Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe [Interim]

Romain Rolland won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, and according to the Nobel Prize biography Jean-Christophe is his masterpiece. Nowadays he seems rather forgotten.

Jean-Christophe Krafft is born to a musical family in a small principality on the German side of the Rhine before German unification. It's the story of how he became a composer. A Kunstlerroman.

The work came out in French over the years 1904-1912 in ten short volumes; the entire work was translated into English by 1913 by Gilbert Cannan and not, as far as I can tell, since.

This is an interim post because those ten novels add up to 1600 pages in my one volume edition. I've finished the first three novels, about 400 pages, and I thought I'd note what I have so far.

The story begins with our hero in his cradle and goes on from there. It's a very linear novel. Jean-Christophe's grandfather Jean Michel Krafft is the Kapellmeister (head musician for the court) in this unnamed principality; his father Melchior is a talented but dissipated violinist who marries Louisa, a gentle woman but beneath him socially. Their eldest child is Jean-Christophe, though there are two brothers to come. When our hero is in his early teens, his grandfather dies of old age, and his father dies of alcohol, leaving the family nothing but debts. Jean-Christophe becomes the breadwinner, playing in the principality's orchestra and giving music lessons.

The novel is, as I say, very linear; it describes one of Jean-Christophe's relationships after another; it moves forward in time without jumps forward or back; the currently most significant relationship is given its space and then doesn't return. There's his mother, his grandfather, his father. His uncle on his mother's side provides him a sense of spirituality and of music as it relates to the average person. There's Otto, his first real friend: his family's poverty, his need to work, and his own hauteur/shyness combine to make friendship difficult for Jean-Christophe, and his friendship with Otto is intense until it's over. Then his first two girlfriends: with the first nothing happens and then she dies; the carnality of the second relationship is disapproved by all, eventually including Jean-Christophe himself. The first three books take him to the end of his adolescence.

My thoughts so far. 1.) Rolland really is obscure these days. For a Nobel Prize winner, his Wikipedia biography is pretty short. I took a look at the French version and it wasn't much longer. The French have so many Nobel Prize laureates in literature they may feel they can just ignore a couple of them. The Toronto Public Library basically has no circulating Rolland, though a number of his books are available for stack usage at the main reference library.

2.) His relationship with Otto is much more intense and much more individualized than is his relationship with either of the two girls. Though they get somewhat fuller portraits, they can still be boiled down to the ethereal and the earthly, at least in Jean-Christophe's life. His friendship with Otto is more complex and it's destroyed when Jean-Chistophe hears a rumor (started by his younger brother) that the relationship between the two of them is homosexual. It isn't, but the thought that others might think so is enough to make Jean-Christophe so unpleasantly conscious of their friendship it ends soon after. This made me wonder if Rolland himself were homosexual. The Interwebs were inconclusive, but kind of said yes. The evidence may be thin because Rolland felt he had to keep it that way, I don't know.

This made me wonder about 3.) what did Thomas Mann think about Romain Rolland? If indeed Rolland was a somewhat closeted homosexual, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, who wrote a long novel about a young man becoming a composer, it seems to me Mann could hardly escape having an opinion. Comparing Doctor Faustus with this novel would be fruitful I suspect, but that's another post. But conveniently I happen to have Mann's selected diaries in English here at home. (Have I mentioned I may have a problem with book purchases?) It even has an index so I didn't have to reread it. On two occasions Mann mentions dismissively articles about Rolland's Jean-Christophe and his own Buddenbrooks. But then in an entry on June 17, 1933, he writes:
Last night I dreamed Rolland had died, and that I was delivering a very earnest eulogy beside his coffin, furious about German crimes.
It was a few years until Mann started Doctor Faustus, so make of that what you will. Rolland was a famous pacifist and pan-Europeanist.

Also without leaving the house I could look up James Gibbons Huneker.  Huneker was once (early 1900s) a well-known American critic with a strong interest in both music and avant-garde European literature of the time. (What can I say? There was a phase. A bunch of his books were in some used bookstore I frequented.) I figured he had to have an opinion on Rolland. And he did, but it was only a passing sideswipe. Rolland's prose was 'mucilaginous.' Ouch. A little unfair, but judging only from translation, which I'm sure Huneker was not, it may not be entirely so...

Anywho. That's a start, but that's all for now.

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