly wrote piano and chamber music.

This heroic notion of the Artist at Work is yet another novelistic model that Rolland tries on from time to time—there are quite a few pages dedicated to what is precisely wrong with the work of some specific and supposedly fictional critics—but another one that fails to endure over the course of so many pages. Jean-Christophe is an everyman for a few chapters, then a great misunderstood artist, then a tragic figure, then an everyman again, someone unjustly ignored and then a celebrity, someone loved and then lonely, drawn to people who are deeply important and then dropped for hundreds of pages, in times that are very crucial but worth ignoring if you’d rather concentrate on another essay by another critic that gets it very wrong. (Got some bad write-ups, did we, Romain?) The language, accordingly but frustratingly, also moves all over the place, veering from observations that feel very right—Jean-Christophe sits at a family dinner listening to “the sound of the jaws of these people who he despised and pitied, and yet loved in spite of everything”—to sentences like “The wind of death had blown away the last mists of pessimism, the gray of the Stoic soul, and the phantasmagoria of the mystic chiaroscura,” which feel very, very wrong. Late in the book, I hit this:






It was flattering, of course, to have this enormous effort dedicated to me (among others), but it also felt like Rolland didn’t know quite what he was writing about until the 1,200-page mark. A certain aimlessness may in fact be the point:

One night he was alone in his room, with his elbow on his desk under the light of a candle. His back was turned to the window. He was not working. He had not been able to work for weeks. Everything was twisting and turning in his head. He had brought everything under scrutiny at once: religions, morals, art, the whole of life. And in the general dissolution of his thoughts was no method, no order.

Rolland himself thought Jean-Christophe’s methodology required a new term: he called it a roman-fleuve, or “river-novel,” which became a literary term for any sequence of novels tied together enough to be called one big work. (Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is the crème de la crème of the roman-fleuve, and say that six times fast.) Jean-Christophe was written and published over a period of eight years, and perhaps if I’d read each volume separately, with other books in between, the ripples and eddies of this very long tale would have had their intended effect. The Nobel folk cited Rolland for “the lofty idealism of his literary production,” and indeed Rolland had big ideas for his big ideas. He worked extensively in theater, writing plays that he felt were more “democratic” than the light comedies and other artsy trifles he saw around him. Jean-Christophe was similarly intended to reach everybody, and there is, admittedly, something for everyone in this long book: romance and fistfights, art and leisure, melodrama and manifestos, tragic outcomes and happy endings, all ebbing and flowing over the course of an entire life, which is appropriate—who has not had all those things in their lives?—if not always engaging. At a time when most literature seems to be chasing one niche or another, a book trying to capture everybody by capturing everything is admirable. But it’s hard not to think that if he had really wanted a book that was universally appealing—as questionable as that goal might be—he might have made it shorter. A number of people will find 1,500 pages a little off-putting. Like, a great number of people. A book for everybody, that nobody wants to read: they sure don’t write that kind of book anymore. 

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