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Twofold Birth and Dying

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

The Soul Enchanted. By Romain Rolland. Translated by Ben Ray Redman, Eleanor Stimson, Van Wyck Brooks, and Amalia de Alberti. New York: Henry Holt and Company. Five volumes. $10.00. Men of Good Will Volume VII: Death of a World. By Jules Romains. Translated by Gerald Hopkins. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.

There is tragic meaning in the fact that the latest section of Jules Romains’s panorama, “Men of Good Will,” should bear the same title as a volume of Rol-land’s more compact cycle. “Death of a World” fits them both. Indeed, it could serve as collective heading for the best products of contemporary French novelists, whose chief theme, from Proust to Aragon, from Martin du Gard to Guilloux, is the decline of the West.

Our days of war and rumors of war are not fifteen years removed from the epic battle fought in the press and in the streets of Paris over “pure” poetry. Now the old ideal of art for art’s sake has few outstanding supporters. Even Julien Benda, though too late to escape Rolland’s strictures, has quit his cell for the rostrum and there has made public confession that his intellectual standards of a lifetime remain valid but that they have become a selfish luxury beside the stark necessities of the era.

It may be easy for a youthful Malraux to take like a duck to the troubled waters of politics. It was not easy for a Rol-land, born in 1868, academically trained to abstract thought, early imbued with a vague internationalism. Nor could it have been easy for Rolland, the individualist, tough and skeptical and Rabelaisian as his own Burgundian countryfolk. Because “The Soul Enchanted” relates how its author straightened his labyrinthine thought to a devastating directness, it has an interest beyond the unquestionable appeal of its narrative and characters. If it concerned one man only, though he were as illustrious as Rolland, the problem might not matter. It matters because these self-probings cut deeper than the individual, into the quick of two generations —the one active between the Dreyfus Affair and Verdun, and the even unhappier one between Versailles and Berchtes-gaden and whatever waits this side of darkness.

Rolland’s road out of our miasma leads to Communism. We need not discuss here the validity of his politics, because the social novel—even the Marxist novel—has shouldered its exuberant way into literature until its most dogmatic partisans no longer appraise books according to their ideology. They ask a work to stand on literary feet before it spreads its wings of revolution.

“The Soul Enchanted” stands on firm feet. “Many a one,” the author remarks, “who is a revolutionary in politics is an imitative conservative in art.” Far from imitative, his novel is traditional, when compared with “Men of Good Will” or with Aragon’s “The Real World.” Despite its length, it achieves an old-fashioned unity by being built around one character, Annette Riviere. She dominates the work as she dominates the people around her, by the intensity of her living. While her struggles remain the classic conflict of the individual against society, as she faces ostracism rather than marry a man unworthy of her and their child, the situation is hackneyed and Annette’s own heroics border on priggishness. When she leaves her universe of ideas to earn a living in a material world, both she and the novel gain in stature. The shift from her problems of mere personal relationships to the broader adjustments to a society in transition symbolizes the change in Rolland himself between one volume and the next.

In his turn, Annette’s son, Marc, repeats the quest. He is too much the offspring of his mother and of Romain Rolland to take a ready-made solution. Whether his uncertainties rise from his passion for the Russian girl, Assia, or from his weighing of man and the state, he must find his own course. It is not the least of Annette’s renunciations that she can stand aside and watch Marc stumble painfully to a path she already knows. Eventually, he finds that his route leads to the class struggle and, before he perishes on the way, he glimpses the promised land beyond the social revolution.

“The experiences of the youthful Marc ‘struggling in the deserts of individualism’ were my own,” the author declares, admitting that he wrote these passages in bitterness. Certainly he does not spare his past. He who in 1919 drew up the famous “Declaration of the Independence of Thought,” pours contempt on such empty gestures, fit only for intellectuals who turn to words because they are impotent in action.

Rolland has not been able to shake off all his past. Though he proclaims that his sole interest in style is to make himself imderstood by the revolutionary worker, it must be rather the scorned liberal who will read his book. Frank propaganda though it is, it is not the simple preachment to appeal to the untutored. The many citations in foreign languages, the frequent allusions, might do no harm even if they were not understood. Mqre serious is the mysticism which, while giving a lyric fervor to many passages, often dulls the edge of the thought. It would be simple to draw up a list of other faults, and it would be misleading. The very errors seem to humanize the work. It is no marble perfection, but a living organism that grows and quivers and makes the reader a witness to the forces of creation.

In Romains’s version of “Death of a World,” there is a twofold dying—the physical slaughter of the coming war and the spiritual lifelessness as Europe sinks into sterility. Abbe Mionnet’s mission to the Vatican in 1913, where he attempts to fathom the anti-French influence of Merry del Val, carries on the tale of international intrigue and presages the conflict. In the second half, the characters of the book flee desperately from reality—Germaine Baader to the occult, Marie Champcenais to religion, her husband to always less wholesome loves, Quinette to new murders. Over them flutters the black flag. At first it is Baudelaire’s symbol of ennui conquering mankind, and then, as the story approaches August, 1914, the banner of anarchy.

It is difficult to judge this most recent volume of “Men of Good Will.” One cannot judge it at all without the thousands of pages that precede, nor judge it definitively without the thousands more that may well follow. The variety of setting and action, the inexhaustible invention of characters, place the assembled work among the most extraordinary of our age. At the same time, this very wealth makes for confusion. A plot takes shape, then disappears for so long that the reader has no more recollection of its details than of a news item in last year’s newspaper. A character sinks below the surface, to emerge after fifteen hundred pages, when he cannot be identified without recourse to the index. Only a speedy tightening and buttressing can prevent the structure’s collapse from sheer weight. Yet if it lacks form, it has color; if it lacks visible direction, it has movement. Hence, readers who have traveled with Romains this far will not drop out, because hope remains that “Men of Good Will” may yet attain the heights, often within view and never quite reached.


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