Who knows how it is we come to great books, at least those that are not at the inescapable centre of “accepted literature.” I came to Jean-Christophe because I kept reading about it in (nonfiction) books about humanism and animal rights.
As I wrote in the introduction to the Complete 10-Volume edition of Jean-Christophe (see this site’s page about it here or the Amazon link here), Romain Rolland’s epic novel should be known, read, and celebrated in a similar way to Proust’s—perhaps it is moreso in some parts of Europe—though it is no doubt true that the extent of the achievement in literary writing (and its being more than twice as long) puts In Search of Lost Time even further into its own unique category and sophisticated descriptive sphere all its own.
As I read the long novel, and as I wrote that introduction, I felt the uneasy feeling of someone that knows a particular work of art should be spoken about and beloved “for all time,” as certain masterly and fortunate artworks are, and knowing too that, like Proust, few people will have read the volumes when they came out (in French or English) and, in a world of moment-to-moment distractions, perhaps fewer people today, when the levels of education have reached new heights and into more corners around the globe than ever before, will hear of or consider venturing to read one volume let alone all ten.
Who is the ideal reader? I would argue, anybody that loves literary fiction and messages of the value of art and of humanism. The message of humanism in Proust (like many works, long or short, that do not want to be over-explicit) is not as directly stated: Rolland comes right out and says it, examining how individuals and groups can construct a better society and also its most meaningful art, whereas it is in a love of the world itself and of art—the beautiful or spectacular details that we may come to miss by sleepwalking through life—that Proust compels his readers to admire anew and perhaps, with regenerated imagination, to share.
I hope Jean-Christophe continues to find readers: as I wrote in the introduction, I believe it will. I was passionate about sharing the complete novel in one edition, and two paperbacks (Parts I and II together, and Part III) will be forthcoming. Below is an extract from the introduction; again, to get your copy of the book, please visit here.
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Proust and Rolland share many similarities as writers: their best work is very long—though Jean-Christophe (1904–1912) is not half the length of In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927)—and depicts the life of an artist largely in Paris (one from a smaller German town, the other a French one), in a writing style that shares the beauty or harsh truths of life moment to moment and idea to idea rather than through a stricter or more traditional plot. They both shine a light on what may appear to be unexceptional details, discuss many artists and the creative process, and refer to recent real events with a delicate if political understanding, such as the famous Dreyfus case. Love is seen, like all interactions finally, as dissatisfying and difficult to grasp, and the grand ideas and inspiring works of artists do bring a rare sort of release and liberation from the distractions and trivialities of day-to-day life that are otherwise difficult to bear, yet they too have their limits. Like Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922), which Hesse dedicated to Rolland, Jean-Christophe is based upon the motion of a river, and what Rolland termed a “musical novel,” where the novel’s hero—both a part of and separate to society—analyzes much of what happens in life, and finds it wanting. There is suffering and death and decay all around, and the only way to find meaning is to search for a wider justice and self-awareness in contrast to certain inborn instincts or the dictates of the society we’re born to—as stated in the novel (and shared by translator Gilbert Cannan in his preface), “Durch Leiden Freud”: to find “joy beneath sorrow, joy through sorrow.”
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Rolland’s thoughtful analyses have also found a particular resonance with animal rights activists; few lengthy extracts are as oft-quoted as the one following. At a time when the industrialized suffering of other animals is conspicuously and inconspicuously prevalent on a scale dwarfing its scope at his time of writing, Rolland’s words, in the final part of Volume IX: The Burning Bush, take on unique significance:
No one knew better than he that life is based on suffering and infinite cruelty: no man can live without making others suffer . . . [W]ith all the vehemence of his mighty nature he probed to the depths of the tragedy of the universe: he suffered all the sufferings of the world, and was left raw and bleeding. He could not think of the animals without shuddering in anguish. He looked into the eyes of the beasts and saw there a soul like his own, a soul which could not speak: but the eyes cried for it:
“What have I done to you? Why do you hurt me?”
He could not bear to see the most ordinary sights that he had seen hundreds of times—a calf crying in a wicker pen, with its big, protruding eyes, with their bluish whites and pink lids, and white lashes, its curly white tufts on its forehead, its purple snout, its knock-kneed legs:—a lamb being carried by a peasant with its four legs tied together, hanging head down, trying to hold its head up, moaning like a child, bleating and lolling its gray tongue:—fowls huddled together in a basket:—the distant squeals of a pig being bled to death:—a fish being cleaned on the kitchen-table . . . . The nameless tortures which men inflict on such innocent creatures made his heart ache. Grant animals a ray of reason, imagine what a frightful nightmare the world is to them: a dream of cold-blooded men, blind and deaf, cutting their throats, slitting them open, gutting them, cutting them into pieces, cooking them alive, sometimes laughing at them and their contortions as they writhe in agony. Is there anything more atrocious among the cannibals of Africa? To a man whose mind is free there is something even more intolerable in the sufferings of animals than in the sufferings of man. For with the latter it is at least admitted that suffering is evil and that the man who causes it is a criminal. But thousands of animals are uselessly butchered every day without a shadow of remorse. If any man were to refer to it, he would be thought ridiculous.—And that is the unpardonable crime. That alone is the justification of all that men may suffer.
Jean-Christophe was first published in Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, a Paris journal in which Rolland had already collaborated with Charles Péguy. He received the Prix Femina for the first four volumes in 1905, and then for both the completed novel and his pamphlet Au-dessus de la mêlée (“Above the Battle,” 1915)—a call for France and Germany to respect humanity and truth during the fighting of World War I—he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1915.