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|Romain Rolland (1866-1944)|
French novelist, dramatist, essayist, mystic, pacifist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915. Romain Rolland saw that art must be a part of the struggle to bring enlightenment to people. In his work he attacked all forms of nazism and fascism, and struggled for social and political justice. Rolland never joined any party but he acquired a reputation as an ardent Communist.
"A long meditative life is a great adventure. Sometimes it is even the culmination of the experience of a family or of a race; the answer given to the riddle of its age-long procession; the realization of its slow growth, bearing the mark of its errors, its success, its virtues and vices." (in Journey Within, 1942)
Romain Rolland was born in Clamecy, in Nièvre, into a middle-class family. On his father's side, Rolland had five generations of notaries. Antoinette-Marie Courot Rolland, his mother, came from a family of iron-masters and notaries. "The Courots always took life very seriously," Rolland recalled in Journey Within (1942, p. 39). "They love it and know how to enjoy it, but they have never been able to forget its uncertainty." Rolland's father Emile, a lawyer and patriot, was jovial by nature – "he never loved me any less because of my heresies; and even laughed at them, I believe – God forgive me! – and, deep in his heart, was proud of it." (Ibid., p. 37)
In 1880, at Romain's mother's insistence, the family moved to Paris in order to obtain a better schooling for him. Rolland entered in 1886 the École Normale Supérieure. After passing his agrégation examination in history, Rolland continued his studies at the French School of Art and Archaeology in Rome, where he formed a lasting friendship with Malwida von Meysenbug. She knew Wagner, Liszt, Nietzsche, and Ibsen, and encouraged his first attempt to write. Tolstoyan ideas fascinated Rolland, and later she said in her Memoires d'une Idealiste of him: "In this young Frenchman I discovered the same idealism, the same lofty aspiration, the same profound grasp of every great intellectual manifestation that I had already found in the greatest men of other nationalities." In 1892 Rolland married Clotilde Bréal, a French Jew.
Clotilde, who shared his love of music, came from a family of prominent Parisian intelectuals and academics. They lived for some time in Rome, where Rolland researched for his doctoral thesis the origins of opera before Jean-Baptiste Lully and Alessandro Scarlatti. He received his doctorate in art in 1895, with the first dissertation on music ever presented at the Sorbonne. In spite of the Bréal family's insistence, Rolland refused to take a public stand on the Dreyfus Affair. His marriage to Clotilde was dissolved in 1901. Rolland then lived closely attached to his parents, especially to his mother. His dilemma as an independent left-wing intellectual in the climate of hatred, Rolland examined in Les loups (1898), his first play on the French Revolution. However, decades later Rolland reproved himself for having neglected a just cause.
Rolland became professor of art history at the École Normale in Paris. In 1904 he continued his academic career as a professor of the history of music at the Sorbonne. While still a teacher, Rolland's first literary vocation was the theatre. In his mid-30s he wrote successful dramas about the French Revolution. After his best-known work, Jean-Christophe (1904-12), was finished, Rolland devoted himself entirely to writing. The ten-volume novel, dedicated to "the free souls of all nations who suffer, struggle, but shall vanquish", was an epic story of a German musical genius. Rolland had already published a biography on Beethoven in 1903. Although this work was partly based on the life of the composer, it also took elements from Mozart's and Wagner's careers. Rolland portrayed his protagonist as a heroic figure, a fighter for social justice. He is a courageous, uncompromising soul. "He would rather die than live by illusion. Was not Art also an illusion? No. It must not be. Truth! Truth! Eyes wide open, let him draw in through every pore the all-puissant breath of life, see things as they are, squarely face his misfortunes,--and laugh." (in Jean-Christophe, vol. I) After killing a policeman, Christophe flees to Switzerland, and starts his career as a composer. He returns to Paris as a celebrated artist, and dies there. In the end his life rejoins the River of Life. This large work includes episodes only distantly related to Christophe's life, as in Antoinette, actually a short novel, and La Foire sur la place, criticism of the literary and artistic scene in Paris. It earned Rolland the Nobel Prize. In his later works he remained faithful to the Romantic idea of the artist as a lonely genius.
In 1913 Rolland wrote the novel Colas Breugnon, which was came out in 1919. It depicted the life of a 16th-century wood carver. With the antiwar article 'Au-dessus de la mâlée' (1914, Above the Battle) published in Swiss newspapers, Rolland became a prominent figure in the pacifist movement during World War I. Rolland condemned the war and tried to show the oneness of western culture. Due to his opinions he was called traitor in France. As a reaction to "infatuation of public opinion" he wrote the play Liluli (1919), a satire on war. "Laughter does not prevent me from suffering," Rolland said in Colas Breugnon, "but to suffer will never prevent a real Frenchman from laughing."
From 1914 Rolland lived principally in Switzerland. Many other writers and artists also moved to Zurich, among them James Joyce, who wrote there much of Ulysses. After the war, Rolland's plays were more popular in Germany than in France. Their declamatory, didactic nature probably influenced Brecht's concept of epic theatre. To protect his intellectual freedom, Rolland did not join Henri Barbusse's (1873-1935) Clarté movement – Barbusse shared his antiwar views but Rolland dismissed Clarté as undemocratic and inefficient. (Uncertain Paths to Freedom: Russia and China, 1919-22 by Bertrand Russell, edited by Richard A. Rempel and Beryl Haslam, 2000, p. 118)
Rolland had lost his religious faith as a young man. Influenced by the thought of Spinoza, he adopted a pantheistic faith in
nature. Although Rolland welcomed the international Socialist movement, he never was a member of the Communist
Party and did not read Marx nor Engels. In 1923 Rolland founded the magazine Europe,
which opposed nationalism. Taking an interest in Indian philosophy, he
wrote a biography of Mahatma Gandhi (1924) – the spiritual leader
of India visited him in Switzerland in Villeneuve, on the shore of Lake
Leman, in 1931.
"He is the molder of new humanity," Rolland said. However, he did not
agree with Gandhi in his nationalism and distrust of science and
While traveling in the Soviet
Union in 1935, Rolland met Gorky, whose Manichean views shocked him,
and Stalin; he was granted two interviews with the dictator. After
seeing Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Vsevolod Pudovkin's The Mother (1926), based on Gorky's novel, he was troubled for their "bloody and sinister vision." (Romain Rolland and the Politics of the Intellectual Engagement by David Fisher, 1987/2004, p. 248)
Like many intellectuals of the period, Rolland did not
publicly criticize the Soviet Union – he praised Russia as a
symbol of "world progress" – but in his private notes he rejected
Stalinism, and support non-violent
social change. He had as early as 1900 written a play, Danton,
in which the spirit of revolution is sacrificed to revolutionary
discipline – a view that was not popular during the Moscow purge
trials. Noteworthy, for a period Rolland
believed that there was a real conspiracy against the communist regime
and the alleged Trotskyites had committed villainous acts. (From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship by Paul Hollander, 2016, p. 134)
"In politics, he has always been a republican with advanced Socialist sympathies, and internationalist at heart, and, as they said in the eighteenth century, a 'citizen of the world.' He has always fought social injustice. In art, he loves, above all, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Goethe... Rembrandt is the painter dearest to him. But his chosen country is Italy." (Romain Rolland on himself, World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 3, ed. Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens, 1996)
In Switzerland Rolland he completed the second novel cycle, The Enchanted Soul (1922-33). The seven-volume novel centers on a female counterpart of Jean-Christophe, and a woman, Annette, who becomes disenchanted with material possessions and struggles to achieve her spiritual freedom. Other central characters are Sylvie, Annette's half-sister, and Annette's son Marc. He is an intolerant young man, whose struggle is much overshadowed by her mother, an alter ego of the author. The work reflected Rolland's interest in Communism – Annette becomes active in the defence of the Soviet Union.
Rolland married in 1934 his second wife, Marie Koudachev, the
half-French widow of a Russian nobleman. In 1938 they returned to
France. Rolland was a courageous mouthpiece of the opposition to
Fascism and the Nazis. Following the burning of books by the Nazis, the
German exile writers founded in 1934 a German Freedom Library under the
presidency of Rolland. It soon housed 11,000 volumes. ('The Nazi Attack on "Un-German" Literature, 1933-1945' by Leonidas E. Hill, in The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation by edited by Jonathan Rose, 2001, p. 33)
During the last years of his life, Rolland lived in Vézelay and worked on the biography of the poet and essayist Charles Péguy (1873-1914). At the beginning of his career as a writer, Rolland had contributed to Péguy's Cahiers de la Quinzaine; also Jean-Christophe was serialized in the journal. The two-volume biography was published posthumously in 1945. On December 30, 1944, Rolland succumbed to tuberculosis, an illness that had afflicted him since his childhood.
Among Rolland's other works are several psychological biographies of artists and politicians (Michelangelo, Danton, Beethoven, Tolstoy etc.). Rather than to concentrate on single novels, Rolland wrote cycles of works. His cycles of plays include The Tragedies and Faith, Saint Louis (1897), The Triumph of Reason (1899), and Theater of Revolution, dramas concerning the French Revolution.
For further reading: Romain Rolland, guerre et religion: rencontre avec la foi baha'ie by Nazy Alaie Ahdieh (2015); Le Théâtre de la Révolution de Romain Rolland: théâtre populaire et récit national by Marion Denizot (2013); 'Beyond the Conceits of the Avant-garde: Saint-Saëns, Romain Rolland, and the Musical Culture of the Nineteenth Century' by Leon Botstein, in Camille Saint-Saëns and His World, edited by Jann Pasler (2012); Romain Rolland and the Politics of the Intellectual Engagement by D. Fisher (1987/2004); Romain Rolland by R.A. Francis (1999); Romain Rolland by K. Gore (1981); Romain Rolland by S. Zweig (1970); Romain Rolland by H. March (1971); Romain Rolland by W.T. Star (1971); Romain Rolland by M.Z. Karczewska (1964); Romain Rolland by J. Robichez (1961); Romain Rolland and a World at War by W. Starr (1956); Romain Rolland by M. Descotes (1948); Romain Rolland by M. Doisy (1945); Romain Rolland: the Story of a Conscience by A. Aronson (1944); Romain Rolland by S. Zweig (1921); Romain Rolland: Sa vie, son œuvre by J. Bonnerot (1921)