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by Bamber Gascoigne

Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958)


French novelist, dramatist and winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize for Literature. Martin du Gard was originally trained as an archivist and expert in old handwriting. His literary fame rests on his eight-part novel The World of the Thibaults, which continued the tradition of Stendhal and Tolstoy in its wide historical scope. Martin du Gard often juxtaposed two brothers, and studied through their conflicting views social, philosophical and religious problems.

"One can love the people and not be able to stand their ongoing company. One can love the populace and not like to live with the individuals who compose it. Their ways of being and of thinking, their ways of being happy or unhappy, their desires, their welfare, their joys, their emotions, their sensitivity, their reactions are not my own; and I am a foreigner among them. My climate is not theirs. Whenever circumstances have forced me into contact with them, I have suffered from it." (from Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, 1941)

Roger Martin du Gard was born in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The "du Gard" had been added to the surname to separate the family from other brances of the large family. His father, Paul Martin du Gard, was a prosperous lawyer, whose office situated on the ground floor of their house.  Madeleine Wimy, his mother, came from a family of stockbrokers. She forced her son to learn the catechism by heart. "I feared God and did not love him . . . God would not exist for me," he recalled his childhood. (Martin du Gard and Maumort: The Nobel Laureate and His Unfinished Creation by Benjamin Franklin Martin, 2017)  However, at the Ecole Fénelon, a private Catholic academy, Martin du Gard came to admire Abbé Marcel Hébert, a modernist educator, who tried to unite theology and science. These efforts, especially those of Alfred Loisy expressed in L'Evangile et L'Eglise (1903),  were condemned by Pope Pius X as lies and heresy. Abbé Hébert was dismissed as director of the school because of his modernist attitude. When he died in 1916, Martin du Gard wrote a memorial essay about the "exemplary life" of his  former teacher.

At the age of seventeen Martin du Gard read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, which had been given to him by Abbé Hébert and later inspired him in the Thibault saga. Also the naturalism of Emile Zola made a deep impression on him. When he failed at the Sorbonne in his examinations,  Martin du Gard changed to the École des Chartres in Paris. During the stay, he performed his military service in Rouen.

After receiving his diploma as a paleographer-archivist, Martin du Gard married Hèléne Foucault, the daughter of a barrister, and settled in Paris. Hélène encouraged her husband's writing, but she was passionate about religion and his anticlerical opinions distressed her deeply. Moreover, he was a friend of André Gide and shared some of his sexual interests. ('Martin du Gard, Roger' by Christopher Robinson, in Who's who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II, edited by Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, pp. 300-301, 2001) The marriage failed; their  only child, Christiane, born in 1907, became the battleground for the parents. To the shock of her family, Christiane married in 1929 his father's close friend, Marcel de Coppet, a colonial official, who was a quarter of a century older than she.

Devenir! (1909), which Martin du Gard's published at his own expense, was a story about a man who fails as an author. The work was ignored both by the public and the critics. Earlier Martin du Gard had abandoned his first novel, Une vie de saint, which gives the work self-confessional background. His breakthrough came with the novel Jean Barois (1913),  fictional portrait of the Dreyfuss scandal, on which he had worked for three years. The book was published by Nouvelle Revue Française on the recommendation of his friend André Gide, whose La Porte êtroite and Les Caves du Vatican had already appeared in the review.

Using then largely experimental technique of juxtaposing dialogue and historical documentation, Martin du Gard described the mental struggle of reason and Roman Catholic faith. The title character Jean Barois is tormented by doubts. From his youthful rebellion against religious beliefs Barois moves toward religion in his old age, and dies his spirit broken. Against his development Martin du Gard sets Marc-Elie Luce, another major protagonist, who maintains his liberated stance to the end. Barois' friend, the broad-minded Abbé Schertz, was modelled after Abbé Hébert. "Human beliefs, like everything else," he says, "are subject to the laws of evolution; they steadily progress from the less good to the better. So obviously it's essential that religion should adjust itself to the modern mind." ('Believing, Belonging, and Adapting: The Case of Religious Modernism' by Ernestine van der Wall, in Orthodoxy, Liberalism, and Adaptation, edited by Bob Becking, 2011, p. 100)

In the dark and dramatic play Un taciturne (1931), staged at the Louis Jouvet Theatre, Martin du Gard dealt with homosexual themes.  Referring to the suicide of the main character, Martin du Gard argued it was not a "concession" to conventional morality, but determined by the design of the play. (Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust by Michael Lucey, 2006, p. 186) The play is generally considered to have been inspired by the marriage of his daughter and Marcel de Coppet. While working on Le Lieutenant-colonel de Maumort, Martin du Gard compiled a dossier in which he argued that homosexuality is a natural condition. However, although the atmosphere of Paris was relatively tolerant, he instructed Gide not to confess his sexual orientation. Gide was subject in his essays Notes sur André Gide (1951), based on his journals. Martin du Gard's correspondence with André Gide was published in 1968.

Martin du Gard's peasant farce, Le Testament du père Leleu (1914) was performed at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. During World War I Martin du Gard served in the French Army in a motor transport division on the western front. After the war he worked briefly at a theater. Tired of the literary life of Paris, Martin du Gard withdrew to Le Tertre, a Norman country estate at Bellême. There he wrote his masterpiece, Les Thibault, published between 1922 and 1940.

Noteworthy, before the Nobel Prize, his work failed to generate any significant debate. Martin du Gard himself declined to discuss his own political or philosophical views and did not offer concrete solutions on how peace and justice he advocated could be established in the world. Of the Spanish Civil war he said: "I am hard as steel for neutrality. My principle: anything, rather than war! Anything, anything! Even fascism in Spain! . . . even fascism in France! . . . Anything: Hitler, rather than war!" (The Obstructed Path: French Social Thought in the Years of Desperation 1930-1960 by H. Stuart Hughes, 1968, pp. 118-119) The ceremony at which he received the Nobel prize, embarrassed him.

The novels follow two bourgeois families, one Catholic and the other Protestant, and depict the degeneration of society prior WW I. The principal characters are Jacques Thibaut, a socialist revolutionary, and his brother Antoine, a Cartesian doctor who seeks change through evolution. Jacques and Antoine are opposing personalities – when one is restless the other is calm. The first two volumes of the series focus on their school years. In the following volumes, both fail to see the signs that tell of the approaching end of an era. In part 7, Summer 1914, Jacques distributes pacifist pamphlets by air to the French and German troops, his plane crashes and he is shot as a spy. The birth and growth of his son, Jean-Paul, symbolizes the contonuation of his fight. While fighting in the front, Antoine is caught by a gas attack. His health rapidly deteriorates but he keeps a diary recording his thoughts. "I am condemned to die without having much understanding of myself or the world," he says.

"Martin du Gard was not by his own account a very cheerful man; he even thought in his bluer moments that as a maker of fiction -- and despite his success, which included the 1937 Nobel Prize in Literature -- he had come to the novel a generation too late. Fine writing wasn't his thing, objectivity was: he thought that a novelist should give us the material world -- the places, people, things that fill it to overflowing -- as plainly and substantively as he knew how, with all the ample transparency of a novel like War and Peace." (John Sturrock in The New York Times, January 23, 2000)

An automobile accident in 1931, in which Martin du Gard and his wife were severaly injured, made the author reexamine his plans for the rest of Les Thibault. He adopted a documentary technique and changed the story from a primarily psychological study to a historical account of the events that led to the outbreak of World War I. In France, Martin du Gard's cycle of novels became even more popular than Romain Rolland's massive Jean-Christophe (1904-1912), to which it was often compared. The author himself considered Summer 1914 an aesthetic failure; he closed the work with L'épilogue (1940).  

Following the German invasion in 1940, Martin du Gard fled to Nice where he spent the war years, under the pro-fascist Vichy government. Writing of the difficulties living in France he said, that "not only are we going to starve, but we will freeze as well." He was one of the authors who read Albert Camus's manuscript of The Stranger before it was published by Gallimard in 1942. Martin du Gard did not actively participate in the resistance, but at the Liberation, he was mentioned as a member of a committee of intellectual resistance, which included such figures as François Mauriac, André Malraux, Paul Éluard, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

Disillusioned after the war, Martin du Gard said to his friend Jacques Schiffrin, "Europe is finished. There are only ruins." Schiffrin's son André described the author in his old age as "warm and friendly and very approachable, known for his welcoming smile and total lack of hauteur." (A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York by André Schiffrin, 2007).

During the last period of his life, feeling the approach of old age and the decline of his creativity, Martin du Gard's thoughts began to focus more and more on his own death. His last large novel was Le Lieutenant-colonel de Maumort, on which he worked for 17 years. He changed the plan of the book several times, and eventually admitted to Gide that the novel would never be finished. The narrator of the story is a professional soldier, Bertrand de Maumort, whose life, loves, and disappointments the author follows through decades from his childhood to the years of World War II. Martin du Gard died in Bellême on August 23, 1958, at the age of seventy-seven. Although he avoided making public statements and appearances, a few months earlier he had joined other writers in protesting against the use of torture in the Algerian war.

Martin du Gard's Correspondance générale (1980-) reveals a passionate, independent artist, who set such high standards for himself that he destroyed several completed manuscripts. From the beginning of his career as a writer,  Martin du Gard was associated with the men of La Nouvelle Revue Française, but introverted and socially restrained, he did not accept the membership of the Académie Français. Jean Cocteau once said of his ouvre, that an "author's work so truly reveals his solitude, that one wonders what strange urge of contact compels him to publish it."

For further reading: Roger Martindu Gard and the World of the Thibaults by H.C. Rice (1941); Roger Martin du Gard by R. Gibson (1962); Roger Martin du Gard et la religion by R. Robidoux (1964); Roger Martin du Gard: The Novelist and History by D. Shalk (1967); Roger Martin du Gard by C. Savage (1968); The Decline of the New by I. Howe (1970); La Genèse des "Thibault" de Roger Martin du Gard by R. Garguilo (1974); The Quest for Total Peace by R. Jouejati (1977); Roger Martin du Gard Centennial by M. O'Nan (1981); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); La littérature des voyages; Roger Martin du Gard by Irene Aguilà, et al. (2007): 'Thibaults, The (Les Thibault), 8 Volumes,' in The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel by Karen L. Taylor (2007); Martin du Gard and Maumort: The Nobel Laureate and His Unfinished Creation by Benjamin Franklin Martin (2017) 

Selected works:

  • Devenir, 1909
  • L'Abbaye de Jumièges: Étude archéologique des ruines, 1909
  • L'Une de Nous, 1910
  • Jean Barois, 1913
    - Jean Barois (translated by Stuart Gilbert, 1949)
  • Le Testament du père Leleu, 1914
    - Papa Leleu's Will (tr. 1921)
  • Témoignage, 1921
  • Les Thibault, 1922-1940: Le Cahier gris (1922), Le Pénitencier (1922), La Belle Saison (1923), La Consultation (1928), La Sorellina (1928), La Mort du père (1929), L'été1914 (1936), L'épilogue (1940)
    - The Thibaults (vols.1-6; translated by Madeleine Boyd, Stuart Gilbert, 1926-39); Summer 1914  (vols. 7-8; translated by Stuart Gilbert, 1940)
    - Thibault'n suku 1-6 (suom. Arvi Nuormaa, 1937-38); Thibault'in suku 1:  1.Harmaakantinen vihko. 2. Kasvatuslaitos; Thibault'in suku 2: 3.Kaunis vuodenaika; Thibault'in suku 3: 4. Antoinen potilaat. 5. "La Sorellina"; Thibault'in suku 4: 6. Isän kuolema (suom. Arvi Nuormaa, 1964-65)  
    - TV mini series in 1972, dir. by Alain Boudet and André Michel, starring Charles Vanel, Philippe Rouleau, Yves Erimitchoi, May Chartrette, Annie Bouhnik; TV mini series in 2003, dir. by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, starring Jean Yanne, Jean-Pierre Lorit, Malik Zidi, Didier Bezace, Florence Pernel
  • La Gonfle, farce paysanne, 1928
  • Noizemont-les-Vierges, 1928
  • Dialogue, 1930
  • Confidence africaine, 1931
    - Confidence Africainen (translated by Austryn Wainhouse, 1983)
  • Un taciturne: pièce en trois actes, 1931
  • Vielle France, 1933
    - The Postman (translated by John Russell, 1954)
  • Notes sur André Gide 1913-1951, 1951
    - Notes on André Gide (translated by John Russell, 1953) /  Recollections of André Gide (tr. 1954)
  • Souvenirs autobiographiques et littéraires, 1955
  • Œuvres Complètes, 1955 (2 vols., preface by Albert Camus)
  • Correspondance, 1968 (2 vols., introduction by Jeanh Delay)
  • Lettres de Roger Martin du Gard à un jeune écrivain, 1953-1958, 1969
  • Correspondance - Jacques Copeau, Roger Martin du Gard, 1972 (2 vols.)
  • Correspondance générale, 1980-2006 (10 vols., eds. Maurice Rieuneau, André Daspre, Claude Sicard)
  • Le Lieutenant-colonel de Maumort, 1983 (edited by André Daspre)
    - Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort (translated by Luc Brébion and Timothy Crouse, 1999)
  • Eugène Dabit, Roger Martin Du Gard: correspondance, 1986 (2 vols., edited by Pierre Bardel)
  • Témoins d’un temps troublè: Roger Martin Du Gard-Georges Duhamel, correspondance 1919-1958, 1987 (edited by Arlette Lafay)  
  • Lettres de confiance à Jean Morand: 1938-1957, 1991
  • Journal, 1992-93 (3 vols., edited by Claude Sicard)
  • Correspondance croisée, ou, L’histoire d’une amitié manquée / Roger Martin du Gard et Robert Honnert, 2000 (introduction by Jean José Marchand)
  • Roger Martin Du Gard -  Jacques de Lacretelle: Correspondance 1922-1958, 2003 (edited by Alain Tassel)
  • Lettres croisées: 1923-1958, 2003 (edited by Claude Debon and Andre Daspre)
  • Correspondance, 1944-1958 / Albert Camus, Roger Martin du Gard, 2013 (edited by Claude Sicard)

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